Caleb Porter is a young coach with a decorated resume. Voted the 2013 MLS Coach of the Year after the Portland Timbers accrued 57 league points, Porter has brought a sense of stability to the club on the back of his time as USA Men’s U23 coach and a 12-year tenure in the American college soccer scene. PDP Editor Dave Wright spoke with Caleb about his career and progress at Portland Timbers.
Portland are a relatively new club to MLS, having only entered the league in 2011, but it’s clear when Caleb talks about his time at the club so far and the long-term view, that there is a plan in place. And a big part of Caleb’s role at Portland is to see that plan through: “The performance plan is always being developed,” he says. “We have a structure and a philosophy and have tried to implement that across the board. It is a plan which helps us develop players and teach them to understand what the first team is about.”
Like many who begin coaching young, Porter was forced into an early retirement due to persistent injury.
It was a tough blow for someone so “obsessed” with playing football to have to end his playing career so young. It had become Caleb’s “routine every day,” to the point where he felt his entire life was “intertwined with the game”. Thinking back on that time, he reflects: “When that routine is changed then it becomes very difficult psychologically because your life is very different without the game.”
But football stayed part of his life. Porter went on to experience good success in his college coaching days, including a prestigious NCAA title at the University of Akron. Following his injury he immersed himself in coaching and spent five years learning his trade at his former college, Indiana University, as an assistant. Caleb explains, “As soon as I knew my playing days were done it didn’t take long for me to realise that the next best thing was to be a coach. I always wanted to stay in the game so I shifted gears and tried to become the best coach I could be.”
Porter was 29 when he took the Head Coach position at the University of Akron. He describes his approach to his new role was to be “as professional as possible within the NCAA rules. There was a lot of growth involved with these initial jobs as I had to learn how to coach. I knew the game but I wasn’t naive enough to think I knew how to coach straight away. I learned quickly that there is more than just the training pitch. It’s important to be well rounded and coaches have to wear many hats. It’s leadership and managing players, developing a philosophy, understanding playing systems, game planning and game tactics.”
Caleb’s impressive record with the University of Akron certainly suggests he had the right approach and style whilst at the Ohio College. This approach was to look at his playing group as a professional team in terms of both style and session design, which he had picked up by watching pro coaches at work. “It made sense to me,” he explains, “because my players’ goals were to be professionals – so I needed to teach them how to be a professional.”
“I learned quickly that there is more than just the training pitch. It’s important to be well rounded and coaches have to wear many hats.”
Porter got a great deal of his knowledge through travelling, observing and connecting with some of the best in the business – a trend that we have noticed in coaches we’ve spoken with previously – and it is a process which he advises all coaches to undertake as they develop. He reflects fondly on his time observing in Europe, saying, “I spent time in Spain at Barcelona, Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao. I went to England and observed Mourinho at Chelsea, Roy Hodgson when he was at Fulham and went up to Liverpool and watched Benitez work when he was there. I think it’s a huge advantage to observe people work and then take what you see and try and tweak it into your own philosophy. However,” he is quick to add, “it has to fit your team, your club and the level you’re at, and you have to be adaptable.”
There is no doubt soccer is a fast- growing sport in the USA, with MLS getting stronger and more popular each year – and a population the size of America’s means the playing talent is certainly there. But in a country dominated by so many sports, and coming from a family where his Dad “was a baseball, football, basketball kind of guy”, what was it about soccer that ignited Caleb’s passion?
“I played most sports until high school but I fell in love with soccer,” he smiles. “I love the free flowing nature of the game. It’s not as coach-dominant as many other American sports. It’s a chess match within the game and the creative nature of soccer just captured me.” There are arguments for and against the theory that specialisation in one sport as a child may not be as beneficial to a young athlete as playing many different sports. As someone who played a number of sports in his youth before concentrating on soccer, it might be tempting to think that Caleb follows this theory. And while he does believe in specialisation, he believes that “it should happen, but perhaps not until after the age of 10 or 11-years- old. Most importantly, it should be once the child has decided what game they love the most.” And although he acknowledges that there are plenty of great examples of players who have had success without specialising, Caleb believes that “the more time you spend playing a game, the better you get. I believe in the idea of mastery and the principles of the 10,000 hour model to become good at any sport.”
