Final prediction: Louisville is worthy, but this is Akron’s year

Akron men’s soccer coach Caleb Porter pointed out that there’s a progression a team goes through before winning a national championship.

“It doesn’t come out of the blue,” he said.

College Cup host UCSB knows all about that. The Gauchos lost in the 2004 final in a penalty-kick shootout with Indiana before winning their first title in 2006 over UCLA.

Akron has played in two College Cup finals and finished as the runner-up both times. Last year was particularly painful as the Zips went into the final undefeated and wound up losing on penalty kicks to Virginia.

Porter has eight starters back from that disappointing finish and those players vowed after the Virginia loss to get it done this time.

It won’t be easy as they go up against a solid, deep, organized, versatile Louisville team that refuses to lose.

The unbeaten and top-ranked Cardinals (20-0-3) and the third-ranked Zips (21-1-2) meet in an attractive national championship game at 1 p.m. at UCSB’s Harder Stadium. The game will be shown live on ESPN2.

Porter has taken Akron to great heights. In the last two years, his team has won 40 games and lost only twice.

“It’s been rewarding to see us get to the point where we are realistically a contender and we’re not just this one-hit wonder program that gets to the championship and makes a run every once in a while,” Porter said earlier in the week

The wonderfully skillful Zips have paid their dues.

“We’re very relaxed. We’re excited, more than anything, to be here and have this chance to win the national championship,” said Porter. “Its been a long journey to get here, so I think the guys are extremely excited more than anything.

“We’re the No. 3 seed, so we’re the underdog. It’s almost like the tables have turned in some ways. “Last year we were the No. 1 seed and undefeated, and now we’re the No. 3 seed and the pressure is off us. We just get to go out and have fun and play. We have the opportunity to show the country what we’re about — our brand — and I think you’re going to see a very loose group tomorrow.”

Louisville is a worthy No. 1 team and a program that, under the expert guidance of coach Ken Lolla, is now part of college soccer’s upper echelon.

“It’s the destination,” Lolla said the of final step in the team’s journey. “It’s not just from a championship standpoint. The real goal has been to allow these guys to achieve their potential as soccer players, as people and as students.

“Playing Akron, playing the best brings out the best in you.”

Lolla will be coaching against the program he guided for 13 years before taking the job at Louisville in 2006.

“I don’t know if it’s ironic or appropriate,” he said.

“It’s not a big surprise that Akron has done very well,” he added. “Going into this season and the season they had last year, they were expected to be good. I think the best two teams in the country are the ones left.”

The Cardinals certainly have all the ingredients to win the national title, but this is Akron’s year.

The Zips, with their quick ball movement and technical ability, will be able to handle Louisville’s pressure defense, which was so effective against North Carolina in the semifinals.

Louisville’s discipline and organization on defense will keep it a tight contest, but Akron will eventually break the Cardinals down and capture its first national title.

The Zips win 1-0.

By the way, I’m a perfect 6-0 in picking the winners of the quarterfinals and semifinals.