Men's Soccer Outlook
Over the years, the UMBC men's soccer program has generally been known to be made up of a colorful cast of characters. Many players not only excelled on the field, but wouldn't be afraid to express their opinions of their exploits to anyone who might, let's say, question their ability. But the 2005 version of the Retrievers might be a bit more subdued, both inside and outside of the locker room.
"Last year, we did a lot of talking, but this year, the players feel they will do their talking on the field," said Head Coach Pete Caringi, who is entering his 15th year at UMBC. "I'm looking forward to it…what happened last year still bugs me and I know it bugs them. We have a lot to prove."
After capturing the 2003 regular season title in their initial season in the America East Conference, the 2004 campaign started out in outstanding fashion, as UMBC opened the year at 4-0-1, including a road win at N.C. State. But that would be the Retrievers' last road win of the season. Faced with a three straight road games to open the league schedule and a game at 21st-ranked Virginia, UMBC posted its first four-game losing streak in eleven years. Despite continuing its home dominance (6-0-2 in 2004 and unbeaten in 20 straight at 14-0-6 since 2002), UMBC finished at 8-6-3 overall and 4-5 in America East play. They posted their seventh straight winning season, however the streak of earning a spot in their league's post-season tournament came to an end at nine straight (1995-2003).
"It was a strange season," said Caringi. "In the beginning of the year we played extremely well. We played very well at home, but kept coming up short on the road. The players were really surprised, almost stunned. Most of them never thought that was going to happen (not making the tournament). I hope we've learned a lot from it and have even more of a desire to get back to post-season play."
The good news for UMBC soccer is that 9 starters and 16 letter winners return for the 2005 season. The unnerving part is that the losses include three players (forward Derek McElligott-Baltimore; midfielder Dan Mongello, defender Mike Pennacchia-Cleveland) who were drafted into the Major Indoor Soccer League. McElligott's departure will mark the first time since the 1999 season that no returning Retriever scored in double figures in goals during the prior campaign.
"It's a big concern," said Caringi. "As a coach, one of concerns you have is how you are going to score goals. You knew with McElligott and Celenza before him, that there are a certain number of goals they are going to score. However, we have some very promising players coming in that I am looking forward to working with and returning players that are capable of break-out type seasons. We might not have that one player, but I am hoping that we are well balanced and some of our newcomers give us the scoring that we are looking for."
The pieces appear to be present to fit into the offensive puzzle, but the Retriever mentor has no idea exactly how they will fit together by the opening of the '05 campaign. UMBC's three leading returning scorers, senior Powell Cucchiella, junior David Feazell, and sophomore Matt Watson all could play up front as strikers, although Coach Caringi might prefer that all three compete in the midfield.
After totaling 3 points in his first two years, Cucchiella had his "break-out" season in 2004, supplanting McElligott as UMBC's leading scorer with 6 goals and 9 assists. He finished fourth in the
America East Conference in scoring (1.24 ppg) and second in assists per game (0.53) to his teammate, Matt Watson. The Baltimore native had a reputation of a goal-scorer, but his prep numbers suggested he was a willing distributor as well. Hence his move to midfield and the success that followed in 2004 was no great surprise to the coaching staff.
Feazell came on late in the campaign, scoring goals in three consecutive road games in October. He has outstanding speed and the threat of Feazell and Cucchiella playing the wide midfield positions will be very tempting to the coaching staff.
The Retrievers have had tremendous success with players from England, and Watson was no exception. He earned America East Conference Midfielder of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors and was a Third Team All Freshman selection by College Soccer News. Watson finished first in the America East and ninth nationally in assists per game (0.60 pg), and Coach Caringi still envisions an even higher ceiling for the nifty, yet explosive player.
"He is a special player and could be one of the best to ever play here," said Caringi. "But it's a long road and a lot of work that has to be done. He has all the tools, now it's up to how good he really wants to be."
Juniors Kevin Mezzadra and Bobby Woods will also figure prominently into the Retriever lineup, but again the question is where. Mezzadra earned All Rookie Team honors in the America East in '03, as he converted from an attacking player at the prep level to a center midfielder. The 6'2" Mezzadra played even more of a defensive-oriented midfield position last year, where his ability to win the ball in UMBC's own side of the midfield stripe was critical. But the former Loyola-Blakefield standout (71 career goals) still possesses a powerful shot and could be a wild card as an attacking player. Woods, UMBC's most well-conditioned player in 2004, started 10 games last season after transferring from Bowling Green, and could supplant Mezzadra as a defensive midfielder or play alongside him in a 3-5-2 system.
