NCAA: University of Akron's wild 2017 campaign

The beautiful game at the division I collegiate level is often associated with the University of Akron men's program. The iconic soccer school continuously produces quality players that not only consistently keep the Zips as national title contenders, but also go on to play at the next level after college. It's almost an expectation when stepping on the field as an Akron men's soccer player. A matter of fact, 32 Zips have gone on to play professionally either in Major League Soccer, USL or overseas since 2006, including No. 1 overall pick Steve Zakuani in 2009, and No. 2 overall picks Darlington Nagbe in 2011 and Darren Mattocks in 2012 - just to name a few. Nagbe was part of a draft class that set MLS draft day records for most players drafted from a single school in the first round (5) and overall (8).

This past season however, Akron dropped their first two games to start the 2017 campaign forcing them to reevaluate what it means to represent the Zips tradition on the pitch. The coaching staff have continuously tested their players by playing quality opponents through out the season. The opponents in the two opening losses were no slouches either. Both matches were road contests that ended in 1-0 defeats to Utah Valley (ranked #16 at the time), and then on the road to the University of Denver (ranked #3). Furthermore, the last exhibition game before the two road slates also ended in a 1-0 defeat as well against Loyola Maryland at Akron's historic First Energy Stadium-Cub Cadet Field. The late goal came in the 90th minute. A string of 1-0 defeats could break the will of any team. Especially a program with lofty expectations every season. Perseverance and the will to succeed, despite set backs, defined the men's program at Akron from this point on.

The battle back to greatness began on September 1 with a chance to knock off the University of Washington, Pac12 powerhouse and nationally ranked at #10. The result was a resounding 2-0 triumph for the the Zips. The first win of the season being one of such quality would prove to be a fire starter as the team would make a long trip to the west coast to meet with fellow national soccer power, UC Santa Barbara a week later on September 9th. Previously ranked #16, Akron dropped to #20 in the national poll going into the contest, despite the win the week before. However, the Zips would come away with a 3-1 road victory in front of 1,759 fans at an electric Harder Stadium. The program was looking more like it's predicted self. Now 2-2 and gaining momentum, the Zips went on an admirable run over the next 5 games. Winning four and drawing one, with 5-0 and 4-1 wins over #21 Umass Lowell and #1 ranked Michigan State. The Zips moved up to #8 in the nation and look poised for a huge conference game a month later in Kalamazoo, Michigan where the #12 ranked University of Western Michigan stood ready to rumble in a conference clash. The result did not go in Akron's favor falling 1-0. "We were poor on the day this afternoon," Akron head coach Jared Embick was quoted saying. The Broncos had a slight edge in shots, but a huge advantage in the conference standings. The question of who this Akron team really is was still to be determined. But the nation soon found out. 

From that fateful loss on October 7th, the Zips would not lose another game until the NCAA DI national semifinals where they fell 2-0 to the three time defending national champions, Stanford. The streak saw the Zips exact revenge on the University of Western Michigan when the two played again in the MAC conference championship game. Akron defeated the 4th ranked and conference #1 seed UWM 3-1 to claim its sixth straight conference tournament title and eleventh straight selection to the NCAA national tournament. 

For NCAA soccer fans, the season was interesting to say the least. High expectations clashed with poor early results but the campaign was reignited by a familiar conference foe. The Zips maintained a commitment to their season and were rewarded with a phenomenal run that saw them finish one game away from playing for the national title. THey finished the season with a final record of 18-4-2. 

With the 2018 MLS SuperDraft approaching, several Akron players have a chance to follow in the footsteps as their successful predecessors. Five players been invited to the MLS Adidas Player Combine. Seniors Pau Belana (Barcelona, Catalonia), Manuel Cordeiro (Porto, Portugal), Niko De Vera (Camas, Wash.), Sam Gainford (Liverpool, England) and Nate Shultz (Mayfield, Ohio) are among the initial list of 60 NCAA Division I college players invited to participate at the 2018 MLS adidas Player Combine in Orlando, FL. The league's annual combine will be held in Orlando, Jan. 11-17, at Orlando City Stadium, with representatives from all 23 MLS clubs scouting the top college prospects ahead of the Jan. 19 MLS SuperDraft in Philadelphia, PA. A committee of MLS coaches and NCAA D1 coaches from every conference selected the invitees, all of whom completed their college eligibility this season. 

Author: Justin Perna