On Sunday, the University of Akron won their first College Cup, topping University of Louisville 1-0 in a thrilling final at UC Santa Barbara.
Back in Seattle, Steve Zakuani was ecstatic. It was Akron coach Caleb Porter who brought the Sounders FC winger to the states in 2007 to continue to pursue his soccer career in another country. Sunday was the culmination of five years of work by Porter at Akron to build on an already successful program.
“Like everyone connected with the school and the program, I’m so happy to have been able to witness this victory,” Zakuani said. “More than anything, I’m happy for Caleb because years ago when he began recruiting the top talent in the nation – and internationally – he did so by promising them a national championship. At the time many people thought he was crazy but he has slowly guided this team along and now they have been near the top for three seasons and the very best team for the last two, even though they lost on penalties last year.”
Porter is the kind of coach, Zakuani says, that gives his players credit for the victories while shouldering the blame for the losses. However, the losses have been few and far between while Porter has been in Akron.
In his five years with the Zips, he is 78-13-11. Zakuani lost just six games in his two seasons, winning 32 and drawing six. But in the last two seasons, Akron has been particularly unstoppable.
They went unbeaten in 2009 until the College Cup final, a game they wound up losing on penalties to the University of Virginia. In the regular season, they were victorious in all 18 matches, outscoring their opponents 50-6.
This season, they lost just once, as well, but this time they made it a little bit earlier in the season in a 2-1 loss to Cleveland State in late October.
They did this despite losing Zakuani to the MLS after the 2008 season and Teal Bunbury, Blair Gavin and Ben Zemanski following the 2009 campaign.
Before Porter took over at Akron, they were ably headed by Ken Lolla, who took them to the NCAA tournament five straight seasons from 2001-2005 before leaving for Louisville, whom the Zips topped in the final this year. That baseline for success gave Porter solid ground to stand on when recruiting top talent to small-town Akron, Ohio.
“Caleb has a good eye for soccer and he’s built a strong program,” Sounders FC technical director Chris Henderson, who was on hand with the Seattle coaching staff to scout the weekend’s matches. “It’s got to be rewarding to put a team together knowing that he would lose players to MLS and it’s tough to recruit to Ohio – it’s not like you’re going to southern California where you have the mountains and the beach.”
Zakuani credits Lolla for laying the foundation for success at Akron, but it was Porter’s work-ethic and ingenuity that guided this group to the top flight.
“I didn’t work with Ken so I can’t say too much about his methods, but Caleb brought a new identity to the program,” Zakuani said. “He wasn’t a naturally gifted player, he was more of a hardworking, cover-a-lot-of-ground kind of player and that’s what he brought to Akron. It’s an identity that stemmed from his own personality. We never felt inferior to the so-called big schools when we played them because Caleb wouldn’t allow us to. We felt we could compete with anyone and we proved over the years that we could. He has also managed to recruit good players who buy into his concepts. Incredibly, he’s been able to replace players that he’s lost to MLS with other players who make the team even better. Caleb is the reason Akron are where they are. He’s made the team believe they can compete with anyone.”
Of the players in the College Cup final, three have been invited to the MLS Combine in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in January. Many more, though, are expected to earn invites when underclassmen begin declaring themselves eligible for the draft, which will be held January 13 in Baltimore, Maryland.