Akron’s Porter leading by example

When the University of Akron lifted its first NCAA men’s soccer championship last Sunday, it wasn’t just verification of the Zips’ status as one of the most talented teams ever seen on the college level.

It was also the well-earned vindication of a coach who still believes in the value of the college game, and its importance in the American soccer landscape.

Caleb Porter said no to Major League Soccer and the head coaching job with D.C. United a year ago. He passed on the chance to coach the most successful team in MLS history for the opportunity to keep teaching and grooming young players on the college level.

Even as he rumbled along on a day-long bus ride from Akron to North Carolina at the start of the college season, Porter couldn’t say enough about how important his role as a teacher of the game still was, and what it meant to him to be a college coach.

The fruits of Porter’s labor were there for all to see last weekend, when Akron won an NCAA title playing attractive, technically sound soccer that was a far cry from the kick-and-run style associated with the college game in generations past. Akron’s victory wasn’t just an honor for Porter, but also a nod to college soccer’s continued importance in American soccer’s player development structure.

College soccer faces justifiable criticism for its quirky rules, such as timeouts and substitution re-entries, as well as its restrictions on matches and practice time, but the fact remains college soccer has played a vital role in American soccer’s growth, even though some would rather blame the college system for being inadequate.

To blame college soccer for the slow growth in the sport in this country is like criticizing a foster parent for not being a biological parent. College soccer has filled the void left by an absence of a professional player development system, a void that is only now being filled as MLS teams finally establish academies and MLS is finally moving toward taking on the responsibility faced by professional leagues in all other soccer nations.

In the meantime, college soccer has produced generations of top players, with current standouts such as Clint Dempsey, Stuart Holden and Maurice Edu having been developed through the American system. It continues to produce quality talent for the pros, as evidenced by the past two MLS Drafts, which were among the strongest in league history.

Then you have the 2010 Akron Zips, with a lineup boasting as many as six players who could be first-round draft picks in next month’s MLS Draft. It is a squad featuring future U.S. national team prospects such as Perry Kitchen, Kofi Sarkodie and Zarek Valentin, as well standout international pro prospects like Darlington Nagbe and Darren Mattocks.

Credit for building such a powerhouse in Ohio goes to Porter, a product of long-time college dynasty Indiana University and the most highly-regarded young American soccer coach this side of Jason Kreis. His ability to work with young players and his emphasis on an attacking style of soccer led D.C. United to try and make him the youngest head coach in MLS history last year before he passed on the offer to sign a long-term deal with Akron.

More offers are sure to come, but Porter isn’t likely to go anywhere any time soon. He knows the volatility of professional jobs (Curt Onalfo, the man who eventually took the D.C. United job, lasted half a season before being let go), and at 35, Porter believes he can still wait on the pros.

With several of his best players looking like safe bets to leave school early, Porter will have the fresh task of rebuilding his powerhouse yet again, and proving that his philosophy and his system can continue to produce entertaining soccer and polished players.

Porter and Akron aren’t alone in helping college grow stronger. Established powers like Maryland and UCLA continue to produce pro-caliber talent, while coaches such as Ken Lolla at Louisville and Steve Burns at Michigan have established programs to the list of those pro scouts can turn to for players.

MLS Academies have already begun tapping into the nation’s considerable talent, and pro teams will start devoting more roster spots to academy players who bypass college altogether, but college soccer isn’t going to suddenly fade away though. Even when all MLS teams in America are running strong academies there still won’t be enough of them to cover a country the size of the United States.

For that reason, college soccer will remain a vital part of the player development system in America and coaches like Caleb Porter will continue to play significant roles in producing the type of soccer and players that will help the sports continued growth in the United States.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer.