Caleb Porter on how MLS challenges coaches like no other league in the world

Only three head coaches have won MLS Cup championships with different clubs, and the first two -- Sigi Schmid and Bruce Arena -- are absolute legends. The third is Caleb Porter, whose path has followed a similar bend as these legends'.

Like Schmid and Arena, Porter has shown a knack for building champions, first taking the Portland Timbers to their first MLS Cup title in 2015 -- two years after fronting the Western Conference in his first pro season -- then winning the Eastern Conference in Columbus, where he stepped in just as the team had been saved following a proposed move to Texas, installed his system and added decisive pieces, and then last season, his second in charge, guiding the Crew to their second MLS Cup championship

(And, again like Schmid and Arena, he first conquered the collegiate game, in which his University of Akron teams -- stocked with players en route to pro careers -- played the prettiest soccer in America, any level, en route to 2010 NCAA College Cup crown. The Zips ought to have won three.)

Now he's looking to do what only Arena and Dominic Kinnear have accomplished in MLS, winning back-to-back titles -- and doing so in what amounts to a most special season, win or lose, for the Crew and its loyal supporters. New Crew Stadium, as it's dubbed for now, is slated to open next month after 22½ years at the iconic Historic Crew Stadium, the facility that kicked off the stadium-building craze that has much to do with Major League Soccer's survival and success.

Porter chatted with Soccer America about building winners, what he learned when Portland missed the playoffs the year after winning its title, why MLS offers the most comprehensive coaching challenges in world soccer, and how “bittersweet” it is to be bidding farewell to a beloved venue while stepping into a more handsome and comfortable home.

SOCCER AMERICA: After what you accomplished last year, an MLS Cup title most of all, how did you approach this season with the intentions of getting better?

CALEB PORTER: When you're ambitious as a club, then I think every year you have to keep improving to stay on top. Obviously, last year was a good year. We won the MLS Cup, but if we want to do it again, we have to keep improving because everybody else is improving. And I think a big part of that improvement comes in the form of your roster upgrades. And whether we won the MLS Cup final or not, we were going to follow the same process of getting better in every transfer window, improving our depth, improving our quality. And that's exactly what we did.

So we're going to keep doing that and keep following that and keep being ambitious. Nothing's going to change. But I think that from a process standpoint of our team, we can't think that [after winning the championship], we're on top of the mountain and we're just going to stand there and fight everybody off. We're going to have to climb that mountain again, which meant we had to go back down and reset and realize that that climb's a lot harder this year, because only three teams in MLS have ever gone back-to-back. And a lot of clubs, not only do they not get back up to the top, but they actually go backwards and fall down the mountain because they don't improve in their roster and they don't stay hungry and ambitious in their locker rooms. And we have to keep being ambitious and keep being driven and keep improving.

That includes me, what I'm doing on the pitch. That includes the players and their continued growth and development. That includes our club in terms of infrastructure, facilities, training ground. Those are new things coming in. And so that's what makes this year exciting, is because we do have new players, we do have a new stadium, we do have our new training ground. Those are things that I think help stimulate the players. But the mindset, for sure, has to be right or you'll fall into the pitfalls that some of the other clubs have gone through. That's pretty documented.

SA: You won MLS Cup in Portland in 2015 and the following season wasn't what you'd hoped for. What were the lessons that you can use this year?

CALEB PORTER: I think it starts with your offseason and maintaining your core and then improving on that core. You know, in Portland, we lost a lot of guys from our core. You ideally want to maintain the core and then build on it. We never were able to get back to the level and quality that we had when we won it because we lost guys because of cap issues. And so I think it starts with that.

But then, for me, it ends with the psychology of your team and your players and that hunger. You know, in a league of parity, if you have a dip of 5 percent [in] hunger and every opponent is 5 percent more hungry to beat you because you were the past champions, that 10 percent swing is going to mean a drop in results. And in a league of parity, again, where every point matters, every game matters, you look at the Supporters' Shield and how close the other teams are that don't win it -- by game or a point here and there. Same with [playoff] seeding. You can't have those margins swing against you that next year. You have to maintain a hunger and drive and ambition, and that's not easy when you're coaching human beings that, naturally, if you don't watch it, can get complacent. That's why everybody talks about the greatest enemy of progress is past success. And at the end of the day, if your mindset isn't right and if your players don't stay driven, then even if it's 5 percent, it's going to make a big difference.

