The debate started sometime in mid-December of 2014. And it will likely rage on for years to come.
Which UMBC men's soccer team was the GOAT – the 1999 or 2014 squads?
The final authority on that would be the head coach for both of those historic squads, the unofficial mayor of Baltimore, Pete Caringi, Jr.
"It's like asking me who's my favorite kid, it's an impossible question to answer," said Caringi. "They were both fantastic teams – both that were capable of winning national championships. I also think of the 2013 team as well and how far they could have gone. That's the great thing about sports, you can always debate who was better, what era or what team and we've had a lot of great ones here."
It is hard to believe that 20 autumns have gone by since Pete Caringi's ninth UMBC squad completely dominated the Northeast Conference and fared exceedingly well on the national stage as well.
The first line of the team outlook for the season stated that "Pete Caringi believes he has the formula to produce a championship season at UMBC." After a challenging and career-low five-win season in 1997, the 1998 Retrievers improved to 11-7-2 and ten starters from that squad returned for the 1999 campaign.
There was a highly-regarded newcomer, local striker Giuliano Celenza (pictured), and a pair of less-heralded first-year Retrievers – junior midfielder Pat Halter and a freshman goalkeeper that would play major roles for the '99ers.
Less than 400 fans saw the first two games of the season and they missed quite a show. UMBC amassed a ridiculous 70 shots in those games and overwhelmed Stony Brook, 5-1, and The Citadel, 10-0. Senior midfielder Ty Engram scored five times in the victories.
"We scored 15 goals in two games," said Celenza. "It was like wow, something special could happen here. We knew we could score goals and would find out we could defend."
The win over The Citadel started a run of nine shutouts in ten games for UMBC. Sophomore goalkeeper Tom Wunk recorded whitewashes in the first four games of that run and no one raised an eyebrow when Canadian freshman netminder Brian Rowland got a start in Game No. 6 and defeated San Diego State, 2-0, clinching UNLV's Coors Soccer Classic for the road-weary Dawgs.
Several days after returning from Vegas, UMBC opened NEC play at FDU and the two teams battled to a 1-1 double-overtime draw. Again, no big deal. The league was strong, so a road tie was a good result. Just not in the context of what was to come.
The Retrievers outscored their next three NEC foes, 9-0, highlighted by a Celenza hat-trick in a 3-0 win over Central Connecticut.
UMBC was now 9-0-1 and proceeded to win the next seven games, outscoring LIU, 7-2, and St. Francis (Pa.), 6-0. In those contests, Rowland started four times and Wunk earned the nod on three occasions. But the 3-1 victory over Penn on Oct. 27 would be the veteran's final start of the campaign.
"I coached Tom both in high school… and club soccer," said UMBC Associate Head Coach Anthony Adams, '97, who was spending his third year as assistant coach under Caringi. "You would be hard-pressed to find a better person and total team guy. Tom handled it with unbelievable professionalism. What could have divided the team never happen because of Tom's selflessness and desire for the team to be successful."
In the regular season finale – a precursor to a similar match-up a week later – Celenza tallied his 20th and 21st goals of the season and Engram added his 15th in a 3-1 home victory over Mount St. Mary's. A then-record 1,500 fans crammed into UMBC Soccer Stadium for the local rivalry game.
The Retrievers would host the four-team NEC Championships on the weekend of November 5 and 7. Halter – a transfer from Old Dominion – struggled in the latter half of the season. And for the ultimate reason. His father, Lawrence, expectantly passed away at the mid-point of the campaign. Halter did his best to cope with the loss, but he had not hit the nets through the 18 games of the regular season.
That would change – twice – in the first 25 minutes in the semi-finals versus Monmouth. Halter scored twice and, for good measure, set up Billy Nelson and Celenza for UMBC's third and fourth goals in a 5-0 rout.
The Monmouth game was the first of four consecutive elimination games for the Retrievers. Despite the one blemish (17-0-1 after Monmouth); the Retrievers would not be receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Although it was improved, the non-conference schedule simply was not strong enough.
Hence, the new record crowd of 1,650 at the stadium was tense, especially when Mount St. Mary's, who had battled UMBC well a week earlier, was the opponent in the 1999 NEC title game. The apprehension built when the Mount scored first in the 23rd minute.
Once again, it was Halter who captured the moment. He knotted the game at 1-1 just before halftime. UMBC dominated the second half, but it would take just one successful counter by the visitors to end the dream season.
Caringi inserted sophomore P.J. Wakefield into the game on a deep Retriever throw-in with less than 12 minutes to play in regulation. Engram, who had fed Halter for the game-tying goal, set-up Wakefield and the super-sub converted from 11 yards out for the game-winner and conference title.
