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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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?
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.