Sept. 29, 2009

By Kevin Scheitrum

When it came time for George Nanchoff to select colleges, the decision wasn’t as much of a choice as it was a detail. A matter of a signature on the right line of the right document.

Tossed into America just a few months shy of his 16th birthday after his family emigrated out of what was then Yugoslavia in 1969, Nanchoff went to high school, in his estimation, 50 yards from the Akron campus. Already as able as most of the players on the varsity squad, he worked out with the college team during summers.

Thirty-seven years later, when his youngest son, Michael, deliberated between schools, the decision appeared a bit tougher. Michael’s older brother George had already left the family’s home in the Cleveland area to play for Dayton; his sister, Nicole had played at Duquesne. He had a number of offers to play elsewhere. Then, one day, Michael caved.

“He comes up to me and said, ‘Dad, I can’t see myself going anywhere else but there – I want to play for these guys,’” George said. “I said, ‘I’ll walk with you from Cleveland to Akron. You can sign right now. He had other offers and all that, but I think he was hiding it from me because he already had his heart set on it.”

Now, after fending off a case of severe mononucleosis last year that hospitalized him twice and kept him hidden under bedsheets and on a strict five-movie-a-day regimen, Nanchoff has become a driving force for top-ranked Akron. The second generation of a family entrenched in Akron soccer – after his father and uncle, Louie, were two-time All-Americans for the Zips – the sophomore sits at second in the team in scoring, with nine points on two goals and five assists.

He’s currently serving his second straight week on the Soccer America Team of the Week after notching Player of the Week honors last week. And, with his four assists in Akron’s MAC-opening win over Bowling Green last Sunday, he’s now one of three Zips to ever dish out four in a game. George was the second to do it.

“I was hoping he was gonna beat it,” George said. “There’s nothing better than to beat your dad’s record. I thought it was pretty cool about that, after how many years.”

“A lot of people in the community know the Nanchoff name,” said Akron coach Caleb Porter. “It’s synonymous with Akron soccer. I hear almost after every game, some alums come up and say ‘That’s neat about the young Nanchoff. I used to watch George and Louie play when I was in school.”

Nanchoff’s style flickers with glimpses of both his father and uncle., both of whom played pro soccer and were part of the 1980 Olympic team that qualified but couldn’t play because of Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the ’80 Soviet Games. Of course, George maintains, Michael looks more like his old man. More of a “field general.” More of a vision guy, a playmaker. More able to find that invisible seam and cut it, perfectly, with either foot, nestled in time with a teammate’s stride.

Then, you blink, and glimmers of Louie start showing. Visions of the “more skillful, more direct” type of player, George said – the kind of guy who would just charge at defenders and guide them into catastrophe.

“Every time he touches the ball, I think he’s a threat offensively,” George said. “He’s a little of both, but I tell ya, Louie was a little magician with the ball, and there’s a little bit of that that with Michael.”

“To be honest, [my dad] taught me a lot of things, like having a natural vision, a natural knack for a goal,” Michael said. “But what it comes down to is doing your own thing, having the confidence to go out there and experiment, trying to do a move and break someone down.”

But, resemblances aside, this is a player that could signal the future of Akron soccer, Porter said. The kind of player who, even as a sophomore, has exceeded expectations.

“I know as a staff that we said about Michael, when it’s all said and done he’ll be one of the better player we’ve ever had in this program – and it’s happened quicker than we all thought,” Porter said.

When he came to Akron in 2007, he ran a little on the small side, but the fundamentals were there. More, he looked like the very rare type of players whose synapses seem timed in rhythm with the game, able to slow the chaos into order – and able to exploit everybody else’s inability to do so.

“The players that have grown up in that environment with a father who’s been a professional player, he’ll have an extra bit of savvy, insight and their passion for the game is increased,” Porter said. “Their drive to success in the sport is higher, and that’s what we try to look for. The first time I saw Michael, he was small, a little bit slight, but he was as soccer player, and as soon as I saw him I knew we were gonna recruit him because he just had something different to him – his touch, his craftiness, his vision.”

“I think sometimes in college soccer unfortunately coaches will back off or get cold feet on a kid that’s maybe smaller, where we like those type of kids because it fits the way we play,” Porter continued.

George and Michael both said that George never forced his son into soccer. But as long as Michael was willing to learn, willing to burn, George was willing to share with his son the wisdom of a career that saw him lead Akron in scoring three times (losing out to Louie his senior year), play professionally in the now-defunct North American Soccer League and Major Indoor Soccer League and bring home 10 caps and one goal for the U.S. national team between 1977 and 1979.

As Michael grew, George kept coaching, all the way through Michael’s time on George’s Cleveland Internationals club team – a program that also developed current Akron players Darlington Nagbe and Chris Korb.

So, when he came to school, Michael had to learn two things, Porter said: to play defense and to get bigger. A lot bigger.

“He’s gotten physically stronger out there,” Porter said. “Early in the career he was getting knocked over, now he’s knocking guys over.”

And once he recovered from mono and made his way back this year, he had to learn one more thing: consistency. Nanchoff, after a few lackluster games, had a meeting with his coaches to talk about elevating his play. He answered by winning the Offensive MVP award for the Akron Tournament two weekends ago after scoring the game-winner against Indiana and adding an assist against Saint Louis, and followed up with last weekend’s four-assist performance.

“I really didn’t known until a couple hours after the game,” Nanchoff said about tying his dad’s record. “I saw my coach outside of the locker room, and he was like ‘You just had four assists – you just happened to tie your dad’s record.’ It was an amazing feeling. Maybe next time I’ll surpass it.”