So what I learned is make sure you keep the core, make sure you improve the core, make sure you keep bringing in new players to stimulate and challenge the culture and continue that competition [within the team], which also helps your depth. And then make sure your mindset isn't complacent and that you understand there's going to be ups and downs, like every MLS team.

We understand that there are going to be ups and downs, there have been, and we just need to be peaking at the right time, like we did last year. ... We just have to make sure that we do what we always do, and that's lock onto the process of improving and staying humble and hungry and not letting some of the maybe increased pressures, because of increased expectations, get in the way of what we're trying to do, which is to be at the end of the year the best team. That's the last team holding the trophy.

I think that's the key. Just don't let the BS get in your head because a lot of people do after a championship. I know personally as a coach, when you take over a club, you're striving for consistency, you're striving for continuity, you're striving for your players to be comfortable in their understanding of you and in their understanding of our game model, of what we want. And those are all things that if you're lucky enough to get, they help you perform in a more consistent way because there's that continuity.

And when you look at the coaches, they've been able to get to that point. There's a reason they keep winning because when there's continuity on players and coaches, that's always better than when there's a lack of continuity. The only thing you have to be careful of is when there's continuity, you can't you can't get so comfortable that if it turns to complacency. And the only way I know how to keep guys on edge a little bit is having new targets, new goals, but also having just a little bit of tension, knowing that there's competition, enough competition where they have to keep performing. And so I think we've done, at least on paper so far, a much better job than some of the other situations I've been in when we won it and weren't successful.

And [general manager] Tim Bezbatchenko's another example, because he went through the same thing with Toronto. So him and I both won trophies and we both had years after winning trophies where we learned a lot. I think he learned from the roster side. And I learned from the leadership side and culture side. And so I think those are things hopefully that will help us this time around. ...

Caleb Porter Coaching Career
2000-05 Indiana Univ., assistant coach
• NCAA D1 champion, 2003, 2004.
2006-12 Univ. of Akron, head coach
NCAA D1 champion, 2010
2011-12 U.S. U-23 head coach
USA eliminated in Olympic qualifying.
2013-17 Portland Timbers, head coach
MLS Cup champion 2015.
2019-present Columbus Crew head coach
MLS Cup champion 2020.

SA: Is it more difficult to win in MLS today than when you arrived in Portland eight years ago? How different is the competition than it was then?

CALEB PORTER: I think it's always difficult to win a trophy. To win a trophy when you have a league of world-class players in a league of world-class coaches? And I would say these days we do have world-class coaches in our league. To be the last team that's holding MLS Cup is very difficult, I don't care what year it is.

You could argue, though, with more teams now and more games being played, and I would say with better and better players and better and better coaches, then, yeah, you could argue that it's becoming more and more difficult to be that last team that raises a trophy, because I don't look at any roster and say, “Oh, that's a weak team.” I can't go through any roster and say that that team is a guaranteed win.

SA: At home or away.

CALEB PORTER: Yeah, exactly. And I would say I can't look at any team and go, “Oh, yeah, I'm just going to outcoach that guy, easily.” Every team has a good coach, every team has good players, and every team is motivated. And every game's a challenge.

You know, it's a unique league because there's so many different styles, there's so many different challenges with each team, the way they play. Like in most leagues, you can kind of look at the league and say, “OK, this is for the most part what you're going to see philosophically. It's going to be a lot of 4-3-3s, there's going to be a lot of positional-play philosophies.” In another league, you might say, “OK, it's a lot of 4-2-3-1s and maybe a few 4-4-2s, and they play more in transition.” Or “in this league they're a little bit more of a pressing-type league.”

In our league, you have everything. One week you're playing a team that's playing a 3-5-2, low-block transition system. And then next week you're going to play a team that's playing a 4-3-3, and they're going to be pressing you high all over the pitch. And then the next week, you're going to play a team that plays a 4-2-3-1 and looks to carry the game and pin you back with possession and counterpressure. And then the next week, you're going to see a team that is direct and, you know, is very animals on set pieces. And so when you think about how you cope with that and adapt to that, you have to have a very well-rounded roster and a very multifaceted game model to be able to adapt to all those situations.

