Gluck: Porter Pulls out of Portland

Serving as a head coach in Major League Soccer is not easy – the rotating door of coaches leaving seems non-stop.  So the departure of Caleb Porter doesn’t surprise me.  I sense there may have been multiple reasons but I’ll set the stage for one – main reason – a reason you won’t see published by Major League Soccer nor the Portland Timbers.

To do that I sense it’s worthy to spend about four minutes and four seconds sharing some information on the topics below.  Perhaps this approach will help others better understand why I believe what I believe?

  • Our first encounter
  • Our relationship over the last five years
  • Major League Soccer and the Portland Timbers over the last five years
  • The current state of soccer styles in Major League Soccer
  • In closing – why I think Caleb Porter left Portland

Our first encounter:

I first met Caleb Porter at spring training, held in Arizona, February 2013.

  • I was nervous (really nervous) – here’s me – someone who’s been out of coaching for over 10 years looking to have one of the top college coaches and newly crowned lead of Portland be my sounding board for a new analytical approach I was developing for soccer.
  • I introduced myself and he gladly accepted the opportunity to chat – his first words to me, said with a smile, “you’re a soccer junky”…
  • I said, (with a smile) well maybe, but I consider myself someone who’s passionate about the game and I want to help others better understand the nuance of soccer, the statistics, how they can be misinterpreted and what greater value there may be in evaluating ‘team’ performance not individual performance – he agreed and listened.
  • At the end of our meeting, 40 minutes later, he wished me the best and said stay in touch I want to hear how things go.

My takeaway was – wow – great guy – he had chatted with me for quite some time, he was open, forthright, honest, and above all welcomed the opportunity to share what he’d experienced and how it helped him shape his style of play.

I did stay in touch; over the last five years:

  • We regularly exchanged thoughts on my progress on “Possession with Purpose” (now published globally) with him even mentioning during one press conference after a previous game “that was pure possession with purpose – Gluck would be proud of that”.
  • We met many times to share (unfiltered thoughts, documents, and video) on players, upcoming games, tactics, scouting reports, and the dynamics on style of play in Major League Soccer, sometimes we met for lunch at the Timbers training facility sometimes we just chatted after their training session.
  • Most recently he agreed to be a reference for me on my coaching resume and gave me the go-ahead to share older video data with my high school team when teaching controlled possession-based soccer; my style of play too.
  • At all times, inner discussions about the Timbers were confidential.

My observations about Major League Soccer and Portland Timbers over the last five years:

  • Some outputs of soccer played in Major League Soccer are an aberration.
  • No league, I’ve measured, in the top European countries, or at the World Cup level, sees lower levels of passing accuracy and possession rewarded with post season adulation – or entrance into a ‘champions league’ the next year.
  • In Major League soccer mediocrity in the league table is rewarded.
  • For me, it’s simply unacceptable that teams who FAIL to win more than 50% of their games are considered good; not even College Soccer does that!
  • To hear others justify that it’s (okay) is offensive to me and …maybe to others?
  • Each year Caleb Porter has had to adjust his style of coaching soccer given the construct of the league and the nature of the franchise where player acquisition is limited due to the salary cap or disturbed due to ‘expansion’.
  • In the last five years over 91% of Portland Timber player acquisitions have failed – the most recent and obvious being the $5M drop on Lucas Melano – a player with no first touch what-so-ever.
  • Yes… Portland won the MLS Trophy in 2015 – but they’ve played better soccer in years they didn’t even make the playoffs, if that makes sense???

The current state of soccer styles in Major League Soccer:

  1. Build from the back using a controlled possession-based system that sees controlled possession leading to controlled penetration, creation, and goals scored plus there are instances where the team possesses the ball simply with the intent to possess and prevent the opponent from possessing the ball. In other words a majority of the game is controlled by controlling the ball.
    • Major League Soccer teams CANNOT and DO NOT effectively execute this style of play; okay – maybe one team – New York City FC.
  2. Play somewhat more direct with variations in your line of confrontation as well as your depth of defending, recognizing that controlled possession with the intent to possess is not a tactical option but direct attacking possession with the intent to penetrate is.
    • Major League Soccer teams, show, on rare occasion (Toronto, New York, Columbus, Kansas City, and Portland) varying levels of ability in executing this style of play
  3. Cede possession with the intent to counter via direct attacking; pretty much throwing out the idea that controlled possession is needed at all.  In short ‘controlled possession’ for these teams is a string of three, four, or five passes leading to a shot taken – with the initial pass originating from anywhere on the pitch.
    • Major League Soccer teams almost always show tendencies in trying to execute ONLY this style of play.

