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Soccer

Caleb Porter and American college soccer's Rust Belt Renaissance

Twelve yards.

That's all that separates head coach Caleb Porter and his University of Akron team from a national title, from perhaps the greatest season in NCAA college soccer's 50-year history, from perfection. It's a miserably cold, gray Sunday afternoon in December. After 110 minutes of play, the scoreboard at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina, refuses to budge: 0-0. The final game of 2009 NCAA Division One season, pitting Akron, an upstart mid-major, against ACC juggernaut University of Virginia, heads for the cruelest of endings -- a penalty shootout.

Four rounds of the shootout later, it's now up to Blair Gavin -- co-captain, midfield linchpin, destined for the pros. He must convert his shot, and if he does, he'll all but clinch the win, as he did in the semifinal shootout win over North Carolina. As Gavin begins his approach announcer JP Dellacamera says, "Gavin won it the other night -- can he continue it here?"

Akron's traveling fan contingent stands in rare silence, and Gavin's teammates, arms interlocked, wait nervously at midfield for Gavin's strike. A few seconds later, Gavin collapses to the ground, his face buried in his arms, as the ball skies over the goal and leaves the camera's frame and does not stop.

*****

Statistics don't win championships. If they did, the 2009 NCAA Division One men's soccer title would easily belong to the University of Akron Zips and their 35-year-old coach Porter.

On paper, Akron's 2009 season was all but flawless. The team won 23 games and didn't lose one -- but thanks to an obscure NCAA rule, Akron's championship game against Virginia was considered a loss. (In soccer, shootout losses are almost always recorded as ties.) College soccer's highest winning percentage. Most goals scored and fewest conceded, including zero goals the entire postseason knockout tournament. Striker Teal Bunbury was awarded the MAC Hermann Trophy, college soccer's equivalent of the Heisman, while Porter was named 2009 National Soccer Coaches Association of America coach of the year.

National championship or not, Porter's 2009 Akron team won't soon be forgotten. "Quite honestly, the Akron team last year might be the best college team to play the game in a while," said Mike Freitag, former head coach at Indiana University and now coaching director for Colorado youth soccer. An impenetrable back line, creative midfielders capable of wizardry on the ball, and deadly strikers up top, last year's Zips not only won, but won by playing the most fluid, entertaining, sexy brand of soccer to grace the college campus in years.

That style of play -- borrowing from top European clubs like Barcelona and Chelsea -- is all too rare at the college level where too often creative soccer takes a back seat to a direct, blunt style of play that prizes big, physical athletes over nimble, clever, more natural soccer players.

Not so with Akron. In early July, I drove up to Ohio to hang out with Porter and try to understand how a lesser-known mid-major school came to embody the beautiful game -- and compete for national titles. Porter and I talked about his philosophy, college soccer's role in developing the future Landon Donovans and Clint Dempseys, and whether college soccer will even remain relevant as the American game comes to resemble the European and South American soccer systems.

We often returned to college soccer's direct style of play and how, in his eyes, that style hinders the growth of the American game. The U.S.'s success at the World Cup in South Africa this summer, and the record TV audiences for those games here at home, showed that soccer's popularity is on the rise; in turn, new fans craving more soccer will seek out the best game in town, usually the nearest college team. That in mind, it's crucial, Porter says, for college teams to play a brand of soccer that wins over these new enthusiasts. "You want to be proud of how you're winning," Porter said. "You want people who come to a game to leave the game thinking, 'That team not only wins, but I love the way they play.'"

Sexy soccer isn't just about winning over fans, though. It's also about ensuring college soccer still matters. Today, college players fill out the rosters of most Major League Soccer teams. But with the first batch of "homegrown" players -- youngsters groomed by MLS' youth development, or "academy," programs -- now emerging, college could soon begin losing its best talent to those academies. At D.C. United, for instance, academy graduates such as Andy Najar, a 17-year-old Honduran-born midfielder, are already starting for the club's first team.

Najar presages a future in which top American youngsters may skip the college route altogether. As MLS grows and expands its youth system, the best young American players will most likely emulate international stars by choosing professional clubs over campus life.

That future is years, if not decades away. But it's not lost on Porter. He believes that if college soccer wants to remain an integral to developing American players, colleges will have to adapt. They'll have to lure top players with as professional an environment as they can. The top college programs, Porter figures, might well evolve into de facto reserve teams for the pros, where the best players spend two or three years before making the leap to MLS or overseas.

Indeed, some young phenoms are already using colleges like Akron and the University of Maryland and Wake Forest University as steppingstones, not unlike top college basketball players. Right now, though, pro soccer isn't making too many young players rich, and thus the two- to three-year idea is more controversial. After three Akron players turned pro last winter before graduating, an angry e-mail landed in Porter's inbox from a professor critical of those three student-athletes leaving early.

