How have things worked out for Caleb Porter, a year after departing the University of Akron for Major League Soccer? Oh, the coach wholly remade the Portland Timbers, the club vaulting to the top of the Western Conference and now vying with Real Salt Lake for a spot in the championship match (albeit two goals down after the first leg).
Let’s just say he made the right decision.
And the UA men’s soccer program? The Zips are right where they are supposed to be, playing host to the Mid-American Conference tournament that opens today, UA meeting West Virginia in the second match this evening. In that way, Jared Embick, the assistant who moved up to head coach, has had an altogether different task. He has the job of sustaining (and updating) what Porter built.
It couldn’t have been easy, at least from my vantage point — in the stands. First, there are the expectations Porter elevated. Then, came the other departures, no Wil Trapp or DeAndre Yedlin or Scott Caldwell. The fascinating aspect of the season has been how well Embick and his players would hold up, seeking wins and looking to deliver that attractive, pressuring brand of soccer.
Give credit to the five seniors, Reinaldo Brenes, Robbie Derschang, Zac Portillos, Aodhan Quinn and Eric Stevenson. And to Bryan Gallego, a junior defender, who acts like one. Each has proved decisive in his way, Portillos, for instance, bringing the underrated quality of energy and the difference maker against Ohio State, cleaning up for a goal.
This is a team that has struggled to score, and not for lack of shots, or corner kicks or buzz in front of the opposing goalkeeper. Brenes and Stevenson provided the early punch, the latter all season serving as a crucial link in midfield for pace and possession. Of late, Derschang has been hot, winning goals against Northern Illinois, Michigan and Western Michigan last weekend.
Quinn will be telling the story for years. His two free kicks for goals against Penn State last week verged on the Beckhamesque, the second one, in overtime, from some distance, magically crossing the goal face, then dropping for the score.
Chances are when goals are scarce, overtime plays a big part. The Zips have been there in four of the past eight matches, winning three times, tying once, in a spirited unbeaten string that followed a shocking defeat to Hartwick, 2-0, at home.
The season might have unraveled. Then, Adam Najem, a freshman began to emerge at midfield, and the seniors stepped up from there. Brenes returned from injury to score early last Saturday in ensuring the MAC tournament returned here. On Monday, the NCAA tournament selections are announced. Win today, and Sunday, and the likelihood is, the Zips will be seeded, or just where they are expected to be.
— MICHAEL DOUGLAS
Editorial page editor