It’s my firm belief that to be great at #3 you must first know, understand, and have the ability to execute #1 (first) and then #2 (second)…

In other words – knowing how to play soccer is knowing how to use /create time and space anywhere on the pitch.

If you only play styles #3 then #2 you only educate your players on using/creating time and space available given those short/mid-term scenarios.

Meaning you aren’t maximizing your teams’ (learning) ability to use/create ALL the potential time and space available anywhere on the pitch.

I hope that makes sense?

In Closing:

After taking into consideration my own personal knowledge of Caleb, our discussions, and  current conditions on style of play in Major League Soccer I’d offer…

Caleb left because he was frustrated with the style of soccer he had to coach instead of the style of soccer he wanted to coach.

What tipped the scales this year might have been his approach to the front office saying I want to redo the entire team organizational structure to develop and acquire players who can play a more possession-based style of soccer and the front office said no…

Hence the “fundamental difference”.

I don’t sense Caleb Porter is ready to take on the United States Men’s National Team yet.

But IF HE DOES – I’ll bet he “drives” (with a passion unmatched) United States soccer towards being a controlled possession-based team – and that, in my view, is the ONLY way this country can challenge at the highest levels of international soccer.

FACT: The best national and domestic teams “regularly” play controlled possession-based soccer building from the back….

 

I wish Caleb Porter the very best as he carves out his future in coaching at the very highest levels of our profession.

Best, Chris

 

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9 thoughts on “Gluck: Porter Pulls out of Portland

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  1. Nice article, but if he doesn’t fancy coaching in the MLS , where would he go? Back to college? That would be a lot less money. USMNT won’t be offered to him. No top flight European team is going to hire an American manager for some time. My guess is he goes to a MLS team that he doesn’t have to deal with GW and such close ownership meddling …

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    1. Thanks Matt – hard one to write.

      GREAT question :). I imagine he may end up as an assistant coach somewhere in Europe or perhaps a head coaching job in Mexico or elsewhere that affords him an opportunity to coach the style of soccer he wants to coach. Recall he did well in Akron in recruiting players to ‘fit his style’ or players were mentally tough enough to ‘learn his style’ – meaning he wasn’t held back by ‘salary cap crap’ 🙂 I absolutely, positively do not see him going to another MLS team given the ‘chains’ the MLS single-franchise puts on player acquisition – I could be wrong?

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  2. Hey Chris- interesting article… thx for the analysis. I’m curious what role do you think injuries played? And not just normal attrition.

    It seems to me there is a disconnect in the front office around player management/health. The Timbers’ trainer quit mid-season. This raises a lot of questions for me around why he quit, and who created the environment that led to his departure.

    Injuries played an outsized role in the Timbers’ early exit… there’s smoke there for me.

    Thx-
    Geoff

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    1. Hi Geoff, Thanks – good to hear you found the article of interest; had much more to offer but felt that was the most relevant.

      Great question 🙂 Many different angles to cover in trying to answer this one but I’ll try to do my best.

      So you know – I did want to include a discussion about injuries but felt the article would have been far to long and taken away from the main point about tactics and style – something very keen to Caleb.

      Here goes… 🙂

      One: In a league where a salary cap exists injuries certainly play a part – the depth of the bench is challenged and in all likelihood your bench players are technically good but (may?) not be your first choice when it comes to tactics and ‘mistake free expectations’…

      MLS has always been a league where the team making the fewest mistakes wins… that kinda falls into why most teams rely on style #3… they prefer to NOT have the ball because they make fewer mistakes when they don’t have it? Make sense?