While Porter stressed to me that he prioritizes academics over all else -- his team had a 3.3 overall grade point average last year, with several players named academic All-Americans -- he recognizes this evolution and its importance to molding players for the future. "Caleb's a very realistic guy," said Kevin Payne, president of DC United and a prominent figure in American soccer circles. "He's one of the college coaches, the American soccer coaches really, who looks at the big picture and understands what the realities are."

*****

On the six-hour drive from Washington, D.C., up to Akron, the night before I meet Porter, there's one question in particular I return to every few minutes: How did a former hard-nosed, pit bull of a midfielder, a guy whose teammates once branded him "the assassin," become the torchbearer for attractive soccer?

Porter grew up playing soccer in southwest Michigan and starred at Gull Lake High School. He was a local star, but flew under the radar of most big college programs. It wasn't until he attended a summer soccer camp at Indiana University that he caught the eye of that school's coaches. "He was sort of an unknown who was brought to our attention by one of our former players," said Jerry Yeagley, the head coach at Indiana for 31 years and the winningest coach in NCAA Division One history. "He was a diamond in the rough, really raw. But he had that winning fiber."

Yeagley and his assistants quickly began molding Porter, who arrived at Indiana in the fall of 1993, into the team's linchpin defensive midfielder. His orders were to hound the other team, defend, play simple, win every loose ball, and when he won it, get it to the feet of Indiana's creative players. Only the second three-time captain in Indiana soccer history, Porter was so intense that when he worked Indiana's summer camps as player, he was known to tear off his shirt to intimidate the campers, earning the nickname "Jean Claude van Damme."

Not that that intensity was always a good thing. On two of his biggest debut games -- with MLS' San Jose Clash in '99 and as Akron head coach in '06 -- Porter was shown a red card and ejected. For nearly a decade, he held the MLS record for ejections per minutes played (one in 72 minutes). "That was one of my biggest fears with Caleb: We gotta keep him on the field," Yeagley said. "Not in any way was he a dirty player; he was a hard player."

Few people aspire to be a hard player. Porter didn't. He wanted to be the savvy playmaker, and he most admired creative players like Italian Roberto Baggio and Ruud Gullit of the Netherlands. In building his Akron team, Porter says he sought out Baggios and Gullits, the players he enjoys watching, the ones that give him goose bumps. "I didn't want to have a team of players like me, that's for sure," he said with a grin.

A little over a year into his professional player career, chronic knee injuries forced Porter into early retirement aged 25. He returned to Bloomington as an assistant coach and recruiter, and over six years helped Indiana win two national championships and five Big Ten titles before leaving for Akron in 2006. That decade or so spent at Indiana, as a player and coach, largely forged Porter's coaching style and approach to the game, especially spending so much time alongside Yeagley.

Yeagley had a sixth sense for player management, an intuition for finding the right balance of who Yeagley called "piano carriers" and "piano players." Too many of the former and your team lacked imagination and creativity; too many of the latter and you risked being weak, easily run over. "He had an unbelievable feel for when to push and pull back, when to give a pat on the back and when to give a kick in the ass," Porter said of Yeagley.

*****

The day I first met Porter, I caught him during a rare summer break between Akron summer camps and trips abroad in his capacity as assistant coach for the U.S. U-18 youth national team. He's tanned from directing campers, has short-cropped brown hair, and looks fit enough to play a competitive match.

When I ask about Yeagley's influence, he talks a lot about how he's tried to replicate the Indiana soccer culture, like upgrading Akron's facilities and using a company called Match Analysis to scrutinize and code every pass, shot, goal, and error in Akron's games.

Porter has also converted a quiet, Midwest college into a hotbed for soccer fanatics. At every home game and most away games you'll find the AK Rowdies, Akron's rabid fan base known for harassing opposing players. The Rowdies' antics are campus legend: They've created phony Facebook pages with which to stalk opposing teams' players before games against Akron. There's a classic YouTube clip of the Rowdies, sporting capes and hard hats and bull horns, greeting the visiting University of Tulsa last fall with a welcome sign covered in flames and full-throated chants of "It's a looong way / Back to Tulsa" and "Tax e-va-sion! Tax e-va-sion!"

The Rowdies love Porter's team because the team beats the big state schools, generates buzz, shows up on ESPN2, and could very well win a national title -- something no Akron soccer team has ever done. "How often do the children on campus, the thousands that come to our games, get to see Akron beat [hated in-state rival] Ohio State?" Porter said. "We're giving them that chance."

Porter's accomplished all this at a mid-major in one of the worst conferences in the nation, the Mid-American Conference. Which makes luring the kind of talent Porter has succeeded in bringing to Akron all the more impressive. "For him to get the children he got is a tremendous credit to him as an outstanding recruiter," Yeagley says.

