It might be rare at the top level of men’s collegiate soccer for a player to lose a coveted wing position because he wasn’t good enough and get it back nearly two years later.
But that’s what happened to University of Akron senior Robbie Derschang, who is making the most of his second chance in spectacular fashion.
When he arrived at UA as a transfer from SMU in 2012, Derschang started two games at striker. But coach Jared Embick, then an assistant to Caleb Porter, said Derschang wasn’t ready for what the Zips require there, especially as he adjusted to their style of play. So Derschang spent some time on the bench, then became a starter at left back, a spot the coaches thought would better fit him.
That’s where Derschang stayed, scoring only two goals in his first 47 games at UA.
But Derschang’s career arc changed after he suffered a mild hamstring sprain on Oct. 15 against Wake Forest.
Derschang missed the next two matches against Buffalo and Michigan State. When he returned to training the next day, he needed time to regain his fitness, so he practiced some at forward. Embick said he scored six or seven goals.
That got Embick’s creative juices flowing.
He knew Derschang wasn’t capable of playing 90 minutes in the next game against Northern Illinois, and senior Zac Portillos had filled in well at left back. Embick hesitated to start Derschang because he knew he’d have to substitute for him, which would disturb his back four.
So Embick mulled the idea of putting Derschang at left wing. Midfielder Reinaldo Brenes was sidelined with a hamstring injury and the Zips had scored more than one goal only once since mid-September. Embick kept thinking of the flurry Derschang netted in that Thursday training session.
“He said, ‘I feel like I’m ready to move back in there; I feel like I can score,’ ” Embick said of the conversation he had with Derschang when he broached the move. “I thought with our struggles, with injuries, this would be the only time it would make sense to try it.”
But the suggestion was not well received when Embick broached it with his assistants.
“Robbie hasn’t really done much when he’s gotten forward from left back,” Embick said. “I told the guys, ‘If there’s anybody who’s going to score, he might have the best chance because of training and what he’s telling us.’ The other guys, based on the 47 games, were like, ‘We’ll see.’ I’m like, ‘We need someone. Let’s give him a shot.’ ”
It turned out to be, as Embick said, “the move of the week.”
Derschang scored three goals in two matches, including both game-winners, as UA defeated Northern Illinois and Michigan by 2-1 scores. It was the first time all season the Zips had produced two goals in back-to-back games.
At home against Northern Illinois on Oct. 26, Derschang’s goal in the 76th minute was the difference. At Michigan on Oct. 30, Derschang turned in the first two-goal game of his UA career, a feat he hadn’t accomplished since 2010 when he was an SMU freshman facing Bradley.
Derschang was named Mid-American Conference player of week on Monday and was selected to the National Team of the Week by College Soccer News.
“I want to keep scoring so he keeps me up there,” Derschang said during an off-day interview Monday at Rhodes Arena. “It’s been an interesting season; goals just aren’t coming. I thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’ I wanted to do it to help the team.”
Embick will need more of the same from Derschang tonight as No. 9 UA (12-3-1) hosts No. 11 Penn State (11-4-1) at FirstEnergy Stadium. Embick said the Zips must win if they hope to secure an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. Penn State is 11th in RPI; UA is 27th.
An at-large berth would come into play if the Zips don’t win Saturday at Western Michigan to capture the MAC title and home field for the league tournament. If WMU prevails, it would host Nov. 15-17.
Derschang will do all he can to keep the Zips rolling. The recent position change seems fitting because his entire career has been about challenging himself.
Coming out of Cherry Creek High School in Englewood, Colo., Derschang considered only regional colleges even though he had a scholarship offer to Maryland. But after two years at SMU, he longed for UA, which runs what he called “a completely different system than any college soccer program in the nation.”
The Mustangs twice qualified for the NCAA Tournament and lost to UA in the Elite Eight in 2011. That’s when Derschang said, “I want to play for Akron.” Derschang talked to his coaches, who asked if he wanted to transfer.
“I sent my release out to a number of schools, Akron being my No. 1. Once I got that cleared by the NCAA, I contacted Caleb,” said Derschang, who said Porter told him he needed left-sided players.
“If I’d come here from the beginning I would have gotten better early on and learned more and more from Caleb and Jared. Everything happens for a reason, so I’m glad I’m here.”
Embick said Derschang is the Zips’ most emotional player and sometimes the coaches wish he wouldn’t get so wound up.
“Even in training he’ll wear his emotions out there,” Embick said. “It seems to fire him up, so we made a decision not to calm him down that much, only if it’s really bad. He’s very intense at times. I think that helps us when guys see him running up and down and giving all he’s got. Now that he’s scored goals, that’s added to his leadership as well.”
Derschang realizes he could be facing the end of his soccer career. Embick said the versatile Derschang could have a chance in the pros, especially if he helps lead UA to another College Cup. Embick also believes Derschang might have been reinvigorated by the position switch, especially since he’d played forward since his days in youth soccer.
“Over the last year he’s had a lot of stuff internally, like ‘How bad do I want it? How am I going to make it?’ I think you’re starting to see him come through it,” Embick said. “He’s a much stronger player, much tougher mentally. Now you’re in a situation where that emotion I think is a positive, whereas before you felt like it was him just falling apart. Now you see it as a fire, a determination.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. 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.