Caleb Porter has posted the highest winning percentage in college soccer since taking over at Akron in the 2006 season. (Photo courtesy of the University of Akron)
This is the second of SB Nation Soccer's three-part series examining Akron men's soccer. In Part 2, Jeremiah Oshan examines Akron's playing style and how the program rose to prominence. In Part 1, he looked at the program's proclivity for producing professional soccer players while maintaining impressive academic standards.
Size and speed are often valued over skills and smarts in college soccer. Substitutions are virtually unlimited, opening the door for various kinds of specialists that don't fit the classic mold of a soccer player. Winning is often valued over development.
Caleb Porter, the head coach at the University of Akron, is doing his part to change that image. In his fifth year at Akron, the 35-year-old won the national championship in a style that has rarely been seen at the college level. He eschews excessive substitutions (the only time he used more than three during the NCAA Tournament was in a game Akron won 4-0); preaches quick passing and long possessions; and takes great pride in having a team of players who look like they spend as much time hitting the books (which they tend to do), as the weights.
"A lot of people think you have to play differently because it’s college soccer," said Porter, who holds the highest winning percentage in college soccer (108-14-14; .846) since taking over in 2006. "I don’t buy into that.
"(Playing attractive soccer) is something you gotta breed into them everyday. It’s a lot harder to teach guys to play that way, to create. It’s easy to destroy. But if you take time and get the right players and encourage them to do it the right way, there’s no reason you can’t model your game after Barcelona. Obviously we're not as good, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play a similar way. Maybe we’re the Barcelona of college, I don’t know."
Using the Catalan power as the template, Porter takes great pride in his team's ability to hold the ball through quick, short and precise passing. One YouTube video highlights this kind of play perfectly. Called "Akron Tiki Taka: Death By A Thousand Passes," it features sequence after sequence of Akron stringing together long series of passes, and several closer to 20. The nearly nine-minute video doesn't even feature its first goal until the 7:19 mark, and that only comes after a nine-pass sequence that takes about 25 seconds to develop.
The visually pleasing style has helped make Akron one of the top scoring teams in the nation, as well as one of the hardest to score upon. In 2010, they were the only team to rank in the top 5 in both goals scored (2.56, third) and goals allowed (.62, fifth) per game. Only Maryland had a better average goal-difference than Akron's 1.94.
"I’m not going to adapt," Porter said. "It's just not the right thing to do. I want to feel good about how we win. I want our players to feel like they’re developing. I’m OK losing, as long as they’re developing. But we have shown that you can win and not destroy beauty."
While Porter may be OK with losing from a principals standpoint, he does recognize that he will be judged on his record. He knows that simply playing an attractive style and winning "the right way" might even be good enough for his bosses. But if he's going to really influence the way college soccer is played, he knows there needs to be some trophies in his lobby, not just videos of fancy passing.
In many ways, the victory over Louisville in the College Cup final was a vindication of Porter's methods. It was Akron's first national championship in any sport and rendered the loss in 2009's championship game a mere note in the history books. Akron ended the season having lost just once in regulation over its past 50 matches and just three times since the start of the 2008 season, despite playing the toughest out-of-conference schedule by RPI in 2010 and the toughest overall schedule in 2009. During Porter's tenure, the Zips have lost just nine times in regulation, while winning both the Mid-American Conference's regular season and tournament in four of his five seasons (they won the regular season, but lost in the MAC championship game in 2006).
The championship was a vindication in another way, too. Since 1980, just two men's soccer champions played outside the so-called BCS conferences (the ACC, Big Ten, Pacific 10 and Big East) and both of those outliers were in California, where soccer can be played year-round. That a Midwest school from the MAC now sits atop the college soccer world is no small feat.
"When I was there, we didn’t have that same respect," said Steve Zakuani, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft after spending two years at Akron. "My sophomore year we lost in the tournament because our game was moved after they said our facility wasn’t good enough. They would never move Wake (Forest) or Duke, so there’s no respect. It was that kind of stuff that drove us. Now, that would never happen.
"After they won, (Porter) called me up and told me 'This is as much yours as the guys that won it because you helped us get here.' "
As sudden as the rise of Akron may seem, it was actually quite incremental. The Zips missed the NCAA Tournament in Porter's inaugural season; they were eliminated in the first round in Year 2; lost their second game in Year 3; lost in the finals in 2009-10; and finally won this year.
For all the talk of attractive soccer, the Zips showed they weren't above scoring an opportunistic goal here and there during their summit. The equalizer against Michigan in the semis was a 30-yard blast off the foot of Perry Kitchen and the winner was scored by Kofi Sarkodie when he lost his mark on a free kick. While neither was exactly ugly, they were also the kind of goals for which college soccer is more known: great individual efforts and set-pieces.
In the championship game, Scott Caldwell's winner was more of the same. Caldwell received the ball off a corner kick, had his first shot deflect off a defender and then buried the rebound. Again, not exactly ugly, but hardly the product of the famed Tiki Taka, either.
In a sense, that's a perfectly fitting way for a team led by Porter to win. While Porter may preach the beautiful game as a coach, he was known more for his hard-nosed style as a player. A defensive midfielder at the University of Indiana - where he later coached - he was good enough to get drafted by the San Jose Clash, but only played 72 minutes over four matches. In that limited time, he earned two yellow cards and an ejection. A knee injury ultimately forced him to quit playing at 25.
"He wasn’t a natural player, like (Darlington) Nagbe, but he was a very tough player, like Ozzie (Alonso)," Zakuani said. "He’s just one of those guys. He’d play through the players.
"He’d tell us we could play against Wake, against St. John’s, against Virginia. You have nothing to fear. It took about three years to really get into players' heads, but now they really believe they can beat anyone. Whether they’re playing soccer tennis or other games against him, the guy is just insane. The guy is insane. He’s so competitive. Great guy, great coach. As much as the players can take credit for what’s gone on there, it comes from that one man."
Whether it's the way Akron is winning or just that they are winning so much, the program has undoubtedly become the new model. Replicating that model won't be easy, but it's definitely being noticed, and even having an influence on MLS.
"There’s a lot of things we try to implement like that in our academy," said Chris Henderson, the Seattle Sounders technical director. "You don’t want to focus just on winning, but at same time we're trying to develop. We want that off-the-field professionalism. We want to have kids grow up to be good people, fight for each other and care for people. That’s the ideal environment."
Jeremiah Oshan is the North American soccer editor for SB Nation. In Part 3 (Feb. 8), he'll look at the community that Akron soccer has helped forge.