Baltimore Blast

Old-school indoor soccer aficionados will recognize that header above as a team from the MISL (actually, they don’t have to be old-school; turns out the Blast still exists, to our surprise).

But we’re deploying it here to describe yesterday’s 2011 MLS SuperDraft in Maryland, which the BP attended, under the guise of its alter-ego the PG.

We cranked out this and this, and generally had a great time watching the proceedings up close (we sat adjacent to a dapper-looking Frank Yallop and the San Jose Earthquakes staff).

The Baltimore trip also explains why the posting rate here at the BP has slowed to a trickle (down from a drip) this week. Between draft prep, day job, and travel, the BP got shoved to the back burner.

But we’re back, late on a Friday to share a few post-draft musings, in no particular order. Here they are:

• First up, John Rooney has a rather endearing and almost totally incomprehensible Liverpudlian accent. He makes Steve McManaman sound like Richard Burton. (McManaman, we just found out, is from Bootle, a town on the outskirts of Liverpool that has the best name of any town ever.)

• We had to tweak our story on Rooney, linked above, just slightly, due to some small objections from league higher-ups. Nothing major—just concerns about the image of the league vis-a-vis top-flight European leagues.

We mention it because it diluted our point a little bit, and enough to contribute to a misunderstanding expressed in the comments: We weren’t suggesting the British press would deluge MLS with coverage just for the mere presence of Rooney in the league. Our point was that if–and it’s a big if–Rooney happened to blossom, become an MLS All-Star, and attract interest from first-division European leagues, then the British press would be all over MLS. (This was our original best-case scenario in the piece.)

Anyway, this kind of shackling occasionally comes with the territory when you’re writing for a league site. The corporate overseers have ideas about protecting the league image.

• One player we didn’t include in the “Surprises” segment of our draft wrap-up piece was Ecuadorian attacker Joao Plata, who led the Combine in scoring, then tumbled all the way to the bottom of the third round (49th overall), where he was picked by Toronto FC.

Plata is small (some said under 5′ 5″), but that never stopped Mauricio Cienfuegos back in the day , and Cienfuegos wasn’t exceptionally fast, as Plata certainly is (like, Dane Richards fast). He’ll be an interesting one to watch this spring.

• The Red Bulls’ top pick, Penn State striker Corey Hertzog, seemed curiously nonplussed to be joining the New York side—Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez be damned.

At the podium, Hertzog had the demeanor of a guy opening up a dud present on Christmas morning and trying to act pleased. That may have been due to the Philly fans jeering his selection by New York (Hertzog is from Reading, PA).

He did some damage control later, telling the league website he was pumped just to meet Henry, much less play alongside him. Hertzog scored 20 goals in college action last year, leading the nation.

• After New York grabbed Rooney with the 25th pick, they selected NC State defender Tyler Lassiter at No. 30, and Maryland midfielder Billy Cortes in Round 3 (38th overall). Coach Hans Backe described Lassiter as “a Tim Ream type, almost exaclty.”

In our view, RBNY could have added some more depth to its backline, which said goodbye to Mike Petke and Jeremy Hall after the 2010 season, but perhaps they plan to acquire another defender or two elsewhere.

• Akron had two other players, defender Chris Korb and midfielder Anthony Ampaipitakwong, selected in this draft after their record five in the first round (in the first eight picks), to give the Zips an incredible seven draftees from their 2011 NCAA championship team.

You’d think it would be hard to reload after that, but supposedly coach Caleb Porter (an MLS alum) will field another contender next season.

Finally, Ampaipitakwong (that’s AM-PIE-PITAK-WONG) went to San Jose (as the 33rd pick overall), prompting MLS Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle to quip, “If Ampaipitakwong and Chris Wondolowski link up for a goal, it could break Twitter.”

Have a great weekend everyone. We’ll be back on Monday.

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Zip-Itty-Doo-Dah!

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:

Zipped Up

Akron fell just short of an unbeaten season and a national title.

Akron made it through the entire NCAA tournament, including both the semifinals and the final, without conceding a goal. They won tournament games by blanking South Florida, Stanford, and Tulsa, and they held ACC powers North Carolina and Virginia scoreless in the College Cup this past weekend in Cary, North Carolina.

Unfortunately for the Zips, they failed to score a goal during final-four weekend, and so they went home yesterday as national runners-up while Virginia took the championship game on penalty kicks.

The Zips beat Carolina on penalties in the semis in what may have been the game of the tournament, full of crisp passing and fluid movement. The final was much more buttoned-up, as Virginia, which built an 11-game shutout streak this season, stifled every Zips foray into the final third. Akron didn’t get a single clear-cut chance on goal. After bouncing a header off the Akron post in the first half, Virginia didn’t threaten much, either. The teams were evenly matched, with both lacking that player with an extra bit of quality to unlock the opponent’s backline.

When Akron junior midfielder Blair Gavin, who’d nailed the clinching penalty in the semis versus Carolina (and was 5-f0r-5 from the spot for the season) skied his PK over the bar, Virginia burst into celebration of the school’s first national title since the Claudio Reyna-led dynasty in the early 1990s.

Look for the Zips to bounce back nicely, though, even if they do lose coach Caleb Porter to D.C. United, as reports are suggesting could happen. Their stingy back five, which gave up only seven goals in 2,300 minutes of play this season, features a freshman in goal (David Meves), and two others in defense (Zarek Valentin and Chad Barson) alongside sophomore Kofi Sarkodie and junior Chirs Korb. In other words, goals against Akron will be scarce again next season. Maybe not 0.27-per-game scarce (the third-best goals-against average in NCAA D-1 history) but scarce nonetheless.

Virginia, which began the 2009 campaign with three straight preseason losses, built momentum gradually and peaked when it needed to. The Cavs will likely welcome back their top two scorers, freshman Will Bates (12 goals) and sophomore Tony Tchani (8 goals, 4 assists), along with redshirt-junior goalie Diego Restrepo, who had a school-record 16 shutouts this season. Virginia’s g.a.a. for the season was also 0.27, just fractionally behind the Zips’ mark, and fourth-best in NCAA D-I history.

Small wonder the final was a goalless draw.

College Cup 2009

Zip-itty-doo-dah. Unbeaten Akron advances to the final four.

College soccer has long been criticized in U.S. footie circles, mainly for being a pale substitute for a professional environment for developing players. That may be true, but NCAA ball still has managed to produce its fair share of quality pros, from Claudio Reyna (three seasons and three national titles at the University of Virginia) to this year’s MLS Rookie of the Year, Omar Gonzalez (three years and one NCAA championship at Maryland), to Gonzalez’s fellow MLS newbie Steve Zakuani, who jumped to the league after two seasons with the University of Akron Zips.

Last night the Zips, owners of the best nickname and the best record in college soccer, advanced to the NCAA semifinals with a 1-0 win over Tulsa. The Zips stand at 23-0 and will face North Carolina (16-2-3) for a berth in the national-title game. Their current win streak ties the 1997 Indiana team’s mark for the longest winning streak in a season. North Carolina knocked off surprising Drake (Hate the Drake! Love the Drake!) 2-1 to reach the semifinals. Drake is in Des Moines, Iowa, by the way, and is a rising program under coach Sean Holmes, having qualified for the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons.

The other semifinal pits ACC rivals Wake Forest and Virginia against one another in what will be their third meeting of the season (Virginia won the first two). Both teams are 17-3-3 and Virginia keeper Diego Restrepo is riding an 11-game streak of clean sheets. He has not allowed a goal since October 17.

Backpost sees the Tar Heels springing a mild upset next weekend against Akron to advance an all-ACC final with Virginia.