“Steve Zakuani stood near midfield on a typically chilly late-November evening, anxiously waiting. In front of him, the South Florida forward Simon Schoendorf stood behind the ball, trying to put a free kick near the goal to break the scoreless tie in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament, against Zakuani’s Zips, the 14th seed.””
Steve Zakuani stood near midfield on a typically chilly late-November evening, anxiously waiting.
In front of him, the South Florida forward Simon Schoendorf stood behind the ball, trying to put a free kick near the goal to break the scoreless tie in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament, against Zakuani’s Zips, the 14th seed.
Zakuani, playing in his first NCAA tournament game, was waiting for a chance to counter, to put a shot in the back of the net, something he’d tried four times without scoring.
He stood there, watched Schoendorf’s kick sail toward the goal, watched the University of Akron goalkeeper Evan Buch punch it out to the throng of players in the box, all of whom were grabbing and pushing, trying to position themselves to clear the ball out to Zakuani or put it past Bush.
Zakuani couldn’t see through the mob. Then he saw the back of the net move, the USF players celebrate and the six UA seniors – Matt Augustin, Elliot Bradbrook, Steve Kalan, Pablo Moreira and All-American Corey Sipos – who helped make his transition to the Zips so smooth, slump to the ground. The crowd, his teammates, everything was silent.
I didn’t know how to react, Zakuani said. I knew their career was over. It hit me that we blew it.
A year later, as the Zips begin their postseason run, starting with the Mid-American Conference this weekend at Lee Jackson Field, the Zips are in a different situation, especially due to Zakuani’s play.
This season I’ve been driven by disappointment and anger, Zakuani said. That combination of hard work and anger is why I’m playing so well.
If that loss is why Zakuani has played so well, than Caleb Porter is right when he says that the loss was the best thing to happen to the Zips. He said it was the best game they played all season but failed to finish scoring chances.
Zakuani responded by being the front-runner for the Hermann Trophy – soccer’s equivalent to the Hesiman – with a nation-leading 19 goals and 45 points.
It’s no surprise, the Zips have followed suit with 44 goals through 19 games this season, compared with 36 in 21 games last year.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Zakuani has been named the MAC Player of the Week six times this season, the most times a player has earned the honor in one season ever.
He earned the honor for the final times this season after having a hand in all four goals the Zips scored against Ohio State last Friday in a 4-3 win. He had two goals, assisted on two others and helped his team stay undefeated in the last 14 games.
The team’s success has helped ease Zakuani’s pain.
We are having a good year, so it doesn’t (hurt) as much, Zakuani said. I definitely think we’ll go further this time. Individually and collectively we’re playing much better.
The first step toward redemption is the MAC tournament, which starts Thursday at Lee Jackson Field. The Zips, being the regular season conference champs, have a bye Thursday and will play the winner of the Western Michigan-Hartwick game (Thursday, 5 p.m., Lee Jackson Field), at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
They beat both teams already this season, WMU 2-0 and Hartwick 2-1.
Both teams provided a tough match up, Porter said. From a results standpoint they were both close games. We’re focused on getting the team ready and once we know who we’re playing, we’ll tactically prepare to match up with either WMU or Hartwick.
More important than winning the tournament, is staying with only one loss when the NCAA selection committee decides the seeds for the NCAA tournament, which will be announced Monday at 5:30 p.m. on ESPNEWS.
If UA would be seeded according to their NSCAA/adidas poll ranking, hardly a given, the Zips would play its games at Lee Jackson Field until the national semifinals.
It’s the biggest thing right now, just because home field, Zakuani said. Our fans for me, are the best in the nation. We had 150 students come out to OSU Friday. That’s intimidating, it’s mental.
The Zips will attempt complete the MAC sweep of winning the regular season and tournament championships for the fifth time in history. They’ve accomplished that feat three of the last seven years, including last season. They’ve won the MAC tournament five times, most of any school in the conference.
Last season the Zips won the conference tournament by beating Northern Illinois and Buffalo, both double overtime games.
They only scored three goals combined in those games, despite out shooting NIU and Buffalo 38-11 combined, a trend that spilled into the upset loss to USF.
But Porter doesn’t have those concerns this season, mainly because of Zakuani’s improvement from last season.
We’re a very opportunistic team, Porter said. We have much more of a killer instinct. Last year was a great step. We performed well but also had a lot of young players. Now we’re going in with a little more experience and swagger. We know what need to do.