College soccer's top team? It's Akron, regardless of what the rankings say. (And the rankings say the mighty Zips are No. 2, so close enough.) And college soccer's best team is seeking a return to the the NCAA Division I College Cup final -- and its first championship -- at this weekend's final four at UC Santa Barbara.
Chivas USA midfielders Blair Gavin and Ben Zemanski are the resident experts on the Zips (20-1-2), and they're doing all they can to be in Goleta for Friday night's semifinal against Michigan (17-4-3) -- or at least, they hope, a title-game clash Sunday against No. 1 Louisville (19-0-3) or North Carolina (16-3-4).
Gavin (who arrived in Akron from Phoenix via the U.S. U-17 residency in Bradenton, Fla.) and Zemanski (a hometown boy) wrapped up their college careers in last year's title game, in which Akron -- No. 1 and unbeaten -- was toppled by Virginia on penalty kicks after a 0-0 draw.
The Zips have soccer pedigree. They went to the 1986 final and have been in the NCAA Tournament 10 of the past 13 seasons. But they've been something else since Caleb Porter (an Indiana University product who played in four MLS games in three seasons with San Jose and Tampa Bay in the late '90s) took charge in 2006, going 88-12-11 the past five seasons -- and they're 43-1-2 the past two years and 60-3-8 the past three.
Our view: It's a combination of talent -- MLSers Steve Zakuani (Seattle) and Sinisa Ubiparipovic (New York) are Akron products, too, and watch for Anthony Ampaipitakwong, junior Kofi Sarkodie and freshman Darren Mattocks soon -- and Porter's superb guidance that has made Akron into a powerhouse. But we went to Chivas' rookie stars for the real scoop.
1. WHAT MAKES AKRON SOCCER SO SPECIAL?
ZEMANSKI: "I think Caleb has everyone believing that they are the best team in the country and that at the end of the day, they'll find a way to win and achieve their goals. ... It means a lot to the community. The whole community is behind Akron soccer, doing everything they can to support Caleb and bring Akron it's first team national championship. We're not a BCS school. We're a small school that's not recognized a lot for their sports, but Akron has earned the tight to be recognized as a powerhouse in soccer. We're not just a small school when it comes to soccer."
GAVIN: "There'a s lot of belief, a lot of heart. Every time you go out, you believe you're going to win. And it's a kind of a family (Porter has) built there -- you're going to go out every game and fight for the player next to you, fight for the coach and fight for the school, because you have a tremendous amount of pride in Akron. ... At the end of the day, our goal is to get to the national-championship (game) and win. Anything less is not up to our standards. It's what Caleb does best: He goes for the national championship. He says there's one team to win it, why not Akron?"
2. WHAT'S DID YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A ZIP?
ZEMANSKI: "Every time I took the field at home, it was a great honor. I felt very prideful to step on the field at home. And, obviously, the final four last year -- it definitely was disappointing not to get the trophy, but I look back and it was one of the greatest seasons a college soccer team has ever had. Just a little bittersweet not to have the trophy at the end. I hope these guys bring it home this year."
GAVIN: "Definitely playing. Basically, building the program. You come in as a freshman, just learning how to take the traditions -- the singing and doing the chants. Last year, we brought the whole city together and made it a program not only within the school, but within the whole state of Ohio. ... The students take a lot of pride in our team. The big schools like Ohio State have football and stuff like that. We give our community something they can support and be there with us and take the journey with us."
3. WILL YOU BE IN SANTA BARBARA?
GAVIN: "I've been rehabbing (a hamstring injury that sidelined me the last three months of the season) in Arizona, watching all the games, gametracking as much as I can. I'm as proud of those guys as I would be if I were on the team. This is huge for Akron alumni and all the people who have put time and effort into building the program into what it is. ... I'm probably not going to make the Friday game. I'll be sitting by the TV as anxious as can be. Hopefully, if things go the way I hope, I'll fly to L.A. and be driving up for Sunday's game."
ZEMANSKI: "I'm back in Ohio for the holidays, but I'm trying to fly back (to L.A.). I really want to be there. ... They just have to do what they've been doing all year. They've been finding ways to win. Continue doing what they're doing. Don't change anything."