Title is true goal for 18-0 Akron
Akron coach Caleb Porter knows what it's like to play on a team that appears nearly unbeatable. He knows what it feels like to go an entire regular season undefeated, to be the No. 1 team in the country, to be the overwhelming favorite for the national championship. And he knows what it feels like to lose in the College Cup, falling short of those expectations.
It is perhaps because of this experience -- as a player on the 1997 Indiana squad that went 23-1, losing in the national semifinals -- that Porter is so reserved when it comes to talking about his team's success this season.
"No one remembers that team because we never won a national championship," Porter said. "We [Akron] need to keep sight of our vision. Our goal wasn't to go undefeated. It was to win a national championship. That's what we're most focused on."
The Zips have proven they are clearly the best team in the country in 2009. They finished the regular season 18-0 and have been the top-ranked team in the country since the first regular-season poll came out on Sept. 8. The Zips are also No. 1 in the RPI.
But that will mean little to the team if it does not continue to excel these next few weeks.
"Even though being 18-0 does feel nice, our big focus is to win the national championship," sophomore forward Teal Bunbury said. "We haven't really had time to sit and think, 'Wow, we're 18-0, and only a few teams in history have done that.' For us, it's just awesome to know we still have some games left to prove ourselves."
At this point, the only thing Akron can really do to prove its supremacy this year is to win a national championship. The Zips boast the No. 1 offense in the nation (averaging 2.78 goals per game) and have allowed the second-fewest goals per game this season (.33). They have been dominant at home. During a 20-day stretch last month, the team played six of seven games on the road. Akron not only won every game, but outscored opponents 19-2.
Any soccer coach or player will tell you the key to success is approaching each game individually, that every game -- at least from the outset -- is winnable. Of course, every coach or player will also tell you how rare it is to actually win every game over the course of a season. The Zips will admit running the table wasn't one of the actual goals they set forth for themselves this season.
"To think going into it that you're going to be 18-0 is kind of crazy, but we accomplished it, and that was just by going into every game with the mindset that we were going to win," junior midfielder Blair Gavin said.
And why shouldn't they? Porter disputes the often-repeated idea that a team doesn't fully know itself until it suffers a loss.
"If you can learn lessons while winning, then there's no reason to lose," Porter said. "We talked about [the idea] and addressed that. As long as we're growing, there's no reason that we need to lose."
However, he was a little relieved when his team finally had to deal with some real adversity. In their last regular game of the season -- a conference meeting against Hartwick -- Akron found itself staring down a 2-1 halftime deficit.
"Secretly, I was hoping it would happen somewhere, and I would prefer it would happen prior to the NCAA tournament," Porter said of his team playing from behind. "I think if you've never been behind a goal and you go into the NCAA tournament and suddenly you're behind for the first time, that fear of the season being over is sometimes too overwhelming to overcome."
His players responded just as he believed they would. Akron's Chris Korb tied it up with a goal in the 72nd minute, and with assists from Blair and Bunbury, Anthony Ampaipitakwong scored the game-winner with less than seven minutes left in the regular season.
"The last game we were in just proves [what's special about this team]," Ampaipitakwong said. "We were down against a really good team, and we looked at each other at halftime and said, 'Look we're doing this for each other. We've got 45 minutes.' And we did it."
Rising to the challenge has served to motivate the Zips this season. The top team always has a target on its back.
"A lot of teams are going to try to knock us down," Bunbury said. "I think that brings out our best game even more. We want prove to them that we are the No. 1 team in the country."
Now after a season of being atop the polls, the Zips will get that chance to prove they're the nation's top team once and for all as the college soccer season enters the postseason. Conference tournament play concludes this weekend; Akron faces Northern Illinois in the Mid-American semifinals Friday. The 64 NCAA tournament teams will be announced on Monday (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPNEWS).
"It's a new season," Porter said. "This is the part of the year that people remember most. I don't know if you can be the best unless you win it all."
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.