Dec. 9, 2010

Kristen Leigh Porter, NCAA.com

According to Akron men’s soccer coach Caleb Porter, the season began Dec. 14, 2009. It was the day after the top-seeded Zips lost to Virginia in a penalty kick shootout in last year’s NCAA College Cup final.

Eight of 11 starters returned to help Akron advance to Friday’s NCAA College Cup semifinal against Michigan at Harder Stadium in Santa Barbara, Calif., and stay in the hunt for the school’s first national title in any sport.

“As I met with these guys in the locker room following that loss, the players that were returning all vowed to do whatever it took this year to get back,” Porter said. “The fact that we’re in this position is really a credit to them and how hard they’ve worked.”

Tenth-seeded Michigan (17-4-3) faces the third-seeded Zips (20-1-2) at approximately 11 p.m. ET Friday at Meredith Field, with the winner advancing to Sunday’s final. Top-seeded Louisville (19-0-3) and fourth-seeded North Carolina (16-3-4) play in the 8:30 p.m. semifinal.

“Last year, a lot of people had nerves coming into this,” Akron senior midfielder Anthony Ampaipitakwong said. “This year, it seems like more people are more experienced with the situation. It’s another game that we’re going into.”

Michigan knocked out second-seeded Maryland in overtime in its quarterfinal game to earn the first NCAA College Cup appearance in the 11-year history of the program.

Akron has won five of its last six meetings with Michigan since 2005, including a 7-1 victory on Oct. 19 behind three goals from junior defender Kofi Sarkodie.

This season, the Mid-American Conference stalwart was 4-0-1 against the Big Ten Conference - which had five teams advance to the Round of 16 – and 12-1-3 since 2008. With the best winning percentage in the nation since 2005, their accomplishments on the field have belied any mid-major label.

“It’s definitely turned into a rivalry that means a lot to them and also means a lot to us and, I think, the other Big Ten teams,” Michigan goalkeeper Chris Blais said.

Added Wolverines senior midfielder Alex Wood: “I think there’s a mutual respect there. Akron’s done a lot of great things, especially during our time here.”

Akron averages 2.65 goals per game, led by freshman striker Darren Mattocks’s 18 goals, six game-winners. That’s one less than Michigan’s Soony Saad, another fabulous frosh with six game-winning goals this season.

Michigan coach Scott Burns acknowledged that while the Zips “beat the snot out of us” in that last meeting, it challenged the Wolverines to become a more disciplined defensive team. His team won its last nine games, outscoring opponents 27-11 during that stretch with senior forward Justin Meram accounting for 11 goals.

“And I think what they realized is that we can get the ball back quicker, and we’re a pretty dangerous attacking team,” said Burns, a Michigan graduate who is the school’s first and only head varsity coach. “So they’ve all really bought into that defensive concept and there’s a direct correlation of why we’re here—because of that game.”

Porter, who made two College Cup appearances as a player at Indiana, also saw some good come from a regular-season setback. The Zips’ lone loss – 2-1 on Oct. 30 at Cleveland State – ended Akron’s bid for a second consecutive unbeaten regular season.

“In all honesty, that was something that needed to happen,” Porter said. “We had gone 40 games without truly losing and that gives you a lot of confidence, but when you start to win that much you start to lose your edge. You start to feel like you’re bulletproof.”

Akron and Michigan have met in the tournament before with the Wolverines winning a 2-1 first-round meeting in 2004. Both Midwest teams are looking forward to warm Santa Barbara temperatures and ideal field conditions for Friday’s match.

“Coming in here we are definitely excited, playing on a beautiful pitch…it suits our style of play,” Akron junior midfielder Michael Nanchoff said.