Malcolm Gladwell certainly has polarised opinion with his theory around the 10,000-hour model and it sparks the discussion of burnout. Caleb lays the blame of any issue around this topic squarely at the feet of coaches. He explains, “If you love a sport you want to play it every day – no one gets burnt out playing street soccer every day so I think players get burnt out because they do too many sports, or they play sports with too much structure and that comes back to coaches. Coaches can burn players out. As a father with three kids, I will encourage them to do a variety of sports initially, but once they decide they really like a sport, I’ll encourage them to specialise in it.”
In 2011–12, Caleb was charged with coaching the US Men’s National U23’s group, a role he describes as “a challenging job”. Similarly to New Zealand Men’s Coach, Anthony Hudson – who was interviewed in the previous issue of this magazine – Porter cites the lack of contact time with the players as a big hurdle to overcome.
“In general all the national team roles are challenging because you might get the players for eight days and then they head back to their clubs for two months. There is a real struggle for continuity because of that lack of time together as a team, and of course you can be working with different players depending on selection each time. The structure wasn’t easy and I probably didn’t know about all of those challenges until I took the role on.”
Caleb is frank when discussing the difficulties of this role and is forthcoming about what he’d have done differently if he had his time over. “Firstly,” he says, “I would demand more contact time with the players. Secondly, I would have also rotated my squad a bit more. In hindsight that’s something I should have done a lot better in qualifying.”
“As a coach you have to be realistic and know your team and the opponent and figure out the right tactics based on that whilst sticking to your beliefs.”
We all know how fickle the coaching industry is and how we all make mistakes as we seek out the best solutions to develop our players. With his customary frankness, Caleb is open about his mistakes, saying he has been at times “stubborn” and “not pragmatic enough”. He explains the impact by saying “I may have played the wrong system or style for a certain game and it didn’t fit based on my own team’s ability.” He continues, “I’ve also been over-ambitious in the past or conversely adapted too much to the opponent and not been agressive enough. As a coach you have to be realistic and know your team and the opponent and figure out the right tactics based on that whilst sticking to your beliefs. The worst thing you can be as a coach is naive and I try to never let that happen.”
Caleb is now trying to find that balance at Portland Timbers. This season the club launched ‘T2’ – a team who play in the USL division. According to Caleb, this new team is hugely important in the development pathway at the club at it creates “a vertically integrated club – one team, one club, one philosophy.” This development of the academy has created an infrastructure that is in line with the first team, which is important because, as Caleb points out, “If we want to develop players for the first team, we need players to be playing in a system and style like the first team as young as possible.”
Porter outlines the aims of the academy, saying, “The main objective of the academy is simple: to develop players for the first team. With that, winning and results are a factor, but by far the priority is to develop players. A part of developing players is trying to win games, to teach players how to win, but we will sacrifice a result in order to advance a player’s development.”
He continues, “In terms of how T2 fits in, we’ve had our U23 team below the first team squad in the past but we didn’t have that connection from academy to first team. By bridging that gap with T2, we avoid players falling through the cracks, and we’ve had that happen. Sometimes players just need games to go and make mistakes and ‘settle in’ in order to develop, and we’re hoping T2 will provide that.”
At the top of the club is the first team and a fairly traditional structure. Porter has a strong team around him with a variety of attributes and experience. In Sean McAuley he has a highly qualified assistant with a first-class coaching and playing background in England having formerly managed the Academy at Sheffield United and been a player at Manchester United. In Cameron Knowles he has a young, intelligent coach and former Timbers captain. So how does he combine the workload with these and his other assistants, goalkeeping coach Adin Brown and analyst Pablo Moreira?
“I very much believe in a management team. We share the coaching duties. I lead the discussion of the weekly cycle but ultimately it’s a collaboration of all of our staff. We sit in the war room every morning and we discuss each day’s training, the week’s plan and training loads with our sports scientist. We’re a team and I need people around me to help me, and although the decisions rest with me, I value the opinions of my staff. Practically, some days I’ll run a session, some days Sean will take the session or it might be Cameron who takes part of the session and the players move between coaches.”
