One year after losing the NCAA championship on penalties, the Akron Zips returned to the title game and took home the first D-I trophy in school history, downing previously unbeaten Louisville 1-0.

Midfielder Scott Caldwell scored the winning goal in the 79th minute, collecting the rebound of his own shot and driving it into the top of the net over Cardinals keeper Andre Boudreaux.

Louisville nearly equalized several times after Caldwell’s strike, including in the 89th minute, when Aaron Horton’s shot was saved off the line by Akron defender Chad Barson.

Louisville (20-1-3), led by former Akron coach Ken Lolla, was attempting to become the first undefeated champion since Santa Clara in 1989.

On an Akron team that features multiple quality pro prospects, including U.S. Under-20 players Perry Kitchen and Zarek Valentin, Caldwell was an unlikely hero. But it’s a role he’d grown accustomed to during the Zips’ stretch run: Sunday’s winner was his fifth career goal—all of them scored in the past seven games, starting in the Mid-American Conference tournament.

Overall, the game was well played and a decent showcase for college soccer, which, as we touched on in this week’s MLS column (go check it out here), takes its share of criticism in U.S. soccer circles.

Sure, the college game may not be the best breeding ground for future pros, but it’s better than people give it credit for.

If you compared yesterday’s title game with, say, Colchester vs Yeovil Town in England’s League One, well, the college boys may or may not be able to beat their third-division pro counterparts across the pond, but they definitely play a more attractive, skillful brand of soccer.

Beyond that, the college game is growing. Of the millions and millions of youth players in this country, only a relative handful wind up at Bradenton or on the fast-track of an MLS academy team. The rest head for college—an ingrained rite of passage in the U.S.—and they’re producing quality teams in previously undeveloped soccer areas all over the country.

This year’s runner-up, Louisville, is just the most notable example. The Cardinals have a long tradition of basketball glory, yet here they were coming within a couple of missed chances of a national soccer title.

Michigan, which didn’t even have a D-I soccer program until 2000, reached the College Cup this year, narrowly losing to Akron.

Schools like West Virginia, Providence, Maryland–Baltimore County, and Sacramento State won NCAA tournament games this year. Xavier, Bradley, Denver and Coastal Carolina all made the big dance in 2010, along with East Tennessee State, St. Peters, and New Mexico.

No, NCAA soccer is not on par with a pro developmental program, but it’s not a bad alternative for a player who’s not quite ready to go pro at 18—and it’s never been more competitive.

Here is a brief ESPN recap of the game:


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