And I think that's what makes our league so unique. And then on top of that, you're traveling to different climates, you're traveling in altitude, you're playing one week on turf, one week on grass. You're playing just in a lot of different environments. In some weeks you're traveling for five hours, and some weeks you're taking a bus two hours down to Cincinnati, or whatever. It's just there's no league in the world that has so many different scenarios and challenges every single week based on climate, travel and different playing styles.

And even with our calendar, our season calendar, having to lose guys to international duty. There's no other league in the world that deals with that. You know what I mean? Their calendars are built around the international calendar, but we lose guys. Try telling your owners about that, your NFL owner. “Wait a minute. We're going to lose Gyasi Zardes for four games? Don't we pay him?” Yeah, we do, but you know what? He's got to go and play for the national team. “OK, well, how does that help us?” And he's got a point, you know what I mean?

That's why I would rate our league very high. Maybe we would struggle to compete with maybe the top four in the top leagues in the world, but outside of that, I think most of our teams would do pretty well in that bottom half of most any league.

SA: And that's with roster restrictions that other leagues don't have.

CALEB PORTER: Yeah, exactly. And that's the other thing, with the budgets. You know, when you look at the challenge of trying to fit into a budget and a cap and [you have a locker room where one guy that's making $3 million and another guy making $90,000, and trying to blend your group with that discrepancy in not only pay, but quality, whereas in other leagues that just never happens. You're not going to have another guy on an $8 million transfer fee playing with a guy that was drafted in the sixth round of college soccer and makes $90,000. So [you have to be] able to blend a locker room and even a playing style when you have those type of discrepancies in cap and salary and even just quality.

SA: By nature, MLS is designed so anyone can beat anyone on any given day, home or away. I think it's the most competitive league in the world -- as opposed to the best -- and the challenges in that environment make for better coaches, ultimately. American coaches could prosper overseas if given the opportunity.

CALEB PORTER: Yeah, I think you see it with Jesse Marsch [taking charge at RB Leipzig] right now. Jesse Marsch is a born-and-bred American, came up through the infrastructure in our country. I did the pro license with Jesse, a lot of respect for him. It's great that he has gotten the opportunity, because that type of opportunity shows that we have coaches like him, and there are others that can do what he's doing. He helps carry a bit of a torch and, you know, hopefully helps our league and our coaches gain a little bit of respect, because I do think you see a lot of good coaches that actually come in that don't succeed in our league. And funny enough, they go and get jobs elsewhere and do pretty well.

So seeing some of that, I think coaches in our league don't get enough respect, especially American coaches. There are a lot of good foreign coaches coming in. I encourage that. I like that. I love when there's new ideas coming in. But also I would put for sure my name on any American coach right now that's succeeding in our league, because when you look at the ones that have been consistently performing and succeeding, there's been a lot of American coaches, you know, and I don't think they always get talked about as much as the foreign coaches coming in. And I don't think they always get as much respect for their game models, their philosophies.

You know, I could have the same philosophy as a Tata Martino, but he's always going to get more respect, because he has the [Marcelo] Bielsa philosophy. Or maybe I have it, too, but I didn't play for Bielsa. So I think those are things that sometimes get underrated with some of the American coaches.

But, really, it's on us, again, to keep showing that we can compete with the best coaches coming in. And it's great when we can show that vs. a Tata Martino or a Patrick Vieira, you know what I mean? Or whoever. I do think there's been a movement with international technical directors and international GMs and international coaches [in MLS], and I don't think it's all bad, but I think that more than ever, that's going to prove that the American coaches and GMs and technical directors can continue to flourish and succeed.

And a blend [of Americans and foreign coaches, GMs and technical directors] is good. What makes us unique is we have a blend of different ideas. And I'm really hoping that as we get more and more players coming in from different leagues and more and more coaches getting opportunities from different leagues, that we still keep sight of the American player and the American coach, because I think that's going to be massively important. And that's why it's great when you see a Greg Vanney, a Peter Vermes, a Bob Bradley, a Bruce Arena, a Brian Schmetzer, a Jim Curtin show that they're just as good as anybody in our league.

