COLUMBUS, Ohio – For both the Columbus Crew SC and Portland Timbers, the journey to this point in time is about to reach its zenith. On Sunday evening, one team will be celebrating with the MLS Cup, while the other is left to ponder what might have been.
For a handful of players on both teams, there is a feeling of coming full-circle as they prepare for the final match of the 2015 season.
Four players between both teams are from Northeast Ohio and played in either high school or college together. Columbus forward Ben Speas and Portland’s Michael Nanchoff (winger), Ben Zemanski (defender) and Darlington Nagbe (midfielder) have all played together before any of the four made it to the pinnacle of domestic soccer in the United States.
Nanchoff, 27-years-old from North Royalton, Ohio, played his high school soccer in Cuyahoga Falls at Walsh Jesuit High School. Their chief rival, where Speas and Zemanski played, was a stones-throw down the street
“Oh, the high school rivalry,” Nanchoff said, chuckling. “We’re going way back. It was big. We were literally right across the street. He’s a fantastic forward, obviously, and still is. We had some serious battles in the high school playoffs. He got the best of me one year, and we got the best of them the last year, so I was happy about that.”
Speas, the 24-year-old native of Stow, Ohio, played with 27-year-old Timbers’ defender Ben Zemanski when both were enrolled at the Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy.
“I played with Ben Zemanski when I was younger. I played against Mike (Nanchoff), when he played at (Cleveland) Internationals and I played at Everest (FC). Dan Zemanski, Ben’s dad, was my coach. I played with Ben in high school and our rival was Nanchoff’s high school.”
Zemanski was from Akron, while the 25-year-old Nagbe hails originally from Monrovia, Liberia, but grew up in Lakewood, Ohio.
All four players went to the University of Akron, as Zemanski played there from 2006-09, Nanchoff from 2007-10, Nagbe from 2008-10 and Speas in 2009-10. They all played under Akron Zips head coach Caleb Porter (2006-2012), and Porter was named 2007 MAC Coach of the Year.
The three Portland players also spent time playing with the Cleveland Internationals of the USL Premier Development League, while Speas played for Everest FC.
“It’s special,” Speas said of playing for the MLS Cup in their home state. “All those guys, Darlington, Ben and Mike… I played with them all in college. So yeah, it’s special. They’re Ohio guys, so I know them well. But, it doesn’t change how we approach the game.”
They enjoyed success with the Zips, claiming the MAC regular season Championship and the MAC Tournament Championship in 2009. The following year, Nanchoff, Speas and Nagbe helped Akron to repeat both feats in 2010, before going on to win the NCAA Men’s Division I Soccer Championship. They have carried that success into their MLS careers.
“Yeah, for sure,” Nanchoff said. “It’s something you learn in school and it becomes a common trend and a nice transition to the pros. We’ve been very well trained,” Nanchoff said with a wink.
In addition to these four players being at Akron, Pablo Moreira also played for the Zips under Porter. Moreira is the Portland Timbers’ Player Relations Manager/Video Analyst.
“He’s an Akron boy, too,” said Nanchoff. “I played with him. He was a senior when I was a freshman. He showed me the ropes and helped me out with a lot of things.”
The fact that these young men are playing for the MLS Cup in their home state of Ohio carries special meaning for them.
“It’s special,” Speas said. “All those guys, Darlington (Nagbe), Ben and Mike… I played with them all in college. So yeah, it’s special. They’re Ohio guys, so I know them well. But, it doesn’t change how we approach the game.”
“Home for me is up in Cleveland,” chimed-in Nanchoff, “but we developed a lot of friendships at Akron. For all of us to play on the same team, and now we’re going up against each other… it is pretty special.”
The ultimate prize awaits them on Sunday afternoon at Mapfre Stadium. And while this may not be the matchup that Major League Soccer desired contending for the MLS Cup on a national television broadcast, this final match of the season has the potential to be one of the most exciting of 2015 in MLS.
In front of family and friends, these four players will tread upon the pitch in front of a sold-out crowd. They know that their careers have led them to this moment, and they plan on cherishing that moment to the maximum.
“There’s a lot of family, obviously, and friends,” said Speas. “It’s a special moment for me, because I’ve been coming to the Crew games since I was seven years old. So, the Crew has been my team forever. This is a cool moment and a cool weekend for me personally.”
Michael Nanchoff echoed those sentiments. “It’s so special, man. It’s an honorable moment. I know I can speak for him, too. I’m ecstatic to be back home, for sure.”
One team will bask in glory. One team will come up short. But have no doubts, these players are thoroughly loving every second of it.