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.
I’m sure many feel the Timbers were unlucky this weekend – perhaps rightly so.
For now, at least, I’m not convinced.
In the post-game press conference Caleb Porter offered these thoughts about missing Darlington Nagbe; they struck a chord with me, perhaps they will with you too?
Porter: “And I think today missing Darlington you could see that we just aren’t quite as good in possession. Sometimes you don’t know his impact until he’s gone. It’s not always the goals, but his ability to float around and find pockets and help us keep the ball and get out of tight spaces. In the attack I think we’ve been missing a little bit of chemistry in there and it’s because we haven’t had the group together.”
Well… I would agree the general public might not know his impact but I’d offer most Timbers Army supporters do.
I’d also offer the entire coaching staff, front office, and physio folks know what Nagbe brings to the pitch.
So why the mystery on setting up the team for success without Nagbe?
I’m not sure, but to try and scratch the itch let’s review a team statistic the Timbers pay attention to (possession percentage) on a regular basis to see if that helps crack the nut.
In the two most recent games the Timbers had ~ 45% possession (at San Jose) and ~30% possession (at home to Atlanta). In those two games I’d submit it’s a reasonable conclusion there was intent to cede possession.
The starting lineups, in both games, included two wingers.
- Darren Mattocks and Dairon Asprilla against San Jose with Sebastian Blanco and Dairon Asprilla against Atlanta.
- Substitutions in San Jose included Jack Barmby (a connecting midfielder) and Victor Arboleda (a winger). In Atlanta the only substitution was Darren Mattocks (a winger) for Dairon Asprilla.
- In the post game press conference against San Jose Porter acknowledge the possession and connection between the midfield and defense as well as Adi was better after Barmby entered the game.
- In the Atlanta game Blanco did drift central, as did Asprilla. Asprilla had minimal success in penetrating the center and Blanco, while offering some good penetrating/attacking passes from the center didn’t provide connection nor drift into pockets of space to create space for others.
In other words, with the exception of adding Barmby the last 35 minutes against San Jose Porter didn’t have players, on the pitch, who could emulate (at any level) what Nagbe brings to the pitch.
Forward into the past:
When trying to figure what right looks like sometimes there’s value in looking at history.
2016 was not a successful year for the Portland Timbers, they failed to win on the road and they failed to make the playoffs; but… was the entire season a failure?
At no point, in 2016, did the Timbers ever lose, or even draw, at home, when ceding 55% possession (or greater) to the opponent.
(Six games played – Six games won /// 12 goals scored – three goals against)
To be glib that’s pretty successful.
Perhaps more appropriate is “stunningly successful”…
Of note, two of those home games were against San Jose… the others were against Columbus, Sporting KC, Toronto, and Real Salt Lake.
A blend of teams who play possession-based, direct, as well as counter-attacking – in other words a pretty good sample to draw on for comparison.
Was there any pattern of players selected that stands out as being different than the last two games the Timbers have played?
In everyone of those games, even in the game Nagbe didn’t start, the Timbers starting line-up consisted of two midfield connecting players, either Nagbe and Valeri or Grabavoy and Valeri.
Pretty much confirming the player selection against San Jose and Atlanta ignored the Timbers pattern of stunning perfection in 2016.
What’s disappointing from all this is the Timbers coaching staff (collectively) – quite possibly ignored their “chemistry” successes of 2016 and didn’t start two ‘connectors’ or at least have one of the wingers play deeper/more narrow.
Even more perplexing is the organizational mid-week decision to play the one player, who could add connecting capability, a full 90 minutes in a USL T2 game. Pretty much meaning the coaching staff had reached a conclusion that Barmby’s added value for the weekend was minimal.
I don’t see Jack Barmby in training, but I do see him play, on occasion, and he adds value as a connector – why he isn’t getting more meaningful minutes is a decision the coaching staff have made.
If he’s not worthy to slot in as a starter to connect with others in a team role then I’d expect the Timbers to be shopping for a midfielder who can… to date all we’ve heard about is the anticipated arrival of a new center-back.
Darlington Nagbe is expected to return to the starting lineup against Montreal this weekend. That’s probably a good thing.
It gives Caleb Porter and his entire staff more time to evaluate the historical, individual player and team performances, with and without Darlington Nagbe in order to better prepare for his absence again.
Finally, an observation for your consideration.
In the Timbers first seven games, without Liam Ridgewell on the pitch, the team gave up nine goals (1.28 goals against per game).
