RICHMOND, Va. – Jared Embick has come a long way from being the guy sleeping on Dave Giffard’s couch.
On Friday, Giffard will find out just how far when he squares off against Embick, his friend and former roommate when 19th-ranked VCU (2-1) meets seventh-ranked Akron (3-1) in the University of Akron Tournament at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Rams will also play Niagara on Sunday to cap the weekend tournament.
Giffard was already a year into his stint as an assistant under Caleb Porter at Akron in 2007 when Embick was added to the staff. Embick says he didn’t have much time to look for an apartment, so he asked Giffard if he could crash on his couch for a few weeks until he found his own place. Nearly a year later, Embick was still on the couch.
“We just worked all the time, so we would just come home, take a ride over to dinner, come back, go to sleep and do it again the next day,” Giffard says of the arrangement. “You know, we had a few barbeques in between.”
The following spring, Embick graduated from the couch when he and Giffard moved into a two-bedroom apartment. They’d stay there until Giffard was named VCU coach following the 2009 season.
While it may surprise some people that Embick would sleep on a couch for a year, it speaks to a single-minded focus not uncommon in coaching. And at Akron, Giffard and Embick were waist-deep in a transformative period in college soccer. From 2007-2009 with Porter at the helm and Giffard and Embick serving as assistants, Akron sent shockwaves through the sport. They took what had been a solid, top-40 program and forged it into a national title contender.
In 2009, Akron went 23-0-2 before losing to Virginia on penalty kicks in the national championship match. The Zips outscored their opponents 58-7 that season. In 2010, the year after Giffard took over at VCU, Akron won it all. It was Akron’s first national championship in any sport.
Editorial: As someone that grew up 45 minutes from Akron and graduated a Mid-American Conference school, I can comfortably tell you that Akron, Ohio is by no means a soccer hotbed, and winning a national title at MAC school is every bit as remarkable as it sounds.
In the three seasons Giffard and Embick worked together under Porter, Akron was 55-6-6.
“To be fair, in 2 ½ years we changed college soccer,” Giffard says. “I don’t think that’s too bold of a statement to say that because we did. We changed the way coaches thought they could play. We became, at that point, the destination for every top American kid.”
“I think we definitely played a part in helping the game change more in a sense to let teams know you can play the game the right way and win,” he said Thursday.
Rather than adopt a defensive, preventative style common in college soccer today, Akron employed an open, attacking scheme more in line with that of European pro leagues. It’s a style Giffard installed when he became VCU’s coach in 2010 and one Embick has continued at Akron this season after succeeding Porter, who was named head coach of the MLS’ Portland Timbers.
But while their history suggests Giffard and Embick have a right to be nostalgic, that same, singular coaches’ focus that allowed one guy to sleep on a couch for a year is keeping them from getting overly emotional. Both men say they can separate the personal and professional aspects of the matchup.
“When I think about it, you spend a lot of your life competing against your friends,” Embick says. “When you’re a kid and you want to get a game, you call your friends. My job, his job relies on wins now. Sometimes that can put a damper on things. For us, I don’t think it’ll change anything. I’m sure we’re talk after the game and help each other out on other games and other opponents.”
Giffard’s wife is from Ravenna, Ohio, a 20-minute drive from Akron, and they’ll likely plenty of friends and family in the crowd Friday night. The game will likely feel a little different than the 2010 exhibition the teams played, when Giffard was just starting to get his footing with the Rams, but in the end, he says it’s just business.
“For me, more than anything, I like the challenge of playing a team who likes to play and has a similar brand to us, a little different, but similar,” says Giffard. “That, really, is kind of the motivation to why you go and play that game. You play that game because you can be challenged in different ways.”
The two coaches say they talk and text regularly, and a return game between the two schools will likely take place in Richmond within the next two years. In the meantime, Embick is hopeful he and Giffard can get together at some point during the weekend. If things work out, Embick plans to invite Giffard to his new house. It’s even got a bed.