With seven players entering the MLS SuperDraft– and six projected to be first-round selections on Thursday — University of Akron has emerged from relative college-soccer obscurity five years ago to powerhouse today.
Seattle Sounders Steve Zakuani played two years for Akron and coach Caleb Porter, the chief architect of what has morphed into arguably the most attractive college soccer team in the country (Akron won its first national championship this year). Turning out professional prospects, it seems, is now the norm at Akron.
“The school has a lot of trust in Caleb,” Zakuani said. “They’ve given him a new stadium. They support his vision. They’ve created a professional environment that attracts top players. It was an all-around great experience for me to play on the same team with some of those guys.”
Those guys include: Darlington Nagbe, who won the 2010 Hermann Trophy for best college player and is a projected top 3 pick in the MLS SuperDraft. Another former teammate — Teal Bunbury who won the 2009 Hermann Trophy Player of the Year and was selected fourth overall in the 2010 SuperDraft. He is now playing for Sporting Kansas City and the U.S. Men’s National Team. And Zakuani’s former road roomie, Anthony Ampaipitakwong, is a center mid and projected first-round pick. Zakuani himself was a Hermann Trophy finalist in 2008, the nation’s top scorer and the first pick in the MLS 2009 SuperDraft.
Those guys also include seven players available for the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. Five are generation adidas players that already have signed contracts with the MLS, which means the salaries of these coveted home-grown players don’t count against the team salary cap. They include: Nagbe, defender Kofi Sarkodie, defender Perry Kitchen, defender Zarek Valentin and midfielder Michael Nanchoff. The two seniors are: midfielder Ampaipitakwong and defender Chris Korb, who is the only projected second-round draft prospect.
Those guys have helped re-write the history of Zips soccer. In five years since Porter’s arrival, the Zips have won more than 80 percent of their matches. Over the past two seasons, Akron has lost just once in 50 regular-season matches. During that time Akron has been top five nationally for scoring goals and for conceding goals while posting a 45-2-3 record and becoming the first school to advance to the national championship game in back-to-back seasons since Indiana accomplished it in 2003 and 2004.
Nagbe helped lead Akron to a first-ever national title by winning the 2010 College Cup, scoring seven goals and adding 13 assists in 25 games. The junior is projected by many scouts and mock drafts to be the No. 1 selection.
He is also one of Zakuani’s closest friends from the Akron days. Nagbe is the real deal, says his former teammate. “He is one of those players who can take on the game himself. He’s a playmaker. He can play out wide. He can score goals but primarily he feeds guys the ball,” Zakuani said. “He has ability you just can’t coach.”
So, how did Akron transform so quickly from sleepy college backwater to emerging dynasty? Why do some of the best young American soccer players want to flock to a fading rust-belt city best known for tires?
Part of the answer: they wanted to play with the best soccer players in the country. Zakuani says the key to current crop of talent hinged on Porter persuading Ampaipitakwong, Nanchoff and Blair Gavin to commit their freshmen years. Zakuani followed a year later.
“When they got Ampai (as he is known) it was a domino effect,” Zakuani said. “When I came my freshman year, he was our best player and carried us through games. That was key to the recruiting and attracted everyone. Everybody knew those guys were all going to be freshmen together. Now, everybody wants to play for Akron.”
Porter’s recipe: create a mixture that’s equal parts professional seasoning, attractive eye-pleasing soccer, bone-crushing defense, combined with a big dash of college and community support, and then finished with many hours of recruiting the most talented players — and then let them play. The result: a professional development model that makes college soccer relevant in the long-running debate whether college soccer is good for the professional game.
The “Akron Experiment” is merely one path — along with the spread of youth academies across the country and the US National team residency program — that can lead to the MLS. What’s exciting, and creating such a buzz, is that Porter is promoting an attractive brand of soccer.
That’s somewhat heretical to the mostly dull, direct and athletic style favored by many top college coaches. Interestingly, Porter is creating a program that rewards creativity and technical mastery as well as celebrating the 1-v-1 Artist and the No. 10. Better yet for the purists, his brand of attractive soccer is getting results.
Porter, 36, is able to manage the big ambitions of his top talent while maintaining a tight team discipline. He creates high training standards that sets the creative player free within a team-based defensive framework. Every player plays defense and works hard to win the ball back, but conversely, every player is encouraged to express his own creative and attacking personality.
Zakuani, one of Porter’s earliest talent-laden recruits, recalls that Porter never asked him to change his desire to beat players and score goals. Porter cherished those skills and told Zakuani he wanted to polish them. “He never told me to change my game,” Zakuani said. “But he said when you leave the ball, you have to work hard. Every player bought into it. The quicker you win the ball back, the quicker you get it back and get to keep it.”
Porter established professional practice standards. “Training was hard everyday,” Zakuani said. “You had to compete really hard. It gets heated and nobody wants to lose. When you have a lot of players with a kind of coach like that, you are going to get better.”
Ironically, Porter possessed none of the natural talents when he played for Indiana but rather was a very hard-working defensive midfielder — the team destroyer. His perseverance and intensity led him to be only the second three-time captain at Indiana. Bad knees cut short his MLS career, and he soon became an assistant coach for his mentor, Jerry Yeagley, the Indiana head coach.
“He was a hard-nosed player,” Zakuani said. “He wasn’t naturally gifted. But he worked hard and was driven. It was just this drive that connects with the player. He pushed that onto the team. By the same time, he gives you space. He has a really good feel for how to manage players.”
Akron certainly is not the only college to create a sports dynasty. While there are fewer of them in men’s soccer, advocates will argue for Sigi Schmid’s UCLA teams, Bruce Arena at Virginia, Jay Vidovich’s Wake Forest and Indiana’s Yeagley. All have created college soccer soccer programs that have dominated Division 1 soccer at various times.
Still, Porter is onto something. His “Akron Experiment” is proving that college soccer — with its dual-academic mission and thorny NCAA rules — is not completely incompatible with cultivating and molding professional soccer talent. It’s all about the clear, uncompromising vision that receives enormous support from the university.
“I’m not sure what he’s doing but he’s drawing good talent and developing great players,” said Tommy Soehn, director of soccer operations for the Vancouver Whitecaps. “The MLS is a very athletic league. You have to have the ability to play and knock the ball around. A lot of those players from Akron program have those qualities that can transition into the pro ranks.”
Now, the ultimate compliment and test for Porter is losing seven marquee players in one draft while ensuring next year’s team keeps its competitive edge.
“It’s going to be a rebuilding year,” Soehn said. “No one walks away from losing seven players and expects to win the next season. It’s back to recruiting.”
Zakuani, of course, sees the small, fraternal world of University of Akron soccer a bit differently. The Zips program seems to grow stronger every year despite losing key players every year.
“They lost me and they got better,” Zakuani said. “They lost Teal Bunbury, Blair Gavin and Ben Zemanski and they got even better. If they get better after losing seven guys, I don’t know what we can do.”