Los Angeles Soccer: Virginia
GOLETA -- Akron should have won the NCAA men's soccer title a year ago. The Zips made amends Sunday, dominating top-ranked Louisville in the College Cup final at UC Santa Barbara and holding on for a 1-0 triumph.
Louisville (20-1-3), massively outplayed, especially in the second half, was unfortunate not to win. The Cardinals were denied a clear penalty kick midway through the first half and nearly netted a late winner, halted only by two desperation saves.
Akron (22-1-2), which fell on penalties to Virginia in last year's final, dictated nearly every phase of play in the second half, using a weaving passing game to trigger waves of attacks and spend most of half in or in front of Louisville's box.
It led to eight corner kicks in the half, and Scott Caldwell finished off one of them in the 79th minute.
Bests, worsts and so forth:
BEST PLAYER: Darlington Nagbe's finishing touch was off, but he was at the heart of Akron's attack all day, opening space for teammates and teaming with playmaker Anthony Ampaipitakwong to connect the dots through Louisville's defense. He set up chances by Michael Nanchoff and Darren Mattocks and fired just wide of the post, but our favorite moment: Nagbe, surrounded at midfield, twirls out of trouble and streaks forward, feeding Kofi Sarkodie on the right flank. The sequence ended with a foul, and the Zips did nothing with the free kick.
Three more we liked: Austin Berry, the backbone of Louisville's backline; Ampaipitakwong, the faux-hawked maestro who makes the Zips zip; and Nanchoff, the left-footer next to “Ampai” whose crosses cause havoc.
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."
The Gauchos (14-4-3) dictated every phase of its first-round match Thursday night with visiting Denver, but they needed an overtime goal to advance. It came, finally, in the 105th minute, with Ghanian forward Waid Ibrahim -- a product of Los Olivos' Dunn School and Santa Barbara City College -- scoring his first goal of the season from a feed by Danny Barrera (Thousand Oaks/Westlake HS).
UC Santa Barbara outshot Denver, 31-4, unleashed 17 second-half shots and took 11 corner kicks to none for the Pioneers (9-7-4). Denver put just one shot on target.
UCSB, which will stage next month's final four, advances to Sunday's second-round clash at Pac-10 champion Cal (12-2-3), the national No. 6 seed.