SANTA BARBARA, Calif.: Kofi Sarkodie is definitely the man for Michigan.
After recording a hat trick against the Wolverines on Oct. 19, Akron's junior defender scored the game-winner in the 74th minute Friday night, giving the Zips a 2-1 College Cup victory and sending them into Sunday's national championship game.
Trying to avenge a loss in the Division I men's soccer title game a year ago, third-seeded Akron (21-1-2) advanced to face top-seeded Louisville (20-0-3), a 2-1 winner over fourth-seeded North Carolina, in a 4 p.m. final at UC Santa Barbara's Harder Stadium. The Cardinals are coached by Ken Lolla, who spent 13 seasons at Akron before heading south after the 2005 season.
That dream pairing might not have been possible if not for Sarkodie. His winning shot came off a free kick from the right side as he took a feed from junior midfielder Michael Nanchoff of Walsh Jesuit.
Sarkodie had no explanation why four of his eight goals this season have come against Michigan (17-5-3), the 10th seed that saw its nine-game winning streak snapped. He said he wasn't overly excited to face them again, but he may have been amazed that the Wolverines left him open throughout the match.
"Like I told the guys, 'It's one game at a time. It doesn't matter who our opponent is,''' Sarkodie said. "(A national championship) has been our goal since last year, Dec. 14. Regardless of the opponent, there was no emotional 'Hoo-rah' inside me.''
Sarkodie had not recorded a goal in seven games since the 7-1 rout of Michigan and sat out three more before the NCAA tournament with a hyperextended knee.
This time, he thought he'd missed his chance when his header went awry in the 59th minute.
"The first chance was unlucky,'' Sarkodie said. "I had a pretty good sight of it and it just skipped off my head. I kept telling myself, 'If I get another chance, I've got to put it away.' Fortunately Michael found me in a good spot and I put it away.''
Nanchoff liked the way Sarkodie kept his energy up and the pressure on when things didn't go his way. Sarkodie also received a yellow card in the 41st minute for knocking down Michigan's freshman midfielder Fabio Pereira.
"Luck's on his side, that's for sure, but it's not like it was all luck on that goal,'' Nanchoff said. "It was talent as well. He had that one that skimmed off his head. Big players bounce back from that.''
While Akron coach Caleb Porter thought his team deserved to win, the Wolverines showed how they'd been transformed since their last meeting with the Zips. Senior forward Justin Meram scored his 17th goal of the season just 62 seconds into the match, dribbling down the center of the field and shooting from the top of the circle.
"I saw a clear path, took a touch and when the defender stepped up on me, I just took the shot,'' Meram said. "From there, 'I thought, 'Man, we can do this.'''
Nanchoff gave Meram his due.
"It was an excellent strike,'' Nanchoff said. "Meram is a good player, a good finisher. We had to pull ourselves out of a little hole, but that was good for us because we put them on the ropes.''
The Zips went on to dominate the first half, outshooting Michigan 14-4. Freshman midfielder Perry Kitchen scored in his second consecutive match, tying it 1-1 in the 33rd minute on a shot from 30 yards out. For Kitchen, six of his nine shots on goal have found the net.
"That was fantastic,'' Porter said. "He had one in the Cal game as well. That was his sixth goal. His first four were on dead balls, restarts. He scored two on strikes from distance. That's an extra guy now teams have to worry about.''
But the Zips may have gotten overconfident with their strong finish to the half.
"Outside of a 15-minute lull at the start of the second half we performed very efficiently, we played the way we wanted to play, we created a lot of chances,'' Porter said. "I thought we missed a few. If we would have finished better, especially in the first half, we should have been up two or three. (The way) Michigan started the second half, the momentum swung a little bit there.''
Nanchoff said the Zips ''weren't connecting'' as well as they wanted to when the second half opened.
''It came down to leadership, who was going to step up to the plate, take control of the game and get the overall energy going again. That's what happened,'' Nanchoff said.
"We had to get back to playing dominant soccer. Keep pounding, keep penetrating and be patient and eventually it came.''
In the 64th minute, Akron survived a major scare when freshman forward Soony Saad, who led the Wolverines with 19 goals this season, saw his shot drill the right post and bounce off.
"The defenders were coming back on the play, there were not too many options for me,'' Saad said. "I decided to try and sneak it in and bend it far post. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not.''
Michigan coach Steve Burns was philosophical about the bad break.
"That's the game of soccer,'' Burns said. "The ball came off his foot and hit the inside of the post. One less layer of paint and that thing goes.''
Akron will try to win its first NCAA team title in any sport, men's or women's, after falling to Virginia in penalty kicks in the final last year. The Zips became the first team to reach back-to-back championship games since Indiana won in 2003-04. Akron was also the national runner-up in 1986.
"This team is a resilient team,'' Porter said. "They literally refuse to lose. They believe so much that they're going to get the result that no matter what happens, they respond. The last two games we've given up early goals and they've responded both times and they've done that in other games. This team, they're on a mission.''