*****

The place where Akron least resembles Indiana is where it matters most: on the soccer field. While Indiana for decades played a more direct 3-5-2 formation. Porter's team plays a more fluid, attacking style, a hybrid 4-4-2 formation tailored to fit the soccer firepower on Akron's roster. That formation lets speedy right back Kofi Sarkodie burst up the right wing to join the attack and whip dangerous crosses in front of the other team's goal. Midfielders Anthony Ampaipitakwong and Michael Nanchoff buzz around the midfield, turned loose by Porter to create, improvise and act as playmakers.

However, like Yeagley's Indiana squads, Akron is also rock-solid defensively: Last year, they conceded just seven goals in 25 games, the lowest in Division One. What Porter's done is adopt the best of the Indiana style while modernizing the rest, making it better. "Caleb's teams defend well, but what made them so good the last several years is their offensive ability," said Freitag. "He's almost gone away from what his instincts are and made it better."

Akron's players possess the ball, use every inch of width and length on the field to string together sequences of short and long passes. At its best, Akron's play looks almost choreographed: Smooth and dynamic, punctuated with an explosive bursts, all of it the result of hundreds of hours of fine-tuning and repetition on the practice field.

The decision to play free-flowing, attacking soccer has won Porter his fair share of admirers. "It's a lot easier to destroy than create," said Jay Vidovich, the head coach at Wake Forest. "Caleb's willingness to be an attacking team, that's a brave thing."

Especially when Akron's opponents, like many of those in the Mid-American Conference, prefer raw, dump-and-run soccer. Porter admits he frames games like those into challenges for his players to defend their style. "I sometimes tell the guys it's like a battle between good and evil," Porter said. "I ask them, 'You don't want evil to win, do you?'"

*****

As Porter and I grab a late afternoon lunch in Akron's new student union, I ask him about the upcoming season, about how he'll replace midfielders Gavin and Ben Zemanski and the nation's leading scorer in Bunbury? Will Akron's style have to adapt to new players filling those holes? "Those were key guys to our attack and defense," Ampaipitakwong said. "The main thing is finding the guys to step into their shoes."

Gavin's successor in the heart of midfield will likely be Indianapolis-native Perry Kitchen, 18, who already boasts an impressive resume: member of the highly selective U-17 youth national team residency program, captain of that U-17 team, NSCAA youth All-American, the number two-ranked recruit in 2009, according to Top Drawer Soccer. Kitchen joined Akron this spring, and Porter says his transition into the team has been practically seamless. "I've had him for three months, and he just gets it right away," Porter tells me. "All he wants to do is all right things -- sit in, play simple, one- and two-touch, win every ball in the air, be a pit bull."

Bunbury's replacement in Akron's attack isn't as clear. Porter mentions two new Jamaican strikers he's brought in, as well as a midfielder on the U-18 Costa Rican national team and another U.S. youth national team player. Of course, this isn't the first time Akron has dealt with a star striker's departure. In 2008, the team lost Steve Zakuani, a 2008 Hermann award finalist and top draft pick in MLS' 2009 Superdraft. The 6-foot-2, 157-pound Bunbury, who had previously come off the bench, was tapped to fill Zakuani's vacancy.

As for Porter's own future, it's likely to remain a source of speculation over the next few years. In December 2009, prompted by offers to coach other college teams and even MLS' D.C. United, he inked a new five-year contract with the Zips, potentially keeping him there until 2014.

Porter is fiercely loyal to his players, a quality cited by the half-dozen current and former players I interviewed; he can't speak highly enough of Akron's supportive administrators and fans; and he desperately wants to end Akron's national title drought, especially after last year. That said, Porter, is the type who wants to play against -- and beat -- the very best competition. "Honestly, down the road I'd be lying if I didn't tell you I'd love to coach at the highest level possible," he said. "But right now, I'm planning to stay."

Friends and former colleagues offer mixed predictions. "As much as he's done at Akron, it'll be difficult to continue to have the success he's had," said Freitag. "That's nothing against him; I just think some schools are more attractive than others." Adds Yeagley: "When top positions come open at other programs, he's going to be at the top of the list. But who knows? He'll maybe do like I did and stay one place his whole career."

One incident might provide a clue about Porter's future. At the end of my stay in Akron, Porter took me out to see the school's new stadium, then under construction. Situated at the heart of campus, the stadium's new grass surface has just been laid when we arrive. One of the groundskeepers, a genial, ruddy-looking man in work boots, walks up and shakes Caleb's hand.

"You know, the only thing I'm worried about is people sneaking out here at night, playing on the field," he says. "They could tear it up, really set us back."

"That could happen? You think?" Porter looks flummoxed. He surveys the field, looks for intruders. He says to the groundskeeper, "I'll sleep out here and guard the field if I have to."

I wait for a grin, a wink, some acknowledgment by Porter that surely he must be kidding.

None comes.

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