Zips eye a national title run

September 15, 2008
Burns OrtizBy Maria Burns Ortiz
(Archive)

The list is prominent in the locker room of the University of Akron men's soccer team.

Other / Jeff Harwell/Zips Sports PhotographySenior midfielder Matt Tutich, right, is a three-time All-MAC selection.

Each item, a goal for the season.

"We make goals as a team," midfielder Matt Tutich said. "They're realistic expectations and they're posted right there so you can always look at them and know what you're working for everyday."

Players check off the goals one at a time as the season progresses.

Last year, the team crossed them all off, save one -- no home losses. And that goal only went unfulfilled when Akron lost to South Florida in double overtime in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

The 2008 season started off just as strong.

Goal No. 1: Win the IU tournament. Check.

The Zips beat a then-ranked No. 3 Notre Dame team 3-0 to open the season on Aug. 29, then followed up with a scoreless draw against then-No. 5 Indiana at Indiana.

"That first weekend was a great confidence boost for us," goalkeeper Evan Bush said. "We would have liked to come out of there 2-0, but [those] were pretty good results."

The good showing did more than just build the confidence of the young Akron squad -- the Zips start four freshmen and four sophomores -- it hammered home the fact that they're capable of beating the top teams in the nation.

"It's something we kind of expect to do now," Bush said. "We've got the players that expect to win those games and not just get by and hope for a tie. ... That's the key to it all, and it's a great feeling once you do it."

Goal No. 2: Win the Akron tournament. Check.

NCAA Scoreboard
This season, ESPNsoccernet will bring you scores from every single men's and women's NCAA Division I college game.

Click here for all the action

The Zips followed up their success at Indiana with a pair of home wins -- shutting out West Virginia 1-0 on Sept. 5 and handing Cincinnati its first loss 2-1 on Sept. 7.

"For us to be off to the start that we are is very positive," coach Caleb Porter said, assessing his team's first two weekends. "It provides a platform for the rest of the season, but at the same time, it's just four games."

While it may have just been four games, that was all it took for his team to jump 10 spots from their No. 12 preseason ranking to the No. 2 spot in the NSCAA national poll.

Goal No. 3: Win the University of New Mexico tournament. No check.

It was an ambitious goal so early in the season -- three weekends, three tournament wins. Porter and his players felt capable of rising to the challenge.

Up until the end of the game against New Mexico on Sept. 12, it looked attainable. The Lobos scored in the 68th minute to win the game 1-0. Akron had opportunities in the final minutes, but just could not come up with key plays against an impressive opponent.

"I credit New Mexico for doing what they needed to win," Porter said after the game. "At the same time, I was pleased with our performance and remain very confident about what this team can accomplish if we continue to play like we did."

For the second season in a row, the Zips will leave a goal unchecked. But the end of the day -- or in this case, season -- it's not about how many items get crossed off the list.

"Each goal is kind of a stepping stone along the way to winning a national championship," Porter said. "You can't just focus on winning a national championship and forget about the process. This is a journey. We need to evolve as a team throughout this journey, and each game is an opportunity to measure ourselves along the way and see where we're at.

"Hopefully, we learn lessons in those games. Hopefully, we're getting results while we're learning those lessons, but really we need to grow each and every game and each and every day. Those goals keep you focused on what we're trying to accomplish and allow us to move forward."

So, the list goes on.

Goals No. 4 and 5: Win the Mid-American Conference regular-season and tournament titles.

Akron will open conference play Sept. 19 against Florida Atlantic. The Zips are again the favorite to win the conference. The team has won the regular-season crown the last three years (they shared with Northern Illinois in 2006) and has won the MAC tournament three of the last four years.

While to outsiders it might seem that winning the conference should be a given for Akron, it's where some of the program's biggest challenges may lie.

"The games you're supposed to win, those are the games that are going to be a real test for us in terms of realizing every team is going to be aiming for us," Tutich said.

However, the key to success in those situations is simple, according to forward Steve Zakuani.

"If we can remain grounded, not overlook anybody, and still put in the hard work, then I think we're going to go a very, very long way," Zakuani said.

Goal No. 6: No home losses.

Considering this was the only goal the team left unfulfilled last season, Tutich said, there's "absolutely no question" the Zips will be determined to cross this one off the list in 2008.

With regular-season games against Florida Atlantic, Cleveland, Stony Brook, Oakland, Wright State, Buffalo, Michigan and Western Michigan scheduled to be played at Lee Jackson Field, a home sweep is clearly within Akron's reach.

Postseason games could always present a challenge, but if the Zips continue their progression, it will be hard to bet against them come season's end.

Goal No. 7: NCAA tournament seed.

Sure, it's still early, but let's be honest, we expect No. 1 Wake Forest to be seeded come NCAA tournament time, and considering No. 2 Akron's schedule and impressive performances against tough opponents early on, it's hard to believe the Zips won't be among the nation's top 16 teams two months from now.

The real question is: How far can Akron go?

Will we see them in Dallas for the College Cup? Will they be one-and-done like they were last season?

The team has demonstrated that it has the ability. It now comes down to the intangibles.

"It's going to be more of a mental state of mind than a physical thing," Bush said. "If we can stay hungry and focused, this team can accomplish basically anything."

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.