University of Akron soccer coach Jared Embick has had this conversation before.
Not with freshman midfielder Adam Najem, who has found himself on the other end of it this season. But during the six years Embick spent as an assistant under Caleb Porter, Embick recalled having the same pep talk with Darlington Nagbe, now a standout with the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer, and others expected to be scorers.
Embick realizes the potential of Najem, a five-star recruit from Clifton, N.J. But somehow Embick needs to coax more than just a few spectacular plays out of him if the Zips are to contend for another national championship. So Embick has focused on one point — sustaining a consistent effort for 90 minutes.
“Guys like Darlington, you know they could take the game over as much as they want, but it’s a learning process,” Embick said, thinking back to the previous times UA had a player in Najem’s situation. “Not all the kids have that kind of personality where they just do it naturally, some you’ve got to help bring it out in them, give them confidence they can do it. Adam’s in that stage.”
In the past month, Najem has made his presence felt. His breakthrough performance came in a two-goal game against Cleveland State on Oct. 9. That began a stretch when he scored four goals in five matches, including another game-winner against Buffalo.
Last Saturday at Western Michigan, Najem came through with two assists as the Zips clinched the Mid-American Conference regular-season championship with a 2-1 double-overtime victory.
That enabled No. 8 UA (14-3-1, 5-1), unbeaten in its past eight matches, to host the MAC Tournament today and Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium. Second-seeded Western Michigan (8-8-1, 4-1-1) faces third-seeded Hartwick (5-8-4, 3-2-1) at 4 p.m., followed by UA vs. fourth-seeded West Virginia (7-6-5, 2-2-2) at 7 p.m. The winners meet at 1 p.m. Sunday for the MAC’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
A MAC title might also earn the Zips, 18th in the latest RPI, one of 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round bye. In that case their next game, perhaps at home, would be on Nov. 24.
Embick said the Zips are getting healthy and believe they can make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, which culminates with the College Cup Dec. 13-15 at PPL Park in Philadelphia. But he wasn’t happy with anything at Western Michigan, and that included Najem.
“He made a couple plays for us,” Embick said after practice Monday. “It was inconsistent, nobody really stood out individually.”
Najem seems to illustrate what Embick has seen before — a talented player who hasn’t learned to be assertive. Going into today, Najem has four goals and a team-high five assists. His 16 shots on goal trail only Reinaldo Brenes and Aodhan Quinn with 20. Brenes is the team’s leading scorer with five goals.
“I’m not aggressive or anything like that,” Najem said. “There’s definitely a part of me that wants to be that kind of guy, that wants to take over games. I feel like that’s coming to me soon. I’m waiting to see how that will be.”
Embick has seen flashes of that from Najem.
“In a 10- or 15-minute period he’ll absolutely dominate games,” Embick said. “Then after that for 10 or 15 minutes you don’t notice him.”
Embick has asked Najem if he’s having problems losing focus, but Najem isn’t sure.
“I think at the youth level because he’s talented he can just go when he wants. He was on a talented team so he didn’t always have to produce for them to win,” Embick said. “Here he’s on a talented team, but we build the team around guys like him so we need him in the game at all times. Maybe the level hasn’t required him or maybe coaches haven’t asked him to do it as much as we’ve asked him to do it. I don’t know. Sometimes with kids it’s just immaturity.”
One thing Najem has ruled out is that he’s afraid to dominate because he’s a freshman. He said after he started to score, his teammates gained confidence in him.
“I don’t think it’s my ability, I think it’s just mental for now. Sometimes I flow in and out of games. I don’t think it has to do with the age thing,” he said.
What Embick didn’t suggest is that Najem was feeling the pressure to score for the Zips, who have just 23 goals in 18 games. There have been signs of that drought ending, with UA netting two goals in each of its past four matches.
“Definitely,” Najem said of the pressure. “We were seeing who was going to take over, who was going to be the leading goal scorer. I think we’ve found a nice balance.”
The Zips might have to survive on that balance, even as Embick keeps encouraging Najem to take control. To his credit, Najem is listening.
“I appreciate that he tells me this,” Najem said. “I want him to keep telling me things. I want to learn.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read 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.