Caleb Porter, One-on-One: I had it all figured out, then I got punched in the nose
FFT: Did your core philosophies develop during those years at Indiana? How would you describe your core philosophy?
CP: I think philosophy is always changing and adapting. I don't believe in one philosophy, I believe in hundreds of philosophies. A philosophy, the way I see it, is based on a situation, and I have a lot of philosophies for a lot of different situations. Now I used to have one philosophy, for one situation, and as a pro coach you have to have your preferred philosophies, your preferred vision of the game, your preferred beliefs of how you want to win games, but you also have to have different ideas for adapting when the situation calls for it.
There were things I took from Indiana, in terms of how they played. Kind of their pressing game, which I always liked. I thought it was a big part of why we won at Indiana, and I really liked the aggressive nature of it, so I took that with me. We played a 3-5-2 at Indiana, so from a system standpoint, I immediately moved to a back four at Akron.
I thought I had it all figured out, and I recruited players that could execute it, and we pretty much dominated college soccer.
My goal was to kind of take the IU pressing and learn the attacking side in a more possession-based philosophy, and put the two together. Take the culture side, take the leadership side, take the pressing side, the man-management stuff – I mean, I would never be where I'm at if it wasn't for that – but then I wanted to play more possession-based and change into more of a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 diamond-type system. In terms of playing possession, those are some of the more ideal formations.
And then at Akron I put the two together and created a philosophy, a brand of soccer, and I called it 'dominant football. I got that from reading and watching Louis van Gaal, actually, and then I went over to Barcelona and spent a lot of time over there. Like I said, I thought I had it all figured out, and I recruited players that could execute it, and we pretty much dominated college soccer.
FFT: Akron played the prettiest soccer in America, any level.
CP: Yeah, and we produced players by playing that way, and we mostly focused on pressure and possession and the phase of play in the front half and dominating and dictating games every single game. It led to winning a lot of games and breaking NCAA records and winning a national championship.
I swear, if that ball doesn't go in, we go to the Olympics, and I'm probably still ... who knows? You never know. Things happen for a reason.
And then I take over the Olympic team, and we win every game, every friendly. We play the same way. I'm thinking, ‘See, this works. It just works.’ And we played Mexico in a friendly right before qualifying, and we dominate the game, we win, 2-0, and I'm thinking, ‘This works in college, this works at any level.’ And then we go in the first game, and we play Cuba, and we beat them, 6-0, and then, bang! The whole world just turned upside down. We play Canada, they dropped off, they played a 4-3-2-1, low block, we couldn't break them down, they opened us up on counters, they hit us on set pieces, we lost, 2-0. We dominated possession, and they murdered us on the break.
Then we went into the next game, we had to win, and we played El Salvador, and we drew the game on a last-second shot. I'll never forget it. It was the 95th minute – was supposed to be five minutes of stoppage time; I think it was 95:30 on the clock – and Jaime Alas picks up a ball, dribbles, shoots a prayer from like 30 [yards], it goes through Sean Johnson's hands, and my career's never been the same. In a good way. Because I swear, if that ball doesn't go in, we go to the Olympics, and I'm probably still ... who knows? You never know. Things happen for a reason.
But that opened my eyes. I suffered through that and for the first time was criticized heavily, and that was good for me. And that's what prompted me to go [to MLS]. I had a lot of offers prior to that, but I think [Olympic qualifying] really opened my eyes that it's very difficult to play the same way every single game, especially at the pro level when you have teams that are more talented than you, that want to do the same thing, that want to dictate the game and have the ball.
When you look at the modern game these days, too, you see that. It’s not just about having the ball. It’s not just about pressing. That's one way of playing, and maybe there are a handful of teams that play that way every single game – game in, game out, never adjusting – but I haven't had one of those types of teams.
I learned to control games in different ways. Because for me, what I always want in how my teams play, I want control. And I want to increase my chances of winning the game with control. And I always believed the best way to win games was with possession and pressure, but if you don't have the players to execute that, that actually will backfire, big-time, at the pro level. So I learned to control games without the ball and to increase our chances of winning different ways, through transition, and my philosophy now is to be more multifaceted, to be able to always keep the ball if we feel it's the best way to go or if the talent of our team allows us to do that.
I will always have a team that's capable of keeping the ball. ... I believe in more possession in the front half, where it matters, where you can circulate the ball and try to score goals. And I always like to put pressure as well, but sometimes that's not realistic. Sometimes the conditions warrant that you can't press. Sometimes the opponent warrants or your personnel warrant that you can't press and possess. And that's why for me you have to be able to do it all. In the modern game, you have to be able to do it all, and you can't be predictable, and you have to have different formations, and you have to be able to control games in different ways.