Caleb Porter and American college soccer's Rust Belt Renaissance
Porter has fashioned a powerhouse in an unfashionable mid-major conference
Porter's Akron teams emphasis creative, attacking possession soccer
Porter is held in high regard by MLS teams and other college programs
That's all that separates head coach Caleb Porter and his University of Akron team from a national title, from perhaps the greatest season in NCAA college soccer's 50-year history, from perfection. It's a miserably cold, gray Sunday afternoon in December. After 110 minutes of play, the scoreboard at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina, refuses to budge: 0-0. The final game of 2009 NCAA Division One season, pitting Akron, an upstart mid-major, against ACC juggernaut University of Virginia, heads for the cruelest of endings -- a penalty shootout.
Four rounds of the shootout later, it's now up to Blair Gavin -- co-captain, midfield linchpin, destined for the pros. He must convert his shot, and if he does, he'll all but clinch the win, as he did in the semifinal shootout win over North Carolina. As Gavin begins his approach announcer JP Dellacamera says, "Gavin won it the other night -- can he continue it here?"
Akron's traveling fan contingent stands in rare silence, and Gavin's teammates, arms interlocked, wait nervously at midfield for Gavin's strike. A few seconds later, Gavin collapses to the ground, his face buried in his arms, as the ball skies over the goal and leaves the camera's frame and does not stop.
Statistics don't win championships. If they did, the 2009 NCAA Division One men's soccer title would easily belong to the University of Akron Zips and their 35-year-old coach Porter.
On paper, Akron's 2009 season was all but flawless. The team won 23 games and didn't lose one -- but thanks to an obscure NCAA rule, Akron's championship game against Virginia was considered a loss. (In soccer, shootout losses are almost always recorded as ties.) College soccer's highest winning percentage. Most goals scored and fewest conceded, including zero goals the entire postseason knockout tournament. Striker Teal Bunbury was awarded the MAC Hermann Trophy, college soccer's equivalent of the Heisman, while Porter was named 2009 National Soccer Coaches Association of America coach of the year.
National championship or not, Porter's 2009 Akron team won't soon be forgotten. "Quite honestly, the Akron team last year might be the best college team to play the game in a while," said Mike Freitag, former head coach at Indiana University and now coaching director for Colorado youth soccer. An impenetrable back line, creative midfielders capable of wizardry on the ball, and deadly strikers up top, last year's Zips not only won, but won by playing the most fluid, entertaining, sexy brand of soccer to grace the college campus in years.
That style of play -- borrowing from top European clubs like Barcelona and Chelsea -- is all too rare at the college level where too often creative soccer takes a back seat to a direct, blunt style of play that prizes big, physical athletes over nimble, clever, more natural soccer players.
Not so with Akron. In early July, I drove up to Ohio to hang out with Porter and try to understand how a lesser-known mid-major school came to embody the beautiful game -- and compete for national titles. Porter and I talked about his philosophy, college soccer's role in developing the future Landon Donovans and Clint Dempseys, and whether college soccer will even remain relevant as the American game comes to resemble the European and South American soccer systems.
We often returned to college soccer's direct style of play and how, in his eyes, that style hinders the growth of the American game. The U.S.'s success at the World Cup in South Africa this summer, and the record TV audiences for those games here at home, showed that soccer's popularity is on the rise; in turn, new fans craving more soccer will seek out the best game in town, usually the nearest college team. That in mind, it's crucial, Porter says, for college teams to play a brand of soccer that wins over these new enthusiasts. "You want to be proud of how you're winning," Porter said. "You want people who come to a game to leave the game thinking, 'That team not only wins, but I love the way they play.'"
Sexy soccer isn't just about winning over fans, though. It's also about ensuring college soccer still matters. Today, college players fill out the rosters of most Major League Soccer teams. But with the first batch of "homegrown" players -- youngsters groomed by MLS' youth development, or "academy," programs -- now emerging, college could soon begin losing its best talent to those academies. At D.C. United, for instance, academy graduates such as Andy Najar, a 17-year-old Honduran-born midfielder, are already starting for the club's first team.
Najar presages a future in which top American youngsters may skip the college route altogether. As MLS grows and expands its youth system, the best young American players will most likely emulate international stars by choosing professional clubs over campus life.
That future is years, if not decades away. But it's not lost on Porter. He believes that if college soccer wants to remain an integral to developing American players, colleges will have to adapt. They'll have to lure top players with as professional an environment as they can. The top college programs, Porter figures, might well evolve into de facto reserve teams for the pros, where the best players spend two or three years before making the leap to MLS or overseas.
Indeed, some young phenoms are already using colleges like Akron and the University of Maryland and Wake Forest University as steppingstones, not unlike top college basketball players. Right now, though, pro soccer isn't making too many young players rich, and thus the two- to three-year idea is more controversial. After three Akron players turned pro last winter before graduating, an angry e-mail landed in Porter's inbox from a professor critical of those three student-athletes leaving early.
While Porter stressed to me that he prioritizes academics over all else -- his team had a 3.3 overall grade point average last year, with several players named academic All-Americans -- he recognizes this evolution and its importance to molding players for the future. "Caleb's a very realistic guy," said Kevin Payne, president of DC United and a prominent figure in American soccer circles. "He's one of the college coaches, the American soccer coaches really, who looks at the big picture and understands what the realities are."
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