When Caleb Porter became the University of Akron soccer coach in 2006, the AK-Rowdies were his vision.
Arriving from Indiana University, where he had played and spent the previous six years as an assistant, Porter wanted to recreate the intimidating student section behind the goal that he had seen at his alma mater. But recruiting the group wasn’t easy.
His first two seasons, Porter took money out of his own pocket to buy pizza at halftime if there were more than 100 students on the hill, said Chris Stimler, a UA graduate student from Garfield High School who was one of the Rowdies’ founders. At Porter’s first Mid-American Conference championship game, only 50 showed up in freezing temperatures.
Over the years, Porter spoke at Rowdies’ meetings, chipped in for bus trips and helped secure tickets and transportation to the national championship in Cary, N.C., in 2009. His was the first athletic team to interact with the Rowdies pre- and postgame, with Porter sending his players over after every victory. In 2010, he rewarded them with a national title.
So it is no surprise the Rowdies have not turned on Porter.
Friday night was the Zips’ first home game since Porter announced Aug. 29 that he was taking over as coach of Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers on Dec. 15. Porter said he wasn’t worried about the reception he would get from the crowd of 3,034.
“No, I haven’t gotten any negative vibes from anybody. It’s been amazing,” he said. “Everyone is real positive I’m staying through the year. That’s all I’m focused on right now.”
After 110 minutes in the University of Akron Tournament, No. 9 UA (3-1-2) and No. 10 St. John’s (5-0-2) battled to a 0-0 draw. In a game televised by Fox Soccer Channel, UA had a 9-7 edge in shots and a 6-4 edge in corner kicks, but it saw its three best scoring chances thwarted in the first half.
The Zips were playing without two starters. Junior Aodhan Quinn sat out after being red-carded in the last match at Notre Dame, and freshman striker Alfred Koroma is hospitalized with a staph infection.
In the first game Friday, Butler and No. 11 South Florida fought to a 2-2 draw. The tournament continues Sunday as Butler takes on St. John’s at noon and UA faces South Florida at 7:30 p.m.
Speaking before the game, past and present Rowdies seemed happy that Porter is following his dream to the MLS.
“He’s too great a talent to spend the rest of his time in the NCAA,’’ said Cody Perdew, a UA junior from East High School. “There’s no reason for him to spend 10 years at Akron. He belongs somewhere better.
“He needs to be coaching the U.S. National team or in Europe. Portland is just going to be a stepping stone. I was upset when he signed the extension last year.”
Perdew wasn’t the only one who thought seven seasons at UA were enough for Porter.
“You can hardly criticize a man for taking the next step toward greatness,” said Ryan McClellan, a 2010 UA graduate from Akron.
Stimler said Porter’s stint earlier this year as coach of the national U-23 team, even though it failed to qualify for the Olympics, was the writing on the wall for him.
“Even in ’09 when we lost the national title, D.C. United called,” Stimler said. “The Olympics this summer, I knew it was this year.”
The feeling among the Rowdies’ founders gathered near the gate at FirstEnergy Stadium was that Porter was one of the few coaches who came to Northeast Ohio, promised a championship and delivered.
“I love Caleb Porter and I wish him the best,” said Nate Hess, a UA senior from Ashland who was wearing what looked like a Speedo and a blanket.
Christina Marion, a 2011 UA graduate from Warren Howland, said the announcement was “a big surprise.”
“I don’t think everyone expected it this soon,” Marion said. “But he’s with his former players, he’s in a better place. I’ll still cheer for him and try to visit the Columbus Crew when [the Timbers] are in town.”
Perdew said the Rowdies are trying to start a Twitter campaign for associate head coach Jared Embick, an Indiana Wesleyan graduate in his sixth season at UA, to succeed Porter. They’re using #Embick2013.
The Rowdies’ biggest concern seems to be how losing their coach will affect the Zips this season.
“I’d have to guess it would be in the back of their minds ‘This is Porter’s last year. We have to do it for Coach,’ ” Stimler said. “It may not be negative. They all respect that he’s staying for the season. One final run…”
Porter is playing a tough national schedule this month to enhance the Zips’ RPI (ratings percentage index) and toughen his team for the postseason. But even if that “one final run” doesn’t lead back to the College Cup Dec. 7-9 in Birmingham, Ala., the AK-Rowdies will have Porter’s back until his final horn.