GOLETA -- It's No. 1 against No. 2.
Top-ranked Louisville and second-ranked Akron offered scintillating displays in Friday's NCAA College Cup semifinals at UC Santa Barbara's Holder Stadium, but both needed a bit of fortune -- and a late goal -- to claim berths in Sunday afternoon's final.
Louisville (20-0-3) was most impressive against North Carolina, creating far more opportunities but waiting until the end to pull out a 2-1 decision. Akron (21-1-2) was far more dominant against upstart Michigan, spending huge swaths of time in and in front of the Wolverines' box, but it took a defensive miscue to pull out a 2-1 victory and gain a repeat trip to the title game.
Bests, worsts and so forth:
BEST PLAYER: Lot of candidates -- Louisville's Chris Rolfe and Ryan Smith, Michigan's Justin Meram, a whole host of guys from Akron: midfielders Michael Nanchoff, Anthony Ampaipitakwong and Perry Kitchen, forward Darlington Nagbe and defender Zarek Valentin, etc. -- but Kofi Sarkodie was sensational from start to finish.
He set the tone for nearly everything Akron did: His forays up the right flank and into Michigan's box (he spent more time there than anyone, perhaps, aside from Wolverines goalkeeper Chris Blais) drove the attack; his physical play -- not always clean, to be sure -- kept Michigan honest; and he capped the performance with the winning goal, a fine header from Nanchoff's cross in the 74th minute.
BEST GOAL: After scoring with 52 seconds to play to beat UCLA in the quarterfinals, could it get any better for Aaron Horton? Oh, yeah. Three minutes after coming on for All-American Rolfe, the Louisville freshman took a defense-splitting pass from Smith and chipped Scott Goodwin -- lifting the top-ranked Cardinals into the final … with just 51 seconds to go.
More aesthetically pleasing was Meram's blast to fire Michigan ahead just 62 seconds into the second semi. Meram took a touch from Soony Saad in the midfield circle and raced through a channel -- with no defender trying to shut him down -- to the top of the arc. Beautiful shot to the lower-left corner.
'OH MY GOD' MOMENT: So many from Akron, whose touch in the attacking third was often breathtaking. It led to a 22-9 shot advantage for the Zips (14-4 in the first half) and the possession numbers, if the NCAA kept such a thing, would be just staggering. At least 70-30 -- maybe more in the first half.
But the moment everyone dropped their jaw: Akron midfielder Kitchen, forging ahead (Michigan's defenders, like Akron's against Meram, declined to intervene), then ripping a 35-yard shot into the upper-right corner, pulling the Zips even in the 33rd minute. He scored one a lot like it in the quarterfinal triumph over Cal.
BEST SAVE: Oh, we're going with the right post on the north goal -- and Akron is going to agree. Saad, the country's best freshman, nearly fired Michigan ahead in the 64th with a brilliantly threaded ball through the thinnest of space. It split four defenders en route to the lower-right corner, where that post got in the way.
WORST DEFENDING: There was plenty, but Michigan's failure to mark on Sarkodie's goal was criminal. The Wolverines were in a combination zone-man defense, but the zone was pushed too far forward and the marking at the back post wasn't there. Sarkodie delivered a powerful header, but it shouldn't have been so easy.
BEST QUOTES: “It (means) we have to beat Akron. Really, Caleb (Porter)'s done a great job with the program, but it's his team, it's his program. When he took it over, it became his, and he'd done a tremendous job with it, and other than me having coached there at some point, it really doesn't (mean anything).”-- Louisville coach Ken Lolla, on what it means to face Akron -- a program he guided to six NCAA Tournament appearances before departing in 2006 to take charge of the Cardinals -- in the title game.
“He's a guy I respect a lot, and he's done great things at Louisville with their program, and he did great things at Akron. And the only reason I took the job was there was a strong foundation, a good culture there.” -- Porter, Akron's coach, on Lolla.
SOCCER CONVENTION: Seemed everywhere you turned at Harder Stadium, there was American soccer royalty.
Seattle Sounders boss Sigi Schmid and his sons watched from the east stands, but there was more to see across the field.
Portland Timbers coach John Spencer and his staff were just below the press box, standing with Real Salt Lake assistant Robin Fraser -- the former Galaxy star interviewed for the Chivas USA job -- as former L.A. assistant Ralph Perez (head coach at D3 Redlands) visited.
Just a few yards over sat Chivas USA director of soccer Stephen Hamilton, who will have a say in whether Fraser takes the Goats' reins next year. Assistant coaches Carlos Llamosa was one row above him. A few rows down, D.C. United president/CEO Kevin Payne sat with Richie Williams, a former D.C. midfielder who's an assistant coach for the Red Bulls.
Sounders technical director Chris Henderson, the former UCLA/U.S. national team/MLS star, wasn't far away, and United Soccer Leagues technical director (and former English pro) Peter Mellor was on an aisle.
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, who will deliver the keynote speech at Saturday night's banquet for UC Santa Barbara soccer donors, sat wirh his chief assistant (well … associate head coach), Dave Sarachan, and there's Claudio Reyna, the former U.S. (and New York Red Bulls star), who played for Arena at the University of Virginia and with the national team. Reyna is technical director for U.S. Soccer's youth programs.
Louisville 2 (Berry 58, Horton 90), North Carolina 1 (McCarthy)
Akron 2 (Kitchen 33, Sarkodie 74), Michigan 1 (Meram 2)
Louisville (20-0-3) vs. Akron (21-1-2), 1 p.m.