Akron are loaded with talent, and it showed in their overwhelming victory over No. 10-seeded Michigan.
A Zips team boasting a bevy of MLS prospects and youth internationals dominated much of the match, rendering the Wolverines triumvirate of Soony Saad, Hamoody Saad and Justin Meram mostly ineffective through their possession-based attack.
In the end, Caleb Porter's group proved that no matter the opponent, they know how to get things done.
“In order to win the national championship and in order to make it as far as we have, you have to truly believe you’re going to be there,” said Porter. “We’re not surprised. … We expected to be in the national championship.”
The Zips fell into a one-goal hole early on thanks to a second-minute strike from Meram. But the No. 3-ranked squad quickly regained their composure and began implementing their trademark style to take control of the match.
Akron eventually broke through thanks to a 40-yard wonder-goal from Perry Kitchen late in the first half, and the late header in the second by Kofi Sarkodie sealed the Zips’ return to the title match.
But even with all of the tournament matches won and the MLS professionals that Akron have produced, the NCAA championship still eludes the team replete with MLS prospects.
Last year, despite being heavy favorites, the Zips fell to Virginia in a penalty kick shootout. Now in their second straight final, Akron contend that that defeat is firmly in the past, and they’ll get their shot at redemption when they battle top-ranked Louisville for the crown.
For a program that has been one of the most successful, a win on Sunday would give Akron their first-ever championship. But to emerge victorious, the Zips will need to defeat former coach Ken Lolla, the most successful coach in Akron history.
Lolla directed the Zips to the nation's No. 1 spot for the first time in Akron's history in 2005, catapulting the program to national prominence. Lolla departed from Akron after the end of that season and has since built the currently undefeated Cardinals into a College Cup finalist.
For Porter, however, the past means little.
“[Lolla is] a guy I respect a lot and he’s done great things with Louisville, and he did a great job at Akron,” said Porter. “I look forward to playing the game, but I don’t think differently about any coach or any player. Nothing plays into it any differently. [I] just prepare my team and hopefully get a good result.
Come Sunday, when the Zips take the field against the Cardinals, any potential distractions for the Akron players will disappear. Youth national team call-ups, scouts for professional teams in attendance, facing the program’s former coaching legend, or last year’s final loss won't be factors and only one goal will remain: Win the title.
“Last year, our goal was to make it back here to the finals. That’s all we [were] focused on,” said Sarkodie. “All the guys that are in the stands, the agents, the possibilities – we can talk about that after Sunday. Right now, there’s only one thing on my mind, and that’s a national championship.”