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.
BEST GOAL: There was only one. Perhaps it wasn't a beauty, but, eh, it was all right. Great work, actually, by Caldwell, who had scored four goals in his previous five games.
Ampaipitakwong's corner kick was knocked to top of the box, toward Caldwell, whose first shot was knocked down by defender Chase Rodgers. Caldwell rushed forward for the rebound and fired it over the scrum of defenders and high into the net.
BEST SAVES: Louisville did everything conceivable in search of an equalizer in the final two minutes and was unfortunate not to find the net. Blame (or credit) Akron goalkeeper David Meves and defender Chad Barson.
Meves, who came up big to slap away shots by Berry and Josh Lipka in the 72nd and 73rd minutes, made a huge foot save on Buck Tufty in the 89th minute -- Caldwell got in the way of Ryan Smith's rebound, sending the ball wide, but the Zips couldn't clear it from danger, and Louisville was back in the goalmouth seconds later.
That's when Barson saved the victory. Cardinals forward Aaron Horton, whose last-minute goals finished off UCLA in the quarterfinals and North Carolina in Friday's semifinal, took a feed in front of the net. Meves was out of position, but Barson cleared his shot off the line.
WORST DECISION: Referee Chico Grajeda blew it in the 24th minute when he failed to blow his whistle. Louisville, which had the better chances in the first half, should have been a goal up after Akron defender Chris Korb handled the ball in front of his net after Meves knocked down Dylan Mares' shot.
Korb, racing behind the play, ran onto the bouncing ball, which hit his extended right hand. Grajeda was in perfect position, and his failure to point to the spot was disgraceful.
Grajeda, otherwise, was quite good, allowing the teams to play, handling the conflicts with patience and class, but had he awarded the penalty -- and had Louisville converted -- there's no telling how the game would have proceeded.
BEST QUOTE, PART I: “It's been a long journey. It started [last December] after we lost -- bitter loss, painful loss -- top Virginia [on penalties to in the 2009 final], where we were the best team in the country and it ended on one kick. … This team's a rare combination of talent and winning qualities. And when you put the two together, it's a very powerful thing. I've never seen a group with as much talent that also buys into a team and is as cohesive as this team was. For me, that's why we won the national championship. Those two things.” -- Akron coach Caleb Porter, on Akron's triumph.
BEST QUOTE, PART II: “It means more than anyone could ever imagine. … I think it gives a positive vibe. A lot of times when people think about Akron now, you hear LeBron James' name and that whole fiasco, but now it gives people a positive look. It says, 'Oh that's where they have a pretty good soccer team.' I think it gives people a good feeling, especially in our community. It provides a good spirit around our campus, gets people smiling. … I think it does great wonders for the community.”
-- Akron defender Zarek Valentin, on what the Zips' title means to the university and to Northeast Ohio.
BEST QUOTE, PART III: “Our style is to dictate the game with our rhythm, our possession, and we've not played a team all season long that's been able to stop us from doing that.”
-- Porter, on the key to Akron's success.
BEST QUOTE, PART IV: “I'm proud of the win. This is obviously very meaningful, and this is a great team, but I think I'm equally proud of the way the guys played the game. That's something we talk about in our program. We talk about the big picture, and we talk about winning -- but winning the right way. We talk about growing the sport. We've talked to our guys about raising the bar for college soccer.
“In 2007, I was inspired by Jay Vidovich and [his NCAA championship team at] Wake Forest and the way they played the game. And maybe, hopefully, people will be inspired by the way we played the game, and our blueprint will spread, our species will spread, and more college teams will adopt the same approach. Because I think, ultimately, that's whats best for the game. It develops players. I saw Wake win that way, and I thought to myself: If I win it, I want to win that way.”
-- Porter, on the importance of Akron's triumph.
LOTS OF RINGS: Porter, a star midfielder at the University of Indiana (1994-97) who spent parts of three seasons in Major League Soccer, was part of three title-winning teams with the Hoosiers.
He was an undergraduate assistant coach when they won the 1998 title and a full assistant when they captured the 2003 crown, in his mentor Jerry Yeagley's final season, and in 2004, when they beat UC Santa Barbara on penalties in the title game at Home Depot Center.
Indiana twice reached the College Cup final four during Porter's playing career, losing in the semifinals to UCLA -- which went on to win the title -- in 1997, his senior season.
BROTHERLY LOVE: Valentin didn't need to look far for inspiration. His brother, former Galaxy defender Julian Valentin, was the emotional leader of that NCAA title-winning side at Wake Forest.
“Earlier in the year,” Zarek Valentin said, “he sent me a picture of his national-championship ring and said, 'It's your turn now.' ”
Louisville 0, Akron 1 (Caldwell 79)
G Andre Boudreaux (Louisville)
D Austin Berry (Louisville)
D Kofi Sarkodie (Akron)
D Zarek Valentin (Akron)
M Anthony Ampaipitakwong (Akron)
M Scott Caldwell (Akron)
M Charlie Campbell (Louisville)
M Michael Nanchoff (Akron)
F Justin Meram (Michigan)
F Darlington Nagbe (Akron)
F Colin Rolfe (Louisville)
Offensive MVP: Caldwell
Defensive MVP: Sarkodie