I am suffering withdrawal symptoms. It didn’t help watching the semifinals of the NCAA men’s soccer tournament on Friday, even with my alma mater making the title match.
I kept yearning for the attractive game of the University of Akron Zips, the possession, precision and pace of the past seven years under Coach Caleb Porter. Ever since the Zips made a stunning exit from the tournament, losing at home, after scoring the first goal, the Porter era coming to an abrupt end, I have been visited by images, scenes from Lee R. Jackson Field and lately FirstEnergy Stadium.
There’s Darlington Nagbe whirling, probing, quick yet controlled, maintaining the crucial rhythm of play, arguably the best player to wear an Akron uniform. Or Anthony Ampaipitakwong delivering two dazzling goals against South Florida, one on a free kick, the other also from distance, rifling past the goalkeeper.
Two games make regular appearances, both in the 2010 championship season. Tulsa came to town on a warm, late September evening, the match televised by Fox Soccer, No. 1 facing No. 2. A record crowd gathered, the surrounding campus aglow. The Zips soared, 4-0.
There’s Darren Mattocks rising to head an Ampaipitakwong corner kick into the goal.
The other game is the NCAA quarterfinal against California, snow falling as each team scored three times, the momentum flowing back and forth, all of us on hand captivated and on edge. There’s Perry Kitchen approaching the top of the box, feinting left, going right, firing … goal!
Then goalkeeper David Meves anticipates correctly, dives right, pushing aside the California penalty kick. Kofi Sarkodie moves deliberatively as he prepares for his penalty shot, calm, composed — and successful. Zips return to the College Cup!
Other images arrive, often foggy and fragmentary, Zarek Valentin sending a penetrating pass from the back to the front, DeAndre Yedlin racing up the flank, Teal Bunbury weighing where best to strike. What leaves the strongest impression is the style of play. Akron long won respect for its soccer program, from Stu Parry to Ken Lolla. Porter elevated things dramatically, with his possession game, elegant and attacking, college soccer with a new element of purpose and plain fun to watch.
Watch the Zips play, and the echoes are apparent, of the “total football” of Johann Cruyff, the brilliant Dutch star, now in his 60s. The more current comparison is Barcelona, where the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi break down the opposition with their relentless short and exact passes.
The achievement of Porter resides in his innovation, applying these principles, building on the strengths already here and producing something new. Possess the ball, and the other side chases, as you play offense and defense at the same time. Porter has talked about the Zips wanting the role of the “deciding” side, dictating the flow and the opportunities.
And if those opportunities go unfulfilled, as they did against Creighton two weeks ago? Well, that is soccer. You go with your best. Your play improves the probabilities, as all of the winning indicates.
As Porter often has shared, he seeks “to build champions and pursue championships.” The promise isn’t to collect titles. It involves coaching and playing in a certain way.
Know that as much as many of us enjoy living in the Akron area, the place can be a hard sell to top recruits, the Stanfords, Princetons, UCLAs and North Carolinas knocking on their doors. It reveals much about what Porter has built that waves of superb players have come here, from Blair Gavin and Steve Zakuani to Scott Caldwell and Wil Trapp.
They have come for the style of play, and, more, to be part of something larger. The word “revolution” may be too much. But we have been watching a remaking of the game.
“This is Akron” is the cry. It points to what is distinctive, the soccer here what you cannot get elsewhere.
And it carries a wider lesson. What must Akron and other aging industrial cities do to prosper? They must build on their core strengths. They must keep and attract talent, Porter reaching across the country, from Washington state to Texas, from Massachusetts to Colorado.
In addition, they must be organized for innovation and distinction. All of this is context for, among other things, the University Park Alliance, the Austen BioInnovation Institute, Mayor Don Plusquellic pursuing foreign investment that complements and elevates what we have here.
No surprise Caleb Porter now wants to apply his thinking to the Portland Timbers and Major League Soccer. The pro game in this country, stronger today in many ways, would benefit from Porterball. No surprise, either, the university tapped Jared Embick, a longtime Porter assistant, to lead the soccer program.
Embick faces a big task, in part, because players can exit more easily for the pros. What remains on his side is the style of play. It is staying here.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.