Kristen Leigh Porter, NCAA.com

Santa Barbara, Calif. – Talk about pressure.

A year ago, the Akron men’s soccer team entered the NCAA College Cup sporting a 23-0-0 record as the top seed but lost to Virginia in the final. The Zips (21-1-2) are back in the championship match Sunday as the third seed facing top-seeded Louisville at 4 p.m. ET at Harder Stadium on the campus of UC Santa Barbara.

“…The pressure is off us,” Akron coach Caleb Porter said. “We get to just go out and have fun and play. We have the opportunity to show the country what we’re about - our brand - and I think you’re going to see a very loose group (Sunday).”

Now Louisville (20-0-3) is the last of the unbeatens and aiming to become the first team to finish that way since Santa Clara (20-0-3) shared the 1989 title with Virginia. Prior to this season, the Cardinals have never advanced farther than the second round.

“Coach (Ken Lolla) has told us since the beginning that pressure is felt by the untrained and the unprepared,” senior midfielder Charlie Campbell said. “He has trained us well throughout the whole season. It’s more that we are anxious to play than feeling pressure.” 

Asked whether his team will bring as much pressure to the Akron defenders as it did in a semifinal win against North Carolina, Lolla was noncommittal.

The Zips do have experience with attacking players such as Cardinals All-American forward Colin Rolfe and Co. 

“We’ve seen 4-4-2’s, 4-2-3-1’s, which is what we’ll see with Louisville,” Porter said. “We’ve seen a little pressure, high pressure, we’ve seen possession, direct play, re-starts - we’ve seen everything.”

Louisville holds a 2-0-1 advantage all-time vs. Akron, winning the last meeting 2-1 on Sept. 7, 2001 in Akron when Lolla was the Zips’ head coach. Lolla, who spent 13 seasons in Akron, left after the 2005 season, when the Zips reached the Elite Eight and lost to eventual national champion Maryland. 

“I think the two best teams in the country are the ones left. I don’t know if it’s right to call it ironic, appropriate would the better word,” said Lolla, whose first team at Louisville was 5-10-3.

Akron has a chance to win the school’s first-ever championship in any sport in its third final appearance. The Zips were defeated by Duke 1-0 in the 1986 national championship game.

“It would mean a lot in Ohio, in Northeast Ohio we don’t have to many great teams,” freshman midfielder Perry Kitchen said. “For us to win would be amazing, the community would go nuts.”

Western Michigan is the Mid-American Conference’s only program to win a championship with NCAA men’s cross country titles in 1964 and 1965, but that also would change with an Akron win.

At Akron, a school of 29,251 students, the success of its men’s soccer program is a source of pride. The Akron faithful that made the trip have teamed up with the UC Santa Barbara fans.

A large fanbase has also gotten behind Louisville, a school best known for basketball thanks to its 1986 men’s basketball national championship. A crowd of 5,467 witnessed the Cards’ 5-4 quarterfinal win over UCLA at Cardinal Park.

“Coach has always been telling us there is only one first time to win over the fans and start the program off right,” Campbell said. “This is a great opportunity to start dynasty here at Louisville.”

Added senior defender J.T. Murray: “Just win the first one, then try to win the second and the third and for years to come as new players and new recruits come in and create a dynasty or winning frenzy.”

Akron defender Zarek Valentin is hoping to make winning championships a family affair. His older brother Julian was a four-year starter at Wake Forest who led the Demon Deacons to the 2007 title.

“Earlier in the year he sent me a picture of his National Championship ring and said, ‘It’s your turn now.’ I used it for inspiration, and now I’m just trying to get my own,” Zarek Valentin said.