SA: When you took charge of Columbus ahead of the 2019 season, what told you, “I can win here. We can build something here.” How important was Tim Bezbatchenko coming in and being part of that process? And then what made 2019 such a difficult season, and how did that make you a better coach?

CALEB PORTER: If you've noticed in my career, I don't move a lot. You know, I'm a loyal guy. I like to pick jobs carefully. And when I take a job, it's got to be the right fit for me, my family. And at the end of the day, I know when I go into these jobs that it's going to be literally a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week immersement into the club and evolving it and ultimately, hopefully, igniting a community and winning a trophy. Because at the end of the day, I see the vehicle of sports and soccer in these communities as a way to bring the global game to these communities. And sports in general -- and you saw it more than ever with COVID -- is a way to ignite a community and bring meaning and purpose and joy. And so I try to pick jobs where I feel like it's a market that that you can do that.

Portland was very similar to Columbus in the way that these were smaller markets, yet there was opportunity there to do things that had never been done. Or in the case of Columbus, you know, do it again, because the era of [Guillermo Barros] Schelotto and Frankie Hejduk was widely documented as a really important era in Crew soccer history. But, ultimately, when I saw that the club was almost gone [to Austin], it kind of gave me this feeling like I wanted to jump in.

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I'm a fighter, and I'd like to jump into a fight. And I felt like there was a fight here for the club, the new era with the new ownership with Jimmy Haslam and the Johnson and Edwards families, and this new stadium and training ground coming in. And I just like the story of it. I like the opportunity to come and join a club that had almost been lost. That gives me more passion and more motivation and meaning to do something special. And that's why I chose the job, ultimately.

2019 was tough because a lot of the players that were here, in a lot of ways, I think they had their bags packed. And I think everyone here thought the club was going to be gone. And it wasn't till the last minute, even the last minute that I was hired and that Tim was hired, where everybody was told, “Hey, wait a minute, we're going to be a club. And by the way, unpack your bags.” I think it was the end of a cycle a little bit, to some extent was an evolution from a different era to a new era. And so I think ultimately you can't be successful till you get players that are going to fit your game model and players that are going to buy into what you're doing.

Any good coach is going to see things a little different, run his locker room a little different, teach and preach different things. And I think there were half of the players that I've kept and that have been incredible for me. They weren't guys that I recruited here. They were guys that I kept that ultimately bought in and became winners and fighters and leaders. And that's really what I look for in players. I want talent, I want winners, I want fighters, I want leaders. And ultimately, I think the guys that are here, they got bought in, were more of that fabric, more of that fiber.

And once that happened at the end of '19, and once we started to add new players -- you add a Luis Diaz, you add an Eloy Room, you add a Darlington Nagbe, you add a Lucas Zelarayan -- now you put together half the group that evolved, got bought in, and the other half of the group just fit ultimately what we needed to fill in in terms of game model and our style. And there was a lot of those adjustments that needed to be made.

You know, what I look for in a locker room and I want from that culture is different than, say, another coach. The way that I want to play the game is subtly different. There might be some similarities, but there's enough differences that until you get those things right, it's not going to come to life. What I will say is in '19, what I'm proud of is we got better and better as the year went on. And ultimately, at the end of the year, I think we lost one game in the last 13 and you saw an evolution. And ultimately, if you know what you want and you know how to build a team, and you know exactly what you're looking for, then when you take over a club, there's probably going to be a little bit of a transition, you know, a storming, I call it, until you start to norm and perform. And that's exactly the evolution we went through. There was a storming, then there was a norming, then there was a performance. And it's gone in an upward trajectory.

That's ultimately what you want to see. A lot of coaches coming into a good team, they start well and then they get worse and worse as the years go on. But we knew what we wanted. We knew what we needed. We knew what we needed to change. It just took us probably six months to kind of get those things sorted.

SA: Why did you leave Portland?