      Two: When a coach, I include myself in this too… has to rely on bench players it sometimes means the on-field tactics you would normally use aren’t available because the skill set isn’t there either.

      In their last game (as an example) the most notable absence to me wasn’t Diego Chara – it was Fanendo Adi. When Adi is on the pitch you have THREE potential “game winning” strikers – Blanco, Valeri, and Adi and usually those three (along with Nagbe) are pretty good at controlling the ball as well as penetrating and scoring (style #2). Each of these three being a threat means their ‘gravitational pull’ is strong enough that the opponent can’t just key on one of those three without ceding time and space to the other two… so the opponent tries to ‘manage’ all the space those three may use to put a shot on goal – THAT makes the Timbers attack better.

      With Adi out, and then having Blanco off the pitch too, that forced a more direct #3 style of play meaning the tenor of the attack was (direct) down Asprilla’s side… and it also meant Houston could key on Valeri… Nagbe in style #3 is pretty much ineffective and has a minimal role to connect only.

      Fortunately for Porter his first half tactics worked… but in the second half when he tried to rotate back to style #2 by bringing Blanco on for Okugo it didn’t….

      What happened is the tenor of play switched from an effective Asprilla – down one wing – to an ineffective (rusty) Blanco on the other wing… to make matters worse the Timbers didn’t move to style #2 – they simply sustained style #3 but opted to showcase Blanco – not Asprilla… so when the direct attack broke down the central midfield the gap, created with the departure of Okugo, was exposed…

      So it’s likely a ‘lone Chara’ doesn’t stop that shot either and hence my belief the absence of Adi created a greater negative impact on Porter not being able to run #2 style than the absence of Chara…

      Anyway – I probably digress… in short – with injuries Porter usually had to shift from style #2 to style #3… not good for two reasons, one it meant his most technically sound players were unavailable and two it also meant his own personal experience in game management wasn’t at peak performance.

      Therefore – injuries played a SIGNIFICANT part in having to make those style changes.

      Three: In terms of front office player management / health… and the trainer issue.

      It’s hard to get a feel for that as it’s behind closed doors – but the recurrence of injuries to Ridgewell and then the mystery of Adi’s injury were never fully explained. I do sense Adi is fit now, he’s a good guy and knows the value of player development and leadership – I think he is likely to return to the Timbers next year.

      In all likelihood there is smoke there – but I’d offer the injuries out-sized role was more about game-management and lack of ability to have a stronger bench given the salary cap than the personnel issues at work in the background… that probably omits ‘juicy rumor stuff’ Geoff… sorry 🙂

      I hope that helps Geoff?

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      1. Awesome stuff, Chris. I’m a reformed soccer junkie and retired coach, so really appreciate your perspective. Thanks again, and keep up the good work!
        Geoff

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  3. Again , as I expected from you, you have made solid points for what I believed was the real reason for the leaving of an outstanding if not the best coach I have had the pleasure to watch. I am not by any means a person who knows much about the game but I am a passionate member of the army and I love the Timbers. Until recently, due to health issues, I have been there, camped out, to stand where I need to for every match.
    Thank you for your insight and being able to put into words what I am thinking but not able to get across to others.

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    1. Hi Butch, thank you good sir. I watch, follow, and support the Timbers due to the atmosphere and environment created by the Timbers Army. It is “unmatched” in the United States… my hat is off to you and all the other Timbers Army members for creating and influencing soccer in our city! I wish you a speedy recovery and a return to the welcome confines of Providence Park. Best, Chris

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  4. Hi Chris. Learned a great deal from your post. I’m a relatively new soccer fan, thanks to a friend who introduced me to the Timbers and the Army about four years ago. Now my 12-year-old and I make nearly every match. Your insights will help me watch and think about what happens on the pitch in a new light. I recall a long podcast interview with Caleb Porter late in the season. He mentioned NYFC’s Patrick Vieira as among coaches he admires for style of play, which fits your analysis.

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    1. MW, Thanks for reading the article and sharing your thoughts. It IS A GREAT atmosphere at the stadium, especially for family, and it’s the only reason why I watch/follow the Portland Timbers. If it weren’t for the Timbers Army I’d continue to stick with English Premier League.

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