Halter earned NEC Tournament Most Valuable Player honors for his three-goal, two-assist effort in the two contests.
"That weekend was obviously huge for the program and that team," said Adams. "However, that last month, it was hard not to think of Pat Halter and him losing his father during the season. He was on fire in the semis and tied the game in the final, which helped turn the tide that day. I'll never forget him receiving the Tournament MVP and pointing up in the sky towards his father."
Despite the Retrievers' 19-0-1 record, UMBC would have to travel to Patriot League champion Lafayette for the right to compete in the NCAA Tournament. The dreaded play-in game.
Over a thousand fans showed up for the contest on an overcast day in Easton, Pa. Scores of UMBC fans attended, but Lafayette's student-group, The Zoo Crew, tried their best to intimidate the boys from Charm City.
For 150 minutes, the teams went up and down the field, cranking off 41 shots between them. The Retrievers put 14 on goal, but all were turned aside. Hence, penalty kicks would determine the outcome. UMBC's Matt Gormley misfired to open the proceedings and the Retrievers trailed after each of the first four rounds. With the season hanging in the balance, the fifth Leopard strike was off the mark and extra rounds were required. In the seventh round, Ryan Cuomo converted to put UMBC ahead for the first time, 6-5, and, when the ensuing Lafayette attempt sailed high and wide, the black-and-gold celebrated like it was 1999. Which it was.
The Retrievers continued to be disrespected, as they were sent to Durham, N.C. to face the tournament's overall No. 1 seed, the Duke Blue Devils. Duke scored in the 17th minute, but Engram equalized later in the half. The second half began with a flourish as Halter and Engram gave the visitors a 3-1 lead by the 52:30 mark. But the hosts threw all of their offensive firepower at UMBC in the closing minutes and finally tied the game with 7:36 remaining.
The contest headed to overtime and the Blue Devils set up for a corner kick late in the first extra frame. The attempt hooked towards the net and multiple Duke players body-blocked Rowland across the goal line, where he tumbled into the twine. The unimpeded ball crossed the line and the referee signalled "goal" before sprinting off the field and towards the locker room.
Fox 45's Bruce Cunningham aired the clip, crying foul himself.
"I was disappointed, (but) not angry at the outcome," said UMBC Hall of Famer Andrew Wells (pictured left), '02, who was a sophomore fullback on that team. "Those things happen in soccer, but for it to happen at that point when we had worked so hard to get to that point was a big letdown. Overall, now there is a sense of pride in what we did that year even if it is tinged with a small amount of regret."
The 1999 team still holds school records for wins (19), home wins (12), longest winning and unbeaten streaks (13/21), most goals (75) and lowest goals against average (0.64). Celenza's 22 goals scored have not yet been surpassed and only approached by the man himself the next year when he notched 19. Engram still has the third-most goals in school history with 18 recorded that season and his 49 points is No. 2 on the all-time list.
The offense and defensive numbers were – and still are – gaudy, but Wells recalls the contributions of the many unsung heroes of that squad. "Giuls and Ty got all the plaudits for scoring the goals and they fully deserved that because they were phenomenal that year. Defensively, we got our recognition from the clean sheets but the midfielders who worked so hard to link up the play got overlooked possibly. James Hamilton, Matt Gormley, Matt Joseph, PJ Wakefield, Ryan Cuomo, Pat Halter and Louie Karko."
Adams concurred, "Guys like Paul Parsoneault, Justin Nall, Alex Wilmot, David Jones, Andres Parra and Brian Marchica were invaluable to the depth of that team. The second team (green team as we called it) had their fair share of victories in practice, which really pushed the starters on a regular basis.
"Also… Kurt Meyers who quietly was fantastic all season. Kurt was part of those '96-'97 teams that won 14 games combined. His last two years, the program won 30 so his experience being one of only a couple seniors that year was invaluable."
Celenza recalled, "It was a memorable year all the way around for me. Being ranked as high as No. 11, winning the NEC, there were a lot of firsts that happened that year for us and the school. There are specific moments, of course, but the season in general is just something that I'll always remember."
"That team was ahead of its time," said Caringi, partially referring to the "Who Let the Dawgs Out" theme, a year before the popular song was actually released. "The team had great chemistry, two proven goal scorers, a rock-solid defense and two goalkeepers that could have played anywhere. But most of all, they were all great people. It was just a fun year and it will be great to see them again."
Zuri Barnes, Michael Casper, Drew Hoffman, Ryan Lampton and Brian Mahon also earned letters and every players on the roster competed in at least two games. Long-time volunteer assistant coach Sam DeBone and former Retriever Mike Libber were on the sidelines alongside Caringi and Adams.
Welcome Back, '99ers!