Senior Steve Goddard and red-shirt freshman Ryan Callinan are also midfield candidates who each must re-establish themselves to earn additional playing time in 2005. Goddard's role increased last season, as he competed in career-best 13 games, started 8 and posted a pair of goals. His big-game experience gained with his club program and outstanding attitude will make him a valuable contributor this year. As a freshman, Callinan started the opener last season, but went down with a torn ACL in his first collegiate game. He is expected to be at full strength this fall and is regarded as an excellent playmaker.
Senior forward Andres Serafini and junior midfielder Junis Alico add veteran depth to the Retriever offense. Freshmen Dan Bulls, Esteban Mariel, Mike Novotny, and Matt Ward are all regarded as outstanding prospects, while classmate Pierre Pont's status, due to injury, is uncertain for the fall.
A large factor in the uncertainty of the configuration on offense is the progression of a pair of freshmen forwards, Kevin Gnatiko and Manuel Mariel. Both are extremely talented, but would have to navigate the learning curve in rapid fashion to land key roles in the early part of the season. Manuel, the twin brother of Esteban, was the 2003 NSCAA and adidas Texas State Player of the Year and a former member of the U-16 United States national team. He is regarded as "a gifted goal scorer", while Gnatiko has blazing speed and the ability to score as well. He posted 22 goals in his senior season of high school competion.
"We have a lot of pieces on offense," said Caringi. "We may play different formations depending on who we are playing and will be very flexible, especially at the beginning of the year."
As uncertain as Coach Caringi is about his starting forwards and midfielders, he is as set as ever about his starting backfield. Senior captains Marcus Gross, Matt McGowan, and netminder Andy Marchica will comprise 3 of the 4 starters and will be joined by sophomore standout Bryan Moffa. Gross is looking to cap a brilliant career. UMBC's central defender has earned top honors (First Team) in America East play in both league seasons and was regionally recognized (Third Team All South Atlantic) last season. Nearly impenetrable in front of his netminder, the 6'3" Gross can also contribute offensively on set pieces by the opposition's cage. He is clearly the team's emotional leader, but his work rate leads the Retrievers by example as well.
McGowan is the Retrievers' perennial Unsung Hero, as the marking back is a tough one-on-one defender, who can quickly change defense to offense with a steal, tackle, and penetrating foray deep into opposition territory. He has started 47 consecutive games for UMBC. Moffa will play the right side marking back. He earned America East All Rookie Team honors in 2004, and his prep experience as a midfielder (48 career goals) makes him a mirror of McGowan's abilities on the other flank.
Seniors Jim Fendryk and Eric Mahon have logged hundreds of minutes for UMBC in five combined seasons. Fendryk is coming off ankle surgery and could be utilized in the middle of the field if the Retrievers play with four fullbacks. Mahon has played at midfield and defense in 46 career appearances for the Retrievers and will be counted on for spirited play when called upon. Senior Glenn Gardner adds solid depth to a strong group of backs.
Marchica is expected to earn the starting goalkeeper's job for the third consecutive year. He has 13 career shutouts and a career goals against average of 1.01. Marchica has earned his undergraduate degree and is pursuing a graduate program at UMBC. Like the other senior captains, he is very highly thought of for his prowess on and off of the field by coaches and teammates.
The Retrievers have solid depth in the nets, with junior Garrett Lyon and freshman Steve King readily able to come to the aid of Marchica. Lyon matriculated, but did not compete for UMBC last year and is a former junior college (Prince George's CC) standout. The 6'2" King is regarded as a future standout for UMBC, as he brings an outstanding resume from both Archbishop Curley High School and his championship club squad, the Casa Mia Bays.
The America East Conference has established itself as a solid mid-major soccer conference, finishing with a league RPI of 12 (of 22 leagues) last year, its highest mark since 1999. The last four league champions have advanced in the NCAA Tournament and the league could be on the doorstep of qualifying multiple teams for the tournament.
"The America East is a very good conference," said Coach Caringi. "You have to have a certain respect for every team you play and maybe that wasn't there last year. If you're not ready to play, you are not going to get a result. But now we've been through one full cycle of league play and I think we'll be better prepared now. Our goal is to earn a spot in the conference tournament."
Although UMBC soccer has produced more than a dozen professional draft selections during Coach Caringi's tenure, the focus for his squads has always been about "the team." It is a concept which will be clearly in evidence in 2005.
"When we've played as a team, we have proven that we can play with anybody in the country," said Caringi. "I know this year's group is committed to that philosophy and I am confident that we will get back to achieving the goals that our fans, alumni, and campus community expect us to reach."