About a month ago, multiple former Akron soccer players came back to the University of Akron to sign autographs, catch up and enjoy the Zips conference opener against Western Michigan.
It was a big night for James A. Rhodes Arena, as fans arrived and waited patiently, not to see the game, but to get autographs from some of the best players to ever play at Cub Cadet Field.
Among those in attendance were Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Michael Nanchoff (Timbers), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC) and Ben Zemanski (Timbers) and each of their playing styles reflects the relative dominance that Akron has owned in the MAC in the last few years.
Nagbe, Nanchoff and Zemanski still play professionally for Caleb Porter, the Akron coach from 2006-12, in Portland and his philosophy has helped Akron continue its high-caliber reputation that Stu Parry started when he created the men's soccer program and turned it into a powerhouse not named Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia or UCLA.
Now those three players and Trapp sat at a podium in the depths of the JAR to talk about their former coach and how he, among many others, turned Akron into one of the best teams in the Midwest.
Professional soccer players return to Akron for "Zips in the Pros" night
24 of Akron's players that currently ply their trade professionally are returning to Akron for the Zips MAC opener against WMU on Jan. 6.
"They built something that was special in college soccer and you wanted to be a part of it. That’s why I came here," Trapp said. "Ultimately that’s what made it one of the best programs in the country."
Of the four sitting at the podium, Trapp seemed to be the perfect example of this. He is not necessarily a local -- he is from Gahanna, right outside Columbus -- but isn't a long-range import either. He lies somewhere in the middle, and, after Yedlin, he could be considered one of Porter's greatest finds.
Trapp seems to have done it all. He won the Div. I state championship with Lincoln High School, helped his Crew Academy team to a NYSA national championship in 2012, signed a homegrown contract for his hometown club and recently received his first call up to the U.S. senior team in which he played 30 minutes against Chile.
He also received praise from Thierry Henry, one of the greatest strikers to ever play the game, after Crew SC beat Henry's New York Red Bulls last season.
But Trapp seemed unaffected by the praise, saying that it was special to have someone you looked up to as a kid say nice things about you.
That type of humility is one of things that Porter emphasizes in his teams and it is indeed what makes his teams special.
Porter coached some of the best players the program has ever seen, turning DeAndre Yedlin from a pacy winger to a U.S. men's national team starlet. It appears he's done the same with Trapp and Perry Kitchen, who both saw time during the USMNT's friendlies against Chile and Panama alongside Yedlin.
It is players like Kitchen, Trapp and Yedlin that make the Akron program so polarizing. It takes a few local kids, like Nagbe, Nanchoff and Zemanski, and combines them with some of the best players around the country, like Yedlin, to make one of the most skilled teams in Div. I men's soccer.
Porter has continued that philosophy in Portland, bringing in multiple players over the past two years that played for him at Akron and utilizing them alongside some of the best players in the country.
He also sets his teams up to put a major emphases on possession-heavy attack while holding a stingy defense.
Using those teachings, Porter earned the MLS Coach of the Year award after the Timbers finished first in a highly-competitive Western Conference and got the whole city of Portland behind him.
The scenes of the Timbers Army vigorously cheering on its coach and team reminds one of the the rabid fan section that used to watch Porter, Nagbe, Nanchoff, Trapp and Zemanski sprint around the pitch in Akron.
Now Jared Embick paces the sidelines of Cub Cadet Field with the fans cheering him on, and he has done well to continue Porter's legacy with the Akron program.
Embick, who is now in his second year as coach, was an assistant to Porter for five years before he took the helm for the program and he has shown that the professional atmosphere has not escaped UA.
"Jared stepped up into the big boy shoes and he really hasn’t changed a thing, which was great," Nanchoff said. "When you bring somebody else in, it changes the whole system of play and thats not what they were looking for. Jared continued the tradition and we’re proud of it.
Despite a first round exit in the NCAA College Cup this year after a dramatic 15 round penalty shootout loss to Ohio State, Embick has done well to keep up the pedigree of excellence that Akron has held for years.
With a relatively young core -- only Saad Abdul-Salaam and Clint Caso left last year -- Embick has a great base to build from. And with a 13-6-2 record being a "down," season last year, he has the possibility to continue the legacy of the once-unknown soccer program in the Midwest.
Many people think that Akron's location hinders it from getting the best athletes, but, as Porter and many before him proved, sometimes the quaintest locations can be the most attractive ones.
"There is a tradition about this program that is like no other," Zemanski said. "It's like one big family in the city of Akron. We cherish that."
If Embick can continue that tradition, the Zips will be in good hands for the foreseeable future.