The question didn’t demand an immediate answer.
When University of Akron men’s soccer coach Jared Embick asked senior Abdi Mohamed to move from center midfielder to right back, Embick gave Mohamed 24 hours to think it over.
Playing a schedule loaded with ranked opponents, the Zips were 1-3-1 and unsettled. Embick needed to fortify a back line that started three freshmen. Mohamed, a second-team All-Big Ten selection who played three years at Ohio State, transferred to UA because he said he wasn’t developing his final two years as a Buckeye and wanted to learn under Embick.
But Mohamed didn’t expect to re-learn a position he hadn’t played since his U-13 to U-15 days growing up in Westerville, Ohio.
“I said, ‘Look, I know it’s your last year and you don’t want to change positions. These are the reasons I think it can work. I know it will bring out the best in your ability; it’s for the team,’” Embick said Monday. “I said, ‘I don’t want to force you into an answer. Just tell me tomorrow.’ He said, ‘Coach, whatever’s best for the team. Don’t worry about it, I’ll give my best.’
“To be willing to do that and play with three freshmen, I think that speaks a lot about the type of person he is.”
Mohamed said he was “kind of shocked at first,” but didn’t hesitate to agree.
“I was comfortable with the position move and I was ready to take it on,” Mohamed said Tuesday.
Since Mohamed joined the back line with center backs Carlo Ritaccio and Marco Milanese and left back Pol Hernandez, the Zips are 12-3-1. Winners of seven consecutive games, they take on ninth-seeded and three-time defending champion Stanford (12-3-5) Friday in Palo Alto, Calif., in the NCAA Elite Eight.
The Zips are trying to become the 10th unseeded team to make the College Cup since the tournament field expanded to 48 in 2001. Three of the previous nine reached the final, but only UC-Santa Barbara in 2006 captured the championship. UA won the school’s only national team championship in 2010 in Santa Barbara, the site of this year’s final four.
Embick said the back line has excelled in the past five games, which included Sunday’s 1-0 road upset of top-seeded Wake Forest. That stretch began with a 3-1 victory on Nov. 9 at West Virginia in the semifinals of the Mid-American Conference tournament. The Mountaineers had beaten UA 2-1 in overtime on Oct. 13, forcing the extra period with a goal with 13 seconds remaining in regulation.
Mohamed’s choices, both to come to UA and to switch positions, have made a difference. He said his decision to leave Ohio State was rooted in trying to “grow as a player, as a young man.”
“It was more so development-wise. I wanted a chance to learn more of the game under Jared,” Mohamed said. “Being at Ohio State I had all the resources and everything, a great coaching staff, but I didn’t see myself developing over the past two years. My freshman year I got a lot of minutes, but sophomore and junior year it wasn’t really working out for me."
Although Mohamed filled a gaping need, the leadership role on the back line has fallen to Ritaccio.
“Carlo is a very vocal guy. He’s made it easier on everybody because he’s willing to talk and organize,” Embick said of Ritaccio, from Westbury, N.Y. “If we didn’t have somebody like Carlo, it would be different because Abdi’s not a hugely vocal guy on the field.”
Ritaccio said, “I’ve always liked to be the vocal person in the back. I may be a younger person, but that part of me will never go away.”
This back line is different from what the 2015 and 2017 Zips’ College Cup teams fielded, Embick said.
“Carlo is kind of the tough tackle player, vocal leader. Marco is smoother on the ball, reads the game well. Pol is a very technical, skillful left back,” Embick said.
“These guys outside of Abdi are a little bit more defenders than ballplayers. The other years we had more skill in terms of offensive ability and maybe not as good defensively.”
Stanford eliminated UA in the NCAA semifinals in 2015 and ’17, prevailing 2-0 last season and winning an 8-7 penalty-kick shootout in 2015. Even though none of the back line participated, they are motivated by the past.
“I know the returners, [Marcel] Zajac and Ezana [Kahsay], [David] Egbo and all of them, they feel the pain they had from last year,” Ritaccio said. “They feel the pain, we all feel the pain. We know that we’ve got to get ‘em back.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.