Caleb Porter, One-on-One: I had it all figured out, then I got punched in the nose
FFT: We've seen so many teams get hot at the end of the season and win MLS Cup. You and the Timbers did that in 2015. Did it change how you approach a season?
One of the guys I always watched a lot, studied a lot, was Bruce Arena. He always seemed to know how to whip the horse at the right time.
CP: Yeah. You have to learn always the cycle of a season, and the season for college was a lot different than a season in the pros. I talked about what I thought was an advantage in being an assistant coach for six years under a really good leader and learning some things that maybe some of the other ex-players hadn't learned. I think one of my disadvantages was that I wasn't a player for a long time. To be able to go through a professional season year after year after year, to go through those ups and downs, to feel those ups and downs. To lose more.
I thought it was a positive that I never lost much, but I think it was a negative, actually, that I wasn't a player losing games and going through a much longer season and those highs and lows. Coming into the MLS season, I had to learn how to peak the team at the right time. One of the guys I always watched a lot, studied a lot, was Bruce Arena. He always seemed to know how to whip the horse at the right time.
He'd lose all these games, and it never bothered him. He'd almost kind of like toss it off. And I'm thinking, ‘How does he do that?’ He knew. He just knew. It wasn't that big a deal to lose a lot of games in MLS. He'd win a lot and lose a lot, and then he'd just make sure his team was ready at the end. I just thought, “‘his guy's just got it figured out.’
Dom Kinnear was another one. He had his [Houston Dynamo] team in four MLS Cups [in seven years]. He was similar. He'd lose a lot of games, and then they'd just get hot at the end. So I think there's an art to that, and some of it's just peaking your team at the right time and letting them go. It’s getting over losses and not diving into each loss too much. I think that's the tricky thing. You want to correct, and if you try to correct too much, then sometimes it's in the head and it creates a trend almost that maybe wasn't there before. So I think sometimes, I've learned, the best thing to do is just toss the game off. You've lost, it was bad, it was one game.
FFT: That 2015 championship has to be the high point in your career.
CP: Absolutely. I try to have in my office, on my little mantle, I like to have the lowest moment and the highest moment always. So I've got the Olympic moment, a picture of that – a picture of me in my national team [gear] – as a reminder of the lowest, and the highest moment, for sure, is the MLS Cup. And then, obviously, the national championship was a really big one, too. That had never been done at Akron in any sport, and only one other time in the entire Mid-American Conference had a national champion happened. So that was pretty cool.
But, you know, those things quickly fade. Those championships, those rings, those trophies. They collect dust, and you forget about them, because you're really only thinking about the next season. I think that's what's interesting about coaching: One year you're on top, the next year you quickly could fall off if you don't keep growing and keep developing and keep adjusting – and stay humble, too. I think that's a real key.
FFT: You used to see top college coaches move to MLS: Arena, Bob Bradley, Sigi Schmid, a few years later Schellas Hyndman. It doesn't happen so often anymore. I don't think there's been anybody since you. Has the game changed so much that it's no longer possible, or is that just the landscape in MLS?
CP: I definitely believe there are other coaches in college that could do it. Will there be someone else getting an opportunity? I don't know. ...
What I would say is we're saturated now with players that are retiring, and those players need jobs, and they're going to want to coach. And the coaching education is getting better. So what we're seeing more is guys that go right from playing into coaching, and you're seeing assistants as well who then get jobs. I think it's because those players have been through it, they've been in locker rooms, they've been through seasons, they know what it takes, they know what it's about.
I think when you talk to, like, a Ben Olsen or a Pablo Mastroeni, guys like this, they'll be the first to admit that they needed to learn to coach, and they needed to learn how to put the pieces together and learn to put together their training sessions and their philosophies and how they put together a staff and all those things. Those are things I learned in college and were valuable, and other college coaches that have been there, they've done that, but I think it's going to take an owner that has a vision past ‘they haven't done it at the pro level, they haven't been in pro locker rooms, they haven't managed a pro player, they haven't managed a pro season.’ It helped me that I was actually in MLS [as a player], even though I wasn't in there long.
But who knows? I think the trend is the trend, and I think the trend is based on [pro experience]. When you look at guys that have played in the pros, they probably know firsthand more what it's about, but they still have to learn to coach. In time, those guys learn how to coach, and it's why they've succeeded in time. They adapt, they learn, they learn on the fly, and it eventually ends up working out, where maybe a college guy is a risk from the standpoint that there isn't that understanding of the pro level, the pro game.
I don't know. I always believed to be a jockey, you never had to be the horse. If you're smart and you understand people and you understand the game, then you can always adapt. That's what I've had to do.