Identifying fans and members of the University of Akron men’s soccer staff could be easy in 2013. Jagged nails and chewed cuticles might be a dead giveaway.
If eight games are any indication, the Zips will live on the edge during the first season of the coach Jared Embick era.
A 1-0 victory over Ohio State on Tuesday night at Akron’s FirstEnergy Stadium broke the mold in one regard — 10th-ranked UA’s goal came very early, not extremely late.
Even then, the match still fit UA’s “Cardiac Kids” theme. The lone goal seemed like a stroke of luck for UA (6-2-0) as freshman Adam Najem’s shot hit the right post and bounced straight back to senior Zac Portillos, who converted in the seventh minute.
But the Zips were dominated by the Buckeyes (2-4-2) in the final 20 minutes. The end took on a disorganized, desperate feel. OSU had a free kick in the final 10 seconds headed away, perhaps hitting Buckeyes’ goalie Alex Ivanov in the face.
Afterward, a Zips player could be heard yelling in the locker room. A concrete-block wall separating it from the interview room was not enough to muffle his angry voice.
“We might have to do this for the next 15 games,” Embick said of the slim margins of victory.
“We’re not getting used to it and I don’t think we should,” Portillos said of the way the Zips are scraping by. “I hope it’s not like this all year. We need to start showing some heart out there. I don’t think it has to do with technical ability. Guys have to start stepping up with their heart and showing some guts.
“We need to stop letting the coaches lead us. We need someone on the field to step up and start leading us. I can take responsibility, maybe all of us. As a team, we need to realize we’re playing for the fans, not just ourselves. It’s a big responsibility.”
While Portillos said the early goal made him think the Zips might score three or four, in the end it backfired.
“Once we score, we always let down,” he said. “We need to figure out how to have a killer instinct.”
It’s clear this season will be different from 2012.
Seven of UA’s eight matches have been decided by one goal and six of its 10 goals have been scored after the 75th minute. In all of last season, UA had six games decided by one goal. Three of the last six Zips’ matches have gone to double overtime. Last season, UA had just three overtime games, all ending in draws.
It’s not that the Zips miss coach Caleb Porter, who left in December to coach the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer. The team is in capable hands with Embick. It is more a matter of the Zips missing six players who also went to the MLS.
On Tuesday, they were also without three starters — Aodhan Quinn (ankle), Saad Abdul-Salaam (knee) and Louis Cross (knee). With a big game Sunday at West Virginia, second-leading scorer Reinaldo Brenes (hamstring) saw action only in the first half.
“We were sloppy,” Embick said. “It didn’t look like we had a lot of passion or energy out there. Those things can’t happen if we’re going to win what we talk about winning. It’s frustrating just because you know you’re capable of better.”
Embick realizes that eight games into a 20-game regular season, the Zips are still searching for a leader. They have found no one in the midfield to replace Scott Caldwell (nine goals, 10 assists in 2012) or Wil Trapp. Embick called out midfielders Quinn, Najem or Matt Foldesy, challenging them to provide more.
“You’re missing someone who drives the team,” Embick said. “Bryan [Gallego] has done it in spurts, but he’s in the back line. We need someone in that attacking half to take control.”
Despite the Zips’ issues, there is time for them to find leadership and make an NCAA run. Only six teams in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America top 25 are undefeated. Nos. 1 and 2 — North Carolina (3-0-3) and California (5-0-1) — were separated by six points in the latest voting as parity reigns.
But while the Zips try to fight through their funk, looking to replace the players they lost, Embick’s nails will continue to be nubs.
“I don’t bite ’em during games; it’s when I watch film,” he said.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.