An old friend of mine who has spent a good deal of his life - not to mention a good deal of his money - on promoting soccer in the US (among other things he owned a USL/USISL Pro team about which the less said the better) has a theory about the real - as opposed to the presumed - contribution that the NASL, ASL. NPSL, APSL and all the rest made to the furtherance of the game in this country.
Most "experts" will tell you that those leagues "raised awareness" of soccer or some damned thing and thus, somehow or other, laid the groundwork for MLS. Or something; I've never been able to follow the logic.
My friend, however, believes that the real contribution of all those failed leagues was that they spread future coaches - at all levels - broadly across the landscape, scattering the seeds, if you will, of all that has followed. As various teams changed regimes, folded or moved to new cities, they inevitably leaked players who very often ended up staying where their career dumped them.
Sometimes the reason they stuck around was because of a girl they wanted to marry. Other times it was an involvement in youth soccer or a part time job as an assistant at a local youth club or college or even (perish forfend) a good non-soccer job opportunity. Whatever the reason there are hundreds of these guys all across the fruited plain and their effect on the progress of the game here has been profound, at every level.
Which brings us to former Charlotte Gold, Penn-Jersey Spirit and Canton Invaders midfielder Ken Lolla.
A New Jersey native who went to Duke (Duke Sucks!), he was the Invaders' Youth Coordinator (to pick up a few extra bucks) which led to a local high school gig (Uniontown Lake, Home of the Blue Streaks) which in turn provided him the contacts that, after a couple years in Div II, got him the head job at lowly, no-hope Akron University where he accomplished the impossible:
He created a soccer superpower in a gray, glum, post-industrial city where soccer was still a game played by kids with funny accents or who couldn't make the football team.
From the beginning he knew he couldn't compete with the ACC or Big Ten for talent. The gold plated high school All Americans from sunny climes weren't available to him. So he built a team from the leavings, supplemented them with a careful sprinkling of skilled players from places like Germany and Sweden and started beating up on people by playing tough, disciplined possession soccer that begins, first and foremost, with a defense that simply doesn't make mistakes.
But despite five NCAA appearances and a nationally ranked team he was still reduced to - literally - holding bake sales to raise money for paint to redo the tired old antique locker room the football team had abandoned so his team would have someplace to change before going out and beating Ohio State or Boston College.
So when Louisville joined the Big East a couple years ago and went looking for a coach who was interested in a full 9 scholarships, a beautiful campus not located in a slum, great facilities and a handsome increase in pay, Lolla couldn't say no.
So it wasn't a huge surprise to see Lolla bring his new team, undefeated and ranked #1 - into the NCAA Championship match in their fifth year of major conference play. The guy is just flat out good.
What nobody would have believed five years ago is that the team they'd be playing would be the team he created, the Akron Zips.
Caleb Porter has, to use an expression I loathe, taken Akron to the "next level".
As much as Virginia in the days of il Bruce or UCLA back when the Round Mound was in charge, Akron University is in one of those rare zones where a team quite literally doesn't rebuild, they simply reload.
After the 2008 season Akron lost Div I scoring leader Steve Zakuani in the MLS draft (1st pick overall). In 2009 the team went undefeated until the Div I Finals, and lost NCAA scoring leader Teal Bunbury (4th pick overall), Blair Gavin (10th overall) and Ben Zemanski (47th overall, but important enough for Chivas to protect in the expansion draft).
So of course there they were carrying the trophy around the pitch after the game yesterday.
Porter, as it happens, is a representative of the coaching generation that's coming up now. Ex-Clash and Mutiny, his soccer roots aren't in the ashes of the old days but in the embryonic days of the new era.
The Zips play the most patient, ball-hogging, ball-movement, spread it around and wait for you to make a mistake offense this side of Spain. They're much more interesting to watch than a whole bunch of MLS teams I could name.
And in this game, although the score was close and Louisville was robbed of a PK early on from an inexplicably uncalled hand ball, Akron was simply overpowering. But that's the point, really: Lollas' Louisville team can't hope to compete talent-wise with the array of Bradenton babies and age group national teamers that Porter brings to the field but they make up for it, as Lollas' teams always have, with organization, discipline and error-free defense.
(And since the upcoming Superdraft will be about all anyone talks about for the next month I won't say that Darlington Nagbe - assuming he comes out, and he might not - is simply the best player in the country. Balance, speed, touch, vision, this is the whole package. Also love Louisvilles' Austin Berry and Colin Rolfe and Akrons' Kofi Sarkodie.)
The key to the game came from Porters' post game comments:
“In 2007, I was inspired by Jay Vidovich and 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.”
Don't come gripe to me about college soccer. With guys like Porter and Lolla on the benches, it's not your fathers' NCAA.