CALEB PORTER: Left Portland because I see my job is an opportunity to go into a club to hopefully make the club better than it was, to hopefully leave that club in a good spot and to adjourn. So you storm, you norm, you perform and you adjourn when it's the right time. And at the end of the day, if you get that and understand that as a coach, then you'll have much more peace of mind in that process, because you can stay too long as a coach. And I think when you stay too long, it only goes downhill, you know.

And it was nothing against anyone. There were no problems, no issues. It was just the right time for me. It was the right time for the club. And, you know, I've nothing but good things to say about Merritt [Paulson, the Timbers' owner] and Gavin [Wilkinson, the club's general manager/president of soccer]. They hired me, they gave me the opportunity in MLS, and I had five very good years there, and I loved every minute of it. You got to know when it's time. And it was time.

I'm very proud of the fact that we elevated the club in five years to a perennial contender and a perennial club that's expected to win MLS Cup. And that expectation was not there before, and it's there now. And for me again, I'm glad that I left and glad that [Giovanni] Savarese came in and he's doing a good job. Glad that Merritt's happy. I'm happy at a new project.

SA: How close were you to becoming the LA Galaxy head coach?

CALEB PORTER: Very close. I was offered the job, offered a three-year contract. And I mean, you saw, I was there to take the job, basically. I decided to go to Columbus because it just felt like more of, at the time, my type of club and my type of job that I take. And it just felt like the right fit for me and my family. But it was it was very close, for sure.

SA: This is a big season for the Crew, not just in terms of defending a championship. You've got a new stadium you'll begin playing in next month, a new training center is coming, and you're departing a stadium that was MLS's first soccer-specific stadium, one that's been home to one of the best fan bases in MLS, an historic and iconic venue. All of these are really important to the legacy and culture of this club. How does that add to what you're trying to achieve on the field?

CALEB PORTER: I think it's very bittersweet because we're closing a very special stadium. It's the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS. And like you said, there's a lot of history.

I have a lot of nostalgia of this stadium. I went to national team games as a [young man] in that stadium. I went to Crew games. I have a lot of nostalgia from a coaching standpoint, too, because I won two MLS Cups in that stadium in the last seven years. Two MLS Cups in the same stadium. And taking a step further, I won a national championship [in 2003 as an assistant coach] at Indiana in that stadium, in my mentor Jerry Yeagley's last season before he retired. So a lot of good memories and nostalgia for me in that stadium. And I don't think it's a coincidence that I've been fortunate enough to win trophies in that stadium, so I'll remember it forever, and certainly I want to make sure that it goes out, that it goes out the right way.

The cool thing, though, is that our new training ground is going to be built around the stadium. So we'll see it every day. And it's going to serve as our reserve team's home stadium. So there'll still be games there. It's not just going to waste away and become abandoned. It'll still be there and it'll still be an iconic stadium. And there'll be a lot of history forever. And I'll still be around it on a daily basis, which is pretty cool.

5 comments about "Caleb Porter on how MLS challenges coaches like no other league in the world".
  1. Kevin Sims, June 8, 2021 at 11:01 a.m.

    Super piece, delivering interesting insight into Caleb and MLS. Thanks! 

  2. Christian Miles, June 8, 2021 at 2:10 p.m.

    Enjoyed this read. Well done, Scott French. Porter is honest, sometimes abrasive, but in essence a a very astute coach that knows how to best manage men and build teams into winners. 

  3. Jeremy Darnell, June 9, 2021 at 9:01 a.m.

    Great stuff, Scott. I think that any coach who truly wants to test their own ability would be interested in coming to a league built on parity. Are you a great coach, or are you only a great coach when you have the best players?
    Interesting to hear that Crew Stadium will live on. I have great memories in that building.

  4. Donald Lee, June 9, 2021 at 3:16 p.m.

    Great interview.  

    I would hope Porter would demonstrate a little more knowledge of the rest of the World.  Lots of leagues play through international breaks.  Just look at the soccer on TV reports from SA during international match days.  You will see lots of club soccer being played on many of those international match days.

  5. Greg Gould replied, June 15, 2021 at 3:25 p.m.

    Yeah, maybe he meant the actual tournaments which are played in the summer (WC, Olympics, etc.). Not all the friendlies and qualifiers which definitely interrupt most leagues.

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