Caleb Porter, One-on-One: I had it all figured out, then I got punched in the nose
Caleb Porter thought he knew it all as he built the University of Akron's men's soccer program into the nation's finest, producing beautiful soccer while developing a long list of top pros, including Darlington Nagbe, DeAndre Yedlin, Perry Kitchen, Wil Trapp, Teal Bunbury and Steve Zakuani.
His failure to guide the U.S. Under-23 national team into the 2012 London Olympics convinced him otherwise and led him to MLS. Since 2013, he has led the Portland Timbers and two years ago claimed Cascadia's first MLS Cup championship, beating the hated Seattle Sounders by a season.
I really like coaching players in that 18-to-22-year-old age. We just haven't had that many that have been talented enough.
Now he's trying to veer a side that this season has dealt with extensive injuries back into the playoffs after missing out last season by just two points.
The Timbers are at .500, but don't count them out. They’ve dealt with injuries, and they are developing young guys like Jeremy Ebobisse, Marco Farfan, Victor Arboleda and Harold Hanson.
Plus, they have Porter. The 42-year-old, a former midfielder with the San Jose Clash and Tampa Bay Mutiny, is one of the finest coaches in America, and FourFourTwo caught up with him to trace his path and the evolution of his philosophy.
FFT: When you made the move to MLS, you weren’t working as thoroughly with young players as at Akron. Was that one of the tougher adjustments in the job?
CP: Absolutely. There's pros and cons to both levels. And let's be honest, the job I was in at Akron was a great job. But I'd been there seven years, and I'd accomplished really everything I could accomplish in terms of developing players for the next level. I had 20 guys who went on to the pro ranks, and I won a national championship [in 2010], and I saw so many of my guys leave that I felt like, you know what, maybe it's time for me to leave and make that jump and challenge myself at a higher level.
I still have my beliefs, I still have my philosophies, but I think when I came here, I had a couple philosophies. Now I have 100 philosophies.
I felt in this opportunity at Portland, that it was a sleeping giant, and I felt like it was the right club at the right time in the right place -- for my family as well, this community. So for me, it was a no-brainer to do that.
Yeah, there are times you miss the purity of the college athlete that's not playing yet for money and the opportunity at that level to develop more than just the soccer player. You're developing the person. So that's definitely a plus of being at that level. But for me, it just started to get old. It's a three-and-a-half-month season. That's not enough time on the pitch, not enough challenge, not enough opportunity to grow and learn.
And now five years later, it's hard to believe, but I've managed over 200 games in all competitions, and I'm 100 times a better coach, person, everything. With all the experiences I've had, obviously on the pitch, that's 200 high-level games where you're game-planning and preparing tactically and the training sessions leading up to those games, and then in the game the adjustments, the subs. I'm a far better coach because of that level and coaching that amount of games. Every season is almost like three college seasons wrapped in one.
I also think it's been good for me, because I've had to coach my team in games where sometimes the opponent's more talented. And at Akron, that was rarely the case. I've had to learn an even deeper level of adjustment and tactical awareness, and that's made me a much more well-rounded coach. I still have my beliefs, I still have my philosophies, but I think when I came here, I had a couple philosophies. Now I have 100 philosophies. Because you have to adjust more.
I thought that I had it all figured out. And then the [failure at the 2012] Olympic qualifying kind of punched me in the nose.
The interesting thing is it doesn't always show up in the results. Sometimes, that can be frustrating, because you think, ‘I'm better every year, every game. I'm way better than I was five years ago,’ but you're still going to lose games. A lot of games, actually, at this level, so coping with that is a challenge, especially when you're not used to losing many games.
I think I said that in the Pro License [course U.S. Soccer established]. We had to get up and talk about a growth experience, and the one I used was, you know, at Akron in some ways I was in a fantasyland of football, where we're winning every game and we're playing like Barcelona, and I thought that I had it all figured out. And then the [failure at the 2012] Olympic qualifying kind of punched me in the nose.
And I realized that, you know what, I didn't know it all. I had to look at change, at adapting somewhat, and, ultimately, that pushed me to the pros. Because I felt like I was ready, I needed to go and do that and learn. And now I feel like I have made those adjustments, I have grown and learned, and I'm a far better coach and leader because of that.
FFT: Let's go back to your time at Indiana University, where you played for the legendary Jerry Yeagley. Is that where you discovered you wanted to be a coach?
CP: I was a decent student, not a great student, and it wasn't because I wasn't smart. It was because I really was not passionate about school. I was passionate about soccer and being a professional player, and I was a student of the game then, as a player. I could sit in the locker room and hear the coach talk for 30 minutes and eat it up, and I would sit in the classroom for an hour and just, you know, tune out.
I was just enamored by the game and the Xs and the Os and even the leadership that all my coaches displayed. And so, yeah, even as a player, my first goal and love was to be a player and to be a pro, but also I knew whenever that ended, that I was going to be a coach. Because that was my passion. My true love was the game, in general.
When I left Indiana to go into MLS, I remember coach Yeagley telling me I was going to be a great coach, and he said, ‘I'd like to help you when the playing days are done.’ Little did I know that that would be a lot sooner than I wanted. It was literally a couple years later, where I had a couple knee injuries, and at 25 I was hired back. ... That was where I cut my teeth, going back there and learning the ropes from him.
FFT: What were the most important things you learned from Yeagley?
CP: [The] biggest thing I learned, and I think the most import thing, is man-management. Leadership. Building a culture. And I think that's, in a lot of ways, my edge on a lot of other [coaches] that have been higher-level players. I had the opportunity to learn the psychology of winning and building a team and managing a staff and building a culture and being a leader and a man-manager. I really feel like that at this level [in MLS], you can have the tactics, but if you don't have the leadership and the man-management, you can't make it. ... I think that's one of the most important things at this level, and I was able to learn that from what I view is one of the greatest leaders in soccer history.
It was eye-opening for me, because I thought as a player I had kind of seen what Coach Yeagley was doing, and I had probably only seen 10 percent of what he was doing. It was such a great lesson to see there's a lot more that goes into this than I thought. Every day was a lesson. ... That was extremely valuable for me to learn how to build a program, really. Build a club, build a team. That team-building component, I feel that you don't really get that anywhere else, other than learning from someone like him that's a master of it. You can go watch training sessions all you want, but you don't learn that from any session you can watch. You can only learn that from actually working with someone that's really good.