The 2018 Zips may not be the best team in program history, but they salvaged more over the final six weeks than anyone from afar could have imagined.

CANTON TWP.  Head coach Jared Embick anticipated a rare two-year process for the University of Akron men's soccer team to contend for a title again.

In the wake of the loss of 18 players (seven starters), injuries, a health scare for one of his players, postponements and an uncharacteristic 6-6-2 start, somehow, someway, Akron came within one win of being national champions.

The 2018 Zips may not be the best team in program history, but they salvaged more over the final six weeks than anyone from afar could have imagined. They won nine in a row before their bid for a second national championship was stopped by Maryland in the title game.

"It was a season of adversity," Embick told the Pro Football Hall of Fame Luncheon Club on Monday. "How we were able to do it goes back to what we do. We recruit quality people.

"To go from 6-6-2 and me doing my worst coaching job to people saying I did the best, at the end of the day we've done what we've done the whole time. It's win games at a high level and play a great brand of soccer.

With so many new players, Embick was preparing for a transition season that would help set up Akron for a serious championship run in 2018.

Four players from the 2017 final four team were selected in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft, including No. 1 overall pick João Moutinho. Others went on to play professionally elsewhere, graduated or transferred.

Forward Marcel Zajac, one of the Zips' top returning players, missed the start of the season with a broken foot. Midfielder Diogo Pacheco also was out for a month after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer and undergoing offseason surgery.

A rough start while facing a beast of a schedule left Akron in an unfamiliar place.

"I think panic was setting in with some of the outside people," Embick said. "Me, we're just trying to figure out how to get this thing going."

October losses to West Virginia and Northern Illinois all but eliminated Akron from the Mid-American Conference regular season title race and a chance to host the conference tournament. The Zips had a chance to earn a first-round bye in the MAC tournament on the final day of the season, but their game against Western Michigan was canceled because of a power failure and not made up.

Akron went into the MAC tournament as the No. 4 seed and won three games in six days to claim the title and an automatic NCAA tournament berth. Rated 14th in the RPI, the Zips were hoping for a first-round bye. They did not receive one.

"We were not happy about not receiving a seed, but the path was our path and we had to focus on it," Embick said.

The Zips beat Rider at home and Syracuse and top-ranked Wake Forest on the road. The win over the Demon Deacons set up a rematch with three-time defending national champion Stanford in the quarterfinals. The Cardinal defeated the Zips at the 2015 and 2017 NCAA Division I College Cup.

Stanford rallied from a two-goal deficit, but a header from former Jackson High School player Colin Biros in the 81st minute earned Akron a 3-2 win and a spot in the final four. The possession leading up to Biros' goal earned as much notoriety as the header itself.

"There were 34 passes," Embick said. "They didn't touch the ball. All one-, two-touch plays that we preach, and we ended up with a tap in by the shortest guy who headed it in.

"Biros for me is what Akron soccer is all about, a local guy who wanted to play at Akron more than anything. When we offered the chance, he jumped at it. In those moments, you need those players."

Biros and the Zips were on the brink of glory after beating Michigan State 5-1 in the College Cup semifinals. A championship dream that seemed unthinkable a few weeks earlier was shattered by Maryland two days later. The Terrapins scored the only goal of the game on a penalty kick after Biros was whistled for a foul in the box.

"That just tells you how brutal sports can be," Embick said. "You can be the hero one day. Then next day you can be the guy that maybe cost your team the game.

"He's a freshman, so he's a guy we're going to count on. I just put my arm around him and said 'Hey, you have nothing to be ashamed of. You're going to be a player that will help lead us back to this moment. Don't think about this more than you have to. We're here partly because of your skill and ability.'"

 

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