Men's soccer title to return to Midwest

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Here on the relatively balmy Pacific Coast, the championship of NCAA men's soccer will be decided between two teams that played through the snow and cold of winter back home to make it to the College Cup.

Top-seeded Louisville and No. 3 seed Akron have been among the nation's best teams all season, so it just makes sense that they meet in Sunday's final (ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET) at Harder Stadium on UCSB's campus.

Louisville's Ken Lolla doesn't think it's particularly odd that he will be going for his first NCAA title as a coach against the program that he previously led for 13 years.

"It's not a big surprise; Akron's done very well," Lolla said. "With the season they had last year, they were expected to be very good. So I think that probably the best two teams in the country are left. I don't know if it's ironic or just appropriate."

Lolla had a successful run with Akron that ended in 2005, when he was lured by a Louisville program hoping to seriously challenge for an NCAA title. And that's what he's been able to do there. The Cardinals are undefeated with three ties, defeating North Carolina 2-1 in the semifinals here on a last-minute goal by Aaron Horton on Friday.

Horton played on the same club team, the Ohio FC Mutiny, as Akron's Kofi Sarkodie, who scored the winning goal for the Zips in their 2-1 semifinal triumph over Michigan. Also playing for that club were Akron's Chad Barson and Eric Stevenson.

The club was coached by Aaron's uncle, Tim, who played collegiately at Boston University, and father, Harold. Certainly, the Horton brothers will be looking on with pride today from the stands as they have their family tie to Louisville but emotional ties to Akron as well.

"You can imagine how excited we are that these guys are getting to play at this level," Tim Horton said. "For them to make it to the finals here is incredible. What I hope is that both teams play well."

Both have done that all season. The only loss for Akron (21-1-2) came Oct. 30 at Cleveland State, which coach Caleb Porter thought was a necessary wake-up call for his team. Porter is a very intense sort of guy who may -- or may not -- finally crack a smile if his squad wins the NCAA title.

It would be the Zips' first in any sport. And after coming so close last season – a loss in the NCAA final to Virginia on penalty kicks – Akron has been laser-focused on getting another chance.

"Our approach won't change; we'll do exactly what we've done all season long," Porter said. "It's the final step, but this step is no different than the previous steps. Mostly what we need to do well is perform. We're confident, but we're also business-like. I know the players are excited."

Porter said all that in a coach-speak monotone that would suggest the categorical opposite of excited. But that's his nature.

The players on both sides really do seem excited, but not overwhelmed. Both squads have been targeting this, and while not necessarily ever looking ahead, still figured that it would come down to these two teams.

"The school puts a lot of emphasis on our soccer team, which we really appreciate," said Akron's Zarek Valentin, whose older brother, Julian, won the 2007 College Cup with Wake Forest. "It would mean the world to some people to see us win. The fact that our fans have the commitment to come with us wherever we go, and be loud and take pride in it, means a lot to us."

Louisville has had NCAA success in other sports, including two national championships in men's basketball and a 2009 NCAA title-game appearance in women's hoops. But the men's soccer program is still making an impact on campus. And the fact that these two schools are in the same region of the nation, with a lot of local players on the rosters, is impacting youth soccer there.

Ten-time NCAA champion Saint Louis was the standard-bearer for men's college soccer in the Midwest when it won its titles between 1959-73. Since 1982, the top Midwestern men's soccer team was Porter's alma mater Indiana, which has won seven titles, most recently in 2004.

In the past five years, ACC schools Maryland (twice), Wake Forest and Virginia, and this year's College Cup host UCSB, have won the event. But this year, the title will go back to the middle of the country. Ohio and Kentucky are in sort of an expanded definition of the "Midwest," but Lolla thinks it fits with soccer.

"I believe there is a balance between being a team that can physically and mentally stand up to the challenges of the game, and also be able to technically play," Lolla said. "You find that in the Midwest quite a bit. I think that (toughness) tends to be a little bit of the character of the people there.

"It doesn't mean you can't find it elsewhere, too, but it's indicative of the Midwest."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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