With Liam Ridgwell on the pitch, the last four games, the Timbers have given up seven goals (1.75 goals against per game).
Is it fair to say the Timbers have been less effective in defending with Ridgewell leading the defense?
With the Timbers shopping for a new center-back is it reasonable to consider that the player replaced is not Lawrence Olum or Roy Miller?
Over the course of a season, in Major League Soccer, it is likely every team will have players and head coaches/managers who make mistakes that cost a team three points or two points. In a league with a salary cap it’s almost expected.
The critical piece is not making the same mistake twice.
In the Portland Timbers last game against San Jose Earthquakes there were multiple mistakes – not only on the pitch but off the pitch.
To say the tenor of the game was etched in stone before kickoff isn’t fair as the game was yet to be played and the opportunity, for individual player excellence, was there.
But as shown in yielding two (soft) first half goals and an early second half goal, player excellence did not come to the fore… instead we saw disjointed passing and a defensive outcome similar to the days of Portland under the leadership of John Spencer.
What I’d offer, after witnessing that game, is Portland is NOT a two wing football club. Their survival, and great results, stem from a strong attacking center with support from the wings.
Perhaps put another way – there are issues with this football club when both Diego Valeri AND Darlington Nagbe are missing… And given Nagbe is likely to get more playing time with the US Men’s National Team this year and next – it’s likely to happen more often than supporters like.
So about the other night…
I’d offer both Dairon Asprilla AND Darren Mattocks shouldn’t start together on the wings; one needs to give way to a player who’s a connector.
And since Ned Grabavoy retired, the next player up is Jack Barmby; a left footed player who can drift inside – kinda similar to Darlington Nagbe but not as gifted in dribble penetration… yet?
Some may disagree, but myself and at least one other previous Timber player, with pedigree, believe he’s shown the grist, grit, and a willingness to take players on, while offering an ability to drift inside and show good positional play/awareness, along with vision, nous, and a great first touch.
If you recall when Barmby entered the game, followed up about 10 minutes later, by Arboleda, the complexion of the midfield changed… for the better. Even Porter, in his post game presser, acknowledged the substitutions made a positive difference in the game.
And while some may say Barmby forced the issue, on occasion, I’d submit he did that with the intent to force opponent mistakes in the Timbers attacking half, not due to slack play. It’s also worth mentioning in his 33 minutes of play he had just as many recoveries as Asprilla and Mattocks combined.
All told he offered risky play in attack – perhaps not ideal when it’s 1-1, but when down 3-nil it’s a worthy gamble; especially in the attacking half of the pitch.
From a tactical standpoint I’m not sure that clears the plate of mistakes.
I’m wondering about the rationale for removing Dairon Asprilla, first, over Darren Mattocks.
I felt, saw, and sensed Asprilla played better and even though statistics never tell the whole story they do tell a story.
- Previously (against FC Dallas) Mattocks, was a second choice starter behind Asprilla, yet in this game Mattocks saw three times more of the ball than Asprilla.
- Mattocks offered 21 passes with seven incomplete (four in the defending half) compared to just seven passes offered by Asprilla with one incomplete.
- In defending the wings, San Jose penetrated (roughly 66% of the time) down Mattocks side; a high percentage like that usually indicates the opponent sees that wing as the weaker of the two wings.
- That consistent wing penetration, down Mattocks side, led to 66% (six of their nine) of their key passes originating from that side.
So why was Dairon Asprilla pulled first?
Perhaps Asprilla was pulled first simply because Porter has greater confidence in Mattocks since Darren has history with him through Akron? It wouldn’t be the first time some have felt Porter shows preference to players he coached in Akron.
It’s not hard to forget Steve Zakuani or Ben Zemanski getting meaningful minutes when others may have warranted more play.
However viewed, Portland attempted to attack down a less productive wing and that volume of ball play, on the left, directly supported the attacking strategy of San Jose.
What’s a positive from this substitution?
When Porter made the decision to bring in Jack Barmby that signaled, to me, Porter recognized his two wing attack wasn’t working.
I’m not sure what the health status of Nagbe and Valeri will be this weekend against a very strong attacking side like Atlanta United.
I’d venture to offer the Timbers won’t show a two-wing attack and you can bet they’ll be thinking defense first.
If Nagbe and Valeri are both out perhaps we see Jack Barmby start? Or… perhaps we see Porter go with Amobi Okugo, Diego Chara, and David Guzman with a slightly more narrow midfield presence headed by Sebastian Blanco?