Snowflakes clutter the busy streets and a frigid wind nips at the skin of students as the shuffle across campus on a November afternoon in Akron.
The legion of students walking across campus cannot help but notice the sprawling palace that is home to the Akron Zips football team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2005. InfoCision Stadium at Summa Field has a capacity of 30,000 and takes up a fair amount of East Exchange Street.
But the students slip past the hulking football stadium, making their way to a venue that sits in the elongated shadows of InfoCision Stadium. Tonight’s agenda holds something different for this congregation of fans. The crunch of their boots fills the air as they walk past the football stadium and arrive at the foot of First-Energy Stadium, Cub Cadet Field, home to Akron's men's soccer team.
Holding only 5,800 students at capacity, FirstEnergy Stadium is brimming with life and excitement as students watch their former national champion Akron Zips take on 2012 national champions Indiana in the opening round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Fans squeeze into the stands until a sufficient amount of toes have been squashed.
The crowd roars in unison as the athletes enter the center circle for kick-off. Young adults and children can be seen gathering around outside of the fenced-in enclosure as well, hoping to catch a glimpse of their beloved Zips. But one man stands out among the thousands.
A lone yell rings through the crowd noise as the man gives his team last minute instructions before the whistle is blown. While short in stature, the figure makes up for it in bravado, sticking his chest out with pride and commanding the team as if giving orders to troops in combat.
As the whistle blows and the ball swiftly glides across the grass the voice never ceases and the pacing begins. While the voice sounds more reserved, it holds a certain authority that can not be replicated and won’t end until the final whistle is blown and Akron takes the match 3-2. This voice belongs to first year Akron head coach Jared Embick.
Voted All-Ohio Coach of the Year in early December, Embick was granted the head coaching job after his old boss, Caleb Porter, took the head coach position with the MLS’ Portland Timbers. The Zips' new head coach had big shoes, or rather boots as soccer players call their all-important cleats, to fill after the departure of Porter. Porter held a special place in the hearts of the Akron faithful, leading the 2010 team to a national championship and an incredible 119-18-17 record from 2006 to 2012. In 2012, Porter's final season in Akron, the team went 13-1-2, exiting the NCAA Tournament in the 3rd round.
Embick, who was Porter's top assistant and recruiting coordinator, showed he was up for the task of carrying on Porter's success as Akron opened its season with a convincing 4-1 win over Marshall in an exhibition match. But the team proceeded to lose 2-0 to St. Louis four days later which raised a few questions about the new coach. Had the team adjusted to Embick's coaching style? Had he adjusted to his new role?
In a phone interview with the head coach he discussed the early transitional period.
"I think that [motivating the team] took a little bit of time and I think you can see that in the play in the first half of the year," Embick said. "For them [the players] it takes them time to adjust and I thought the second half of the year, you saw everything start to get into flow with the players, the team, the coaches and how we play."
But despite these questions, a pair of wins over the College of Charleston and Furman to win the College of Charleston Tournament that began regular season play won over the hearts of the Zips fans, and rightly so.
The regular season on the whole was good for the Zips as they enjoyed averaging 1.5 goals a game, while only averaging a 0.69 goals against record. They also scored 33 goals in 22 games, and breezed through their conference with a 5-1 record.
But, the Zips were pushed out of the NCAA Tournament in the 2nd round—falling to Marquette 1-0—for only the second time since 2007, just four days after knocking off Indiana and finished the season ranked No. 7 in the nation.
The former assistant wasn't necessarily happy with the way his first season as head coach ended.
"You can tell by the results that it was a disappointing ending there at the end for us," Embick said. "[But] I think overall it was a pretty good year for what we had to deal with in terms of injuries and a relatively young squad. But there were some tough moments."
When referencing the expectations he faced from the Akron fans, Embick was very direct, saying that patience is key and that players and the team are not infallible. When someone leads one of the top 10 teams in the country they are bound to have lofty expectations and Embick is no different, saying if he had to assign himself a grade this season, it would be a B-minus.
The Akron fan base is rabid and they expect results every season, despite the fact that the Zips regularly lose players to graduation, injury or the MLS. Sometimes these losses can overshadowed by the excitement around the program but they shouldn't be forgotten. Sometimes one must do as much as they can with limited resources.
But the flip side of that is that with the reputation and strength of Akron's program, they can afford to bring in virtually whatever they need and they manage expectations well. As the program moves forward and Embick's philosophy becomes more clear in his second year at the helm, the direction in which the Zips will move will become more evident.
With the focus on the future, more specifically next season, Embick showed his excitement for new recruits but also emphasized the need for cohesion within the squad.
"I think it'll be an exciting year," he said. "We're going to have a lot of new attacking faces that people haven't really seen and we have the potential to be, again, a really good team. But it's also going to depend on how quickly we can get the team to gel in the early part of the year."
These new recruits will be crucial to the development of the Zips as they lost four players to the MLS SuperDraft this year including the MAC Player of the Year Aodhan Quinn and Akron's leading goalscorer Reinaldo Brenes.
The loss of these two alongside Robbie Derschang and Eric Stevenson will really test the strength of the Zips squad next season and Embick's new recruits could see themselves thrust into the team, playing underneath the pale floodlights of First-Energy Stadium.
But when a player's breathing becomes labored in the 23 degree weather and his team is up 3-2 in the closing minutes of a game against the defending national champion, there is no coach in the NCAA that any player would rather have behind them, moving them into position for one final attack and demanding the best out of them than coach Embick.