D.C. United's puzzling pursuit of Porter

Paul Gardner

D.C. United's interest in Akron University coach Caleb Porter (now aborted by Porter's veto) ... what was that all about? Was it a desire to do something daring, to break free from the network of coaches who tend to get recycled in MLS, to show that a new approach was necessary?

Or was this desperation, the piled up frustrations of a previously successful club coming to the surface in the mere desire to do something drastic?

I mean no disrespect to Porter here - his college record speaks for itself. He takes his work seriously, without a doubt. That is a big plus. There is an even bigger plus on the D.C. United end of the equation -- namely, Kevin Payne.

We have seen, in far too many cases in MLS, ignorant -- by which I mean soccer-ignorant -- general managers, maybe even owners, making totally unsuitable coaching appointments. As an example, we had Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts picking John Ellinger as the team's first coach. This was done on the basis of Ellinger's successful record as coach of the U.S. under-17 national team at the Bradenton Academy.

And what has winning under-17 games got to do with pro coaching? Not much, I fear, as both Checketts and Ellinger found out quite quickly. Real was always a poor team under Ellinger. I choose that example, because eventually - after two abysmal years - Checketts made the sort of move that D.C. seems to be after. He moved the totally inexperienced Jason Kreis into the job. A daring move that has worked out splendidly.

Is it possible that the audacity of this move, its very freshness, appealed to Kevin Payne? Why not, for Kreis is, like Porter, a college product; also like Porter, Kreis a serious, studious type. But he differs in a key respect: when he took over as the Real coach, he had more than 10 highly successful years' experience as a pro player in MLS. Against that, Porter has little to offer -- two meager years with San Jose and Tampa Bay. Again, that is hardly Porter's fault, but it raises a serious question about his suitability to take over what has been, up to now, the most successful and influential team in MLS. I am talking now primarily of the game on the field.

Which takes us back to college coaches -- namely Bruce Arena. It was Arena -- coming straight from college -- who quickly had astonishing success with D.C. United. But in many respects, Arena was a one-off, an enormously successful college coach at UVa. Not only with titles won, but also -- and more importantly -- with the style of soccer that his teams played. Within the college ranks, Arena's UVa could be classified as swashbuckling. He brought that style to D.C. and made it work magnificently. Of course, it was above all an attacking style.

That style became the hallmark of D.C. teams -- a point that was underlined recently by Payne when, in the course of some criticisms of MLS that got him into hot water with Commissioner Don Garber, he stressed that D.C. had always tried to play entertaining soccer.

So D.C.'s way of playing has college roots. But I'm afraid Arena's version of the game does not look much like Porter's. Listen to this, from the Akron website: "Defensive efficiency has been the hallmark of Porter's teams." In an interview during the recent College Cup, Porter himself deflected praise from his team's attack over to its defense: "A lot of people have focused on our attack. The common thread of a championship team is defending well."

And Akron did defend well during the College Cup. It conceded no goals in two games. A triumph? Hardly, as the team lost the final to UVa. But it is not the result that I'm looking at, rather the style of play.

It is at this point that I find D.C. United's interest in Porter so baffling. Payne talks, agreeably, of playing entertaining soccer. It would be interesting to know if he found Akron's two 110-minute games in any way entertaining. What Porter gives us with Akron, is college soccer a la Indiana -- his alma mater.

That cannot be what Payne is looking for -- a team that can play on endlessly without conceding a goal, but which lacks the skill, subtlety and sophistication to score even one goal in two overtime games?

That sounds about as far away as you can get from what the name D.C. United stands for. It is an essential point. Payne is correct - D.C. United has built up a reputation as an attractive team, a team with a "certain style" It is really the only MLS team that has been able to do that. If it means to maintain its high reputation, it has -- like Barcelona and Real Madrid -- to be mighty careful about selecting its coaches to fit the club's mold.

In turning down the D.C. offer, I think Porter has acted wisely, particularly for his own coaching career. But he has also done D.C. United a favor. Because this would not have been a good appointment for Payne and D.C. Not for any shortcomings in Porter's coaching abilities, but simply because his vision of the game, the style that his teams play, is quite wrong for the D.C. tradition.


1 comment about "D.C. United's puzzling pursuit of Porter".
  1. Corey Zimmerman, December 17, 2009 at 9:04 p.m.

    The basis for Paul Gardner's characterization of DC United's pusuit of Caleb Porter as puzzling and desparate is ridiculously weak.

    Mr. Gardner bases his argument on (1) a comment on the Akron website that Porter's teams play good defense, (2) one comment in one interview made by Porter that "a common thread of a championship team is defending well" and (3) the fact that Akron failed to score a goal in Akron's two College Cup games.

    First of all, just because Porter stated that defending well is key to winning a championship doesnt mean he fails to emphasize offense just as much. He was just making a statement which happens to be true, one of many statements he made during the College Cup. In fact, Akron scored 58 goals in 22 regular season games, a pretty high average of 2.64 a game. True, the Horizon Conference may not be of ACC or Big Ten caliber, but that's not Porter's fault.

    Second, did Mr. Gardner consider that maybe the weather had something to do with the low-scoring games at the College Cup. In Akron's semifinal, the temperature was 28 degrees! In the final, itwas a balmy 41 degrees with asteady downpour the entire game. The field was drenched, footing was slick, and passes often skipped along the wet field and away from intended targets.

    Third, Mr. Gardner should know that when the championship is on the line and so much is at stake, almost all teams tend to play tight and more conservatively - its human nature. I take nothing away from the success Bruce Arena has had, especially since he won five college titles. However, Mr. Gardner makes a big deal out of the aggressive, "swashbuckling " style of Arena's Virginia teams. Well, if you look at the scores of Arena's five championship games, was his swashbuckling style really dramatically better than Akron? True, Virginia won two games by a 2-0 margin, but in the other three, the scores were 1-0, a 1-1 tie in 4 OT's in which they were awarded co-champs, and believe it or not, a win by penalty kicks after a 0-0 tie in 4 OT's.

    Caleb Porter is a fine coach period. He can coach offense and defense and the job he did at Akrn this year was truly special. He has turned that program into a national power. Its easy to see why DC United was pursuing him.....not puzzling!

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