Akron defeated Cal in a PK shootout on Saturday.
Ernie Aranyosi

Akron out to capture elusive NCAA championship

A year after suffering a heart-breaking loss in the College Cup final, Akron is hoping to re-write the story with a happier ending.

For one of the nation’s premier college programs, the road this year hasn’t been as smooth as the Zips' 2009 run was. In earlier matches against West Virginia and Indiana, Akron jumped out to big leads in each before conceding late, hanging on to win at the final whistle by slim margins.

Last weekend’s quarterfinal against Cal proved to be an even bigger challenge. The Golden Bears took the lead – the first time that happened all season on Akron’s home turf – before the Zips came roaring back to tie the game 3-3 in regulation and then win in a PK shootout.

Despite the difficult road, head coach Caleb Porter knows his team will be ready.

“At this point, I expect our guys to by flying Friday,” he said. “I saw another level this week in training, and they’ve got a great energy to them.”

Akron faces Michigan in the semifinals in a rematch of a 7-1 win back on Oct. 19, the Zips’ biggest of the season. According to Porter, that doesn’t change the way they will approach the Wolverines.

“We know Michigan’s a good team,” he said. “They were a good team when we played them last time. We were respectful of the game last time, and we’re going to be very respectful of their talent going into this game.”

Nonetheless, that output is a reflection of the prolific offense Akron possesses and shows what they are capable of when they play at full potential. Ranked first in both scoring offense (averaging 2.65 a game) and total goals (61), Porter has a dazzling array of offensive weapons to dispatch on the field.

[inline_node:322392]It starts up front, with the young and lethal combination of sophomore Darlington Nagbe and freshman Darren Mattocks, who have combined for 25 goals so far this season.

But the duo is hardly the only threat. Michael Nanchoff, Anthony Ampaipitakwong and even defender Kofi Sarkodie can chip in goals, making it extremely hard to focus on just one part of the field.

Stopping the Akron attack in the tournament is the key to shutting down the Zips. But getting past their solid defense is also a battle. Sophomore 'keeper David Meves has enjoyed a strong season, and he’s backed by US youth representative Zarek Valentin in defense, with midfielder Perry Kitchen protecting the back four.

However, not everything been rose-colored for Akron back line in the tournament; they’ve suffered a few hiccups. Part of that has to do with the difficulty of the opposition. Akron conceded nine goals in its first 20 games of the season, but in the tournament, has let in six in three games.

Porter views the trials and tests of 2010 as a positive.

“This year, we’ve had more adversity,” he said. “We’ve struggled to win games, had to grind out results. Maybe 2009 came too easy – we didn’t have a blemish going into the College Cup.”

The intangibles also set Akron apart. Experience at this stage of a tournament is critical, and several players started in last year’s championship loss.

“We’ve got eight of 11 starters who played in the national championship game back,” Porter said. “Going through this experience last year, playing in these type of games on this stage will help us have even more belief and confidence this year.”

With so many options in attack, there’s little reason to think Akron can’t finish the job this year. They’ll take it one game at a time, but the coach is confident that his team can finally capture that elusive first-ever title.

“The margin for error is slim," he said, "and yet we feel very confident that if we do what we should do, and if we perform over the course of 90 minutes … we will get the result.”

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