FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When the University of Akron men’s soccer team kicked off its national title defense on Aug. 27 against Cleveland State University, the Zips did so without seven of the players who started in the National Championship victory over the University of Louisville last December.
Gone were Anthony Ampaipitakwong (San Jose Earthquakes), Perry Kitchen (D.C. United), Chris Korb (D.C. United), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Michael Nanchoff (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Kofi Sarkodie (Houston Dynamo) and Zarek Valentin (Chivas USA), all chosen in the first two rounds of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft.
Amongst the four returning starters, however, was former Revolution Under-18 captain and Braintree, Mass., native Scott Caldwell, who was named the Most Outstanding Offensive Player of the 2010 NCAA College Cup after scoring the game-winning goal in the title game.
“Whenever you bring a new team together, it’s going to be a little bit of a challenge,” Caldwell said via phone as the Zips prepare to host the Mid-American Conference Tournament this weekend. “But all the guys we have are always trying to learn something every day, so they’ve done a great job of just trying to work into the team and getting ready. So there hasn’t been much of a drop off.”
Despite significant roster turnover, Akron put together another impressive campaign and finished the regular season ranked No. 7 in the country with a record of 13-3-3. The Zips kick off their postseason against Western Michigan University in the MAC Tournament semifinals on Friday afternoon and are poised to make another run at a national title when the NCAA Tournament begins next week.
One of the catalysts in Akron’s title defense has been Caldwell, now a junior and a co-captain along with defender Chad Barson. Caldwell led the Zips with 10 assists this season – tied for sixth in the country – and was tied for second on the team with five goals, and for the first time found himself in a leadership position under head coach Caleb Porter.
“I’m not as much of a vocal guy as other captains are,” admitted Caldwell. “I kind of just do it by example. But it’s definitely that type of (leadership) feeling, that type of role. I just try to get the younger guys excited and playing their best stuff.”
If Caldwell was hoping to inspire his less experienced teammates with his own performances on the field, he can consider his mission accomplished. The 20-year-old has appeared in all 19 of Akron’s games (starting 18) and has upped his point total to 20 (five goals, 10 assists) after registering 11 points (five goals, one assist) combined in his first two seasons.
“I’ve definitely progressed each and every year,” said Caldwell. “With a coach like Caleb, he’s always trying to develop players. Then with the competition we have here between first and second team guys, it brings out the best. If you want to survive here, you have to progress. You have to keep getting better. That’s something Caleb’s done a great job with here and it helps the players.
“We have fewer stars than we did last year, more of a team aspect,” he added. “So that’s kind of played a role in [my increased statistics] and we all have to contribute. I’m definitely happy with that and how everyone else has contributed, as well.”
Revolution fans will be particularly interested in Caldwell’s progression because his participation in the club’s youth system means his rights are protected through Major League Soccer’s Home Grown Player rules. Should Caldwell pursue a career in MLS – either by leaving school early or upon graduation – the Revs would have the opportunity to sign him directly and prevent other teams from selecting him in the league’s SuperDraft.
Caldwell is currently locked in on Akron’s upcoming postseason run, but having witnessed the success of his former college teammates in MLS, he admits a future with the Revs has crossed his mind.
“It’s always been my goal in life to play (professional soccer) eventually,” Caldwell said. “But right now we focus on our season here at Akron because it’s coming so close to the end. We just have to keep battling out here. So that’s my number one focus now, but long term that could definitely be what I look forward to eventually.”