Dec. 10, 2009

Akron: Two Games From Perfection, A Season On The Line

By Roger van der Horst
Special to

CARY, N.C. — You think "Akron, Ohio," you think "tires," right?

Caleb Porter wants you to think "soccer."

The University of Akron men's coach is carving a niche in "Rubber City," the birthplace of Goodrich, Goodyear and Firestone, and he intends to fill that niche with national championships. In three seasons at Akron, he has used his ability to attract talent and an attractive, attacking style of play to turn a traditionally strong program into an elite one.

Porter, 34, is bringing the nation's top-ranked team to the Division I Men's College Cup. Even as the only unbeaten side, the Zips (23-0-0) somehow seem like the odd men out in a Division I final four including three teams from the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference — Wake Forest, North Carolina and Virginia.

Stylistically, though, Akron fits right in, as rival coach Ian McIntyre sees it.

"We've been referring to Akron as an ACC team in the Midwest," said McIntyre, the men's coach at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., which also plays in the Mid-American Conference. "They're that kind of team. They've got excellent team speed. They really do a good job of pressing. They play the same way against every opponent, and it will be interesting to see how they match up against teams that have similar team speed and also some very gifted players."

Akron will face North Carolina (16-2-3) in the second semifinal game at 7:30 p.m. at WakeMed Soccer Park on Friday. Wake Forest and Virginia, both 17-3-3, will meet in the first semifinal at 5 p.m. Tickets are sold out. ESPN2 and ESPNU will televise the first game and ESPNU the second. The winners will play for the Division I title at 1 p.m. Sunday on ESPN2.

Akron called Porter, then an assistant coach at Indiana University, his alma mater, after the 2005 season. Ken Lolla had taken the head job at Louisville after 13 seasons at Akron, during which he led the Zips to a 160-68-25 record and six NCAA Tournament appearances.

In short order, Porter liked what he saw — a school that was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on campus expansion and improvements, a program with a winning culture and a cult following, and the potential to take it further.

Even an aging soccer facility and the school's mid-major status, despite an enrollment of almost 28,000, had their good points.

"You'll go to some major universities, and soccer is an afterthought," Porter said. "I did not want to go to a program where (the school) had a big name but when you went to games no one was in the stands."

At Akron's Lee R. Jackson Field, named for the former Firestone president, 2,800 fans sit virtually on top of the field. As many as 2,000 more stand behind one goal. Akron has been turning away 400-500 spectators per game, and had to put up temporary bleachers for the Zips' quarterfinal victory over Tulsa.

"Our facility is not very nice," said Porter, who hopes this season's success builds momentum for a new stadium.

Meanwhile, the old one works. The Zips haven't lost there since 2007.

"It's a very intimidating environment," Hartwick's McIntyre said.

Since Porter can't exactly sell high school prospects on the stadium, he pitches the improving campus, a chance to win the school's first national championship in soccer, a track record of developing players for the professional level, an attractive style of play and his personal attention. Porter said he makes it a point to spend a potential recruit's entire visit to Akron with the player.

Sophomore striker Teal Bunbury, the nation's leading goal-scorer, came to Akron from Prior Lake, Minn., after quickly hitting it off with Porter. "He was really personable, like he wasn't talking strictly about soccer," Bunbury said.

From Indiana, Porter brought his own winning tradition, an emphasis on having fun and the Hoosiers' "high-pressing" defensive philosophy.

From one of Europe's most renowned coaches, he borrowed the concept of "dominant soccer."

While putting his team together at Akron, Porter was inspired by an article by Louis van Gaal, now coaching the Bayern Munich club in Germany. Van Gaal, a Dutch native, also has coached his national team, the Dutch club Ajax and Barcelona. The idea of "dominant soccer" is to dictate the game on both sides of the ball with a possession-oriented attack and high-pressure defense, essentially to attack and defend with equal intensity.

"I remember thinking, 'That is exactly the style of play that I believe in,'" Porter said.

Akron tries to work the ball upfield with short, rhythmic passes — "progressive possession," Porter calls it — until the team gets close enough to accelerate and create scoring chances. If the Zips lose the ball, 10 players immediately switch to defense en masse and try to get it back within five or six seconds.

"If we're doing it right, we're locking teams in their defending half (of the field)," said Porter, whose team has outscored opponents 58-7 this year and outshot them 386-108.

To master the style, the coach has had his team watch tape of Barcelona's famed club.

"If possible, we like to keep the ball on the ground, and we want our players to (score) through their creativity but also their thought process," Porter said. "It's very attractive to watch because our players look skillful not only individually but collectively."

It appeals to fans and recruits alike, not to mention other schools. Nearing the end of such a successful year, Porter is drawing the interest of programs with head coaching vacancies.

Against better teams like UNC, which plays a similar brand of soccer, he knows his side can't dictate play as much as it has up to this point. But the Zips have not come to Cary in awe or in doubt of their status.

"We're the No. 1 seed," Zips midfielder Blair Gavin said. "We're going to play like the No. 1 seed and show everyone what we're made of and what we're capable of doing."