He continues, “I don’t believe in dominating everything that’s done at this club. It’s a 10-month season; there is a need for different voices. I have picked a staff that will balance my strengths and weaknesses as well. Within training, scouting, video, my assistants are right there with me, but I do love to be on the pitch working with the players.”
As MLS continues to rapidly expand, the quality of players appears to improve. Gone are the days of the only overseas stars being at retirement age. Caleb believes that the best player in the league is Giovinco at Toronto FC, “without doubt”. Describing the former Juventus man as “world class”, Caleb explains “It’s a great statement for MLS that we can get a player like him who is not in the twilight of his career. He is the most exciting because he has a combination of athleticism, creativity and skill. He’s very explosive, but exceptionally skillful.”
“It’s a great statement for MLS that we can get a player like him who is not in the twilight of his career.” – Caleb Porter on Toronto FC’s Giovinco
On the topic of developing creative players, Caleb is slightly surprising in his views, suggesting that, “I don’t think you can. I think it’s an interesting debate. As much as we would like to think coaches are responsible for developing creativity, I look at it more like trying to expose creativity. When I went to Bilbao they said they don’t develop players, they expose players – and that stuck with me.”
Porter continues, “I think it’s a good way to look at it. Coaches pride themselves on developing players, but a lot of the time the best way to develop creativity is to stay out of the players’ way. Sometimes there is far too much structure, which stifles creativity. The creative player for me is that player because he plays without structure and probably has innate gifts that aren’t coached.”
And what might contribute to these innate gifts? Does Caleb believe a player’s culture or environment directly translates to their style of play? You bet: “I believe in that 100%. I think understanding where your players come from, their culture and what makes them unique is a key to coaching. You have to look at those differences as positive and not take away from their individual qualities.
My entire starting line-up is from 11 different countries. My Jamaican player is very different to my Argentine player so it’s my job to try and bring out their talents and strengths. If you over- structure things you run the risk of removing a player’s special qualities (as a player and person) and they might become unhappy or under-valued. The individual is crucial within the team.”
Porter is keen to talk about advice for grassroots or developing coaches. How can those with lesser knowledge or experience, or those who volunteer with their local soccer teams, have the most positive impact on their players in the limited time they train together each week? “I see a lot of coaches that look at players for what they aren’t – for what they’re not good at instead of looking at what they are good at,” he says. “Instead of running a session and barking at players for an hour about what’s wrong and what they’re not doing, I would prefer to see more coaches that are providing sessions that are more positive and don’t include too much talking or negative feedback. That’s not to say that a coach shouldn’t be honest with their players, but negativity has to be removed.”
He continues, “For example, when I was observing at Barcelona, the environment was very tranquil, the players enjoyed it, the coach wasn’t stopping the session every two seconds, the coach wasn’t screaming or creating a chaotic or negative environment. They create a positive, peaceful but competitive environment. The coach doesn’t dominate it and I think we could do that much better in the USA. As coaches, we are often taught that if we’re not talking, we’re not ‘coaching’, that if we’re not yelling or ‘motivating’ then we’re not getting enough out of the players and I don’t think that’s true. When I watch the top coaches work, I see calmness about them. When I was in Spain I saw a lot of coaches asking a lot of questions. It’s important to avoid telling the players all the answers and let them solve the problems by taking a step back. Players need the chance to explore, make mistakes and self-correct – we need to arm them with a soccer IQ to enable them to be a top player. I’ve learned at the pro level the best players smell the game themselves.”
Caleb Porter is a man with confidence, self-assurance and conviction in the way he speaks about soccer.
At Portland Timbers he has a solid foundation to build on with the help of a strong organisation and some great support staff. The challenge for Porter and his troops from here is to see how that plan converts into results both in terms of players emerging through their own development systems, as well as the first team’s status as a title threat in MLS. With a combination of clever recruitment, player development and a strong coaching staff, it might not be long before we see the Portland Timbers climbing to the top of the MLS tree.
Caleb Porter on the sidelines. Portland Timbers vs San Jose Earthquakes. Photo: Steve Dykes