Nov. 15, 2008
AKRON, Ohio - For the second time in three years, the Northern Illinois men's soccer team will battle Akron for the Mid-American Conference Tournament Championship, Saturday at 1 p.m. (CST).
The Huskies earned a place in the title match with a 2-0 quarterfinal win over Bowling Green, and a 1-0 semifinal victory against Buffalo. Northern Illinois improved to 11-5-4, and the Huskies extended their winning streak against MAC opposition to six games.
"The way the guys believed and played the last couple games demonstrated an expectation to be at this moment, playing for the MAC title," NIU head coach Steve Simmons said.
Simmons has his team preparing for Sunday's championship match the same way it has been getting ready for its other late season contests.
"We are going to do all the things we have been doing the last couple weeks," he said. "We're going to do our best to work, have a great spirit and great attitude, and go out and fight for each other."
As the number one seed, Akron received a first-round bye, and reached the championship match by edging Hartwick on penalty kicks. The Zips, who went undefeated in MAC play, are 15-1-4 overall and ranked fourth in NSCAA/adidas national poll.
Akron and NIU have met only once in a MAC title game. Playing at home, Northern Illinois forward Marcus McCarty (Fort Worth, Texas/Fossil Ridge) sunk the game-winner in the 23rd minute to give NIU a 1-0 win and the MAC Championship.
Six Huskies on the current roster played in the game, including junior Luis De La Cerda (Guadalajara, Mexico/Waubonsie Valley), who assisted the goal, and senior goalkeeper Joe Zimka (Algonquin, Ill./Jacobs), who recorded the shutout.
NIU has also fallen short against Akron in the MAC Tournament. The Huskies lost a 1-0 decision in double-overtime to the Zips in the 2007 semifinal.
"It's been fun playing Akron these last few years, because many of the matches have been played at such a high level," Simmons said. "It's been enjoyable, even though we've been on both sides of the results."
Since Simmons' arrival at NIU in 2003, five out of seven matches between the Huskies and the Zips have been decided by one goal, or resulted in ties. That was not the case the last time the teams met, as Akron defeated the Huskies 4-0, Oct. 4 in DeKalb.
"I know when we played them, all of us were disappointed in the performance we put in," Simmons said. "We want to do our best to represent NIU with pride, and put forth the output we're capable of."
A key part of the Huskie gameplan will be shutting down MAC Player of the Year Steve Zakuani. The sophomore forward leads the nation with 19 goals and 45 points. NIU will also have to contend one of the nation's top goalkeepers, Evan Bush. The senior holds the MAC record for career shutouts, and has helped the Zips to a 0.45 goals against average, third-best in the country.
Freshman midfielder Brad Horton, who has put in six goals this year, leads Northern Illinois' multi-faceted offense. Horton is one of eight Huskies with multiple goals this season. In goal, senior Joe Zimka (Algonquin, Ill./Jacobs) has recorded eight shutouts this season, and has not allowed a goal in the MAC Tournament.
The winner of Sunday's match will receive an automatic bid the NCAA Tournament, with a first round game, Friday, Nov. 21 or Saturday, Nov. 22.