Looking Back on a Thrilling NCAA Tournament Run for UMBC Men’s Soccer

“Extraordinary” is an apt word to describe the UMBC men’s soccer team’s dash to an America East championship, a first-round victory on penalty kicks in the NCAA men’s soccer tournament against Old Dominion University and a heartbreak exit, also on penalty kicks, against the nation’s fifth-ranked team and defending NCAA men’s soccer champions, the University of North Carolina (UNC), on the Tarheels’ home field on Sunday, November 18.

A single number shows the extraordinary quality of the Retrievers’ run: UMBC’s defense, led by junior goalkeeper Phil Saunders, kept its opponents off the scoreboard from open play for a staggering 420 minutes over the team’s last four single-elimination tournament games.

The 2012 UMBC men’s soccer team’s America East championship ensured the team’s second appearance in the NCAA Men’s Soccer College Cup in the last three years. And the 2012 team matched the achievements of a 2010 squad that was also one of the best in UMBC soccer history. The 2010 team beat a Princeton University squad that was ranked 10th in the nation before also falling on penalty kicks to The College of William and Mary in the second round.

“We’re so proud of the achievements of men’s soccer team and coach Pete Caringi,” said UMBC president Freeman A Hrabowski III, who observed that academic achievements have also been a hallmark of the university’s men’s soccer program.

Indeed, the day after their first round NCAA victory over Old Dominion, the men’s soccer team was also recognized with a 2011-2012 College Team Academic Award from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA). The team earned that distinction by being among the 221 men’s programs in America with a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher. (The university’s women’s soccer team also was recognized with the same award, and UMBC was one of only 150 programs in which both its men’s and women’s programs received the NSCAA award.)

The 2012 Retrievers won their way to an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament with a victory over the University of New Hampshire in the America East championship game, held on November 10 at Retriever Soccer Park. After losing junior forward Pete Caringi III (who had been named America East Striker of the Year) to an injury in the championship game’s fourth minute, the Retrievers displayed the necessary determination and grit to take the game to overtime and then triumph on penalty kicks – with Saunders making two penalty saves and being named the championship’s outstanding player

The joy of winning a place in the NCAA tournament on a chilly Saturday night was quickly replaced by determination to make a mark in the Men’s Soccer College Cup. And UMBC would have to do that the hard way: playing on the home fields of their opponents.

First up on Thursday, November 15 were the Monarchs of Old Dominion University who had been ranked in the top-25 in collegiate men’s soccer at various points of the 2012 season. And for the second contest in a row, a hard-fought 0-0 game ended once again with a scoreless double overtime and a UMBC win on penalty kicks to advance to a second round game against the University of North Carolina at UMBC’s Fetzer Field.

The Retrievers rode their defense again in the first half of its match against the defending NCAA champions, scratching and clawing their way to halftime with a clean sheet. The team put more pressure on the Tarheels in the second half and through two scoreless overtime periods, but once again, the game came down to penalty kicks.

This time, however, a Retriever team that had lived by the penalty kick found its luck had turned. North Carolina’s goalkeeper Scott Goodwin made three saves on UMBC penalty tries, while Phil Saunders could only save one of the Tarheels’ attempts and won the penalty round 3-2.

The Retrievers ended their 2012 campaign at 11-4-7, but the team’s torrid close to the season (including seven wins, one loss and one tie in their final eight games) and wins in the conference championship and the first round of the NCAA tournament not only have earned the 2012 squad a treasured place in UMBC athletics history, but also show that UMBC is on the rise in the ranks of collegiate soccer.

“We lost to a very good team, a championship team, so we have nothing to hold our heads down about,” Coach Caringi told reporters after the loss to North Carolina. “I am very proud of these guys and what they accomplished since they’ve been here. They put UMBC on the map in soccer.”