Photo by Tony Quinn/ISIphotos.com
By JOHN BOSCHINI
In many ways, Akron is a victim of its own success.
There was hardly a more dominant team than the Zips last season, amassing a 22-1-2 record with a plus-48 goal differential on their way to Akron's first-ever national championship in any sport. Head coach Caleb Porter saw the possession-based, tactile brand of soccer take the overly-physical college ranks by storm.
"I've always thought we can operate like a pro team," Porter said. "We don't always sub because we can, and we let our players solve problems within the game and not with physical play. Most college teams focus on how to stop the opposing team and destroy the game rather than spending time on the ball. Our goal is to control the ball and dictate the game with rythm and tempo"
The success on the field combined with players tailor-made to jump directly into the professional ranks led to Akron's roster being gutted by Generation Adidas and graduations during the spring. Seven Akron players were drafted in the 2011 MLS Superdraft, including five of the top 10 picks, leaving Porter with 16 spots to fill in a little more than seven months.
"I've never gone through losing that many players," Porter said. "It's easy to chalk this up as a rebuilding year, but I'm not wired that way. I felt my staff and I did as good a job as we could looking through many different countries, because by that point all the top American prospects are gone."
As preseason kicks into high gear, Porter has seen some of the newcomers show leadership beyond their age or class rank. Freshman defender Bryan Gallego, who has experience as captain of the United States Under-18 team, could fill that role in central defense.
"Right when I started I felt comfortable," Gallego said. "I just want to help out the team and the upperclassman understand and are open to it."
Despite the strong incoming class, Akron will turn to some key returning veterans to fuel its quest for a second consecutive national championship. Goalkeeper David Meves, midfielder Scott Caldwell and striker Darren Mattocks are key returning starters from last season. None of the three are seniors and feel the pressure of continuing the kind of play Akron's fervent fan base, nicknamed the AK-ROWDIES, has come to expect.
"We want change a lot of the ideas people have about college soccer," said Caldwell, who is a co-captain this year and scored the game-winning goal in last year's title game against Louisville. "We want people to enjoy watching and let people know it's a fun game to watch. It's more fun to play our way than it is to play physically."
Even with Akron's talent, Porter is under no illusion that the Zips will begin the season with the type of dominance they had last season and realizes losing players to the pros is likely to continue.
"We know it's going to be a process," Porter admitted. "If we're going to run a top program we're going to lose players. We're not going to stifle our players from accomplishing their dreams. Akron soccer is all about a clear identity and it's hard when you have a bunch of starters that leave, but it's a lot easier when you have a structure in place. I'm loving the fact I have new pieces to plug in and teaching them the roles they are going to play in our system."
It's a season of more uncertainty than the fans of Akron are used to over the past few years, but if history has anything to say, it's not smart to bet against Akron.