Caleb Porter, welcome to the most exclusive club in Major League Soccer: college coaches who made the jump directly to the pros.
Next year, when you take over the Portland Timbers, you’ll become only the fifth member of this elite club that we’ll call “The Fraternity.” And your new brothers are happy to have you.
“He’s arguably one of the best young coaches in the country,” says Schellas Hyndman, who took over FC Dallas in 2008 after 24 years as head coach at Southern Methodist. “He’s proven himself among the best at the collegiate level. It was only a matter of time until somebody presented him something that was challenging as well as too good to pass up, and we welcome him on board.”
The 37-year-old Porter will join Hyndman, Bruce Arena, Thomas Rongen and Sigi Schmid. Those four have among them six MLS Cups, five Supporters’ Shields, five US Open Cups and seven MLS Coach of the Year awards among a laundry list of other accomplishments.
No pressure, right? By now, no one should be crying that college coaches don’t have the chops to make the jump directly to the pros. That quartet is clear proof they do.
But your fellow members of The Fraternity have news for you, Caleb: You’re in for an awfully steep learning curve.
“Understand it’s a wonderful life,” Hyndman says. “But that’s what it is: It’s your life. There’s a lot of stress in this job.”
Not that there isn’t in college. But much like Porter’s up-and-down ride in the US Under-23 squad’s failed Olympic qualification campaign, there may be a lot of failure ahead for Porter before there’s success. And he’s going to have learn how to deal with it.
Schmid, for one, says preparing himself mentally for failure was one of the hardest things he ever had to deal with. He coached the Galaxy to a 17-9 record after taking over in 1999. Impressive, sure – but he didn’t lose his ninth game as a college coach until his third season at UCLA, and lost more than five games in a season only once.
Porter comes into MLS as one of the winningest coaches in college history. He racked up 100 wins in just 126 matches at Akron, including a legendary 2009 season in which his Zips went undefeated in the regular season, only to drop their only match in the College Cup final to Virginia. The next season, Porter's Zips lost only once on their way to the 2010 NCAA title.
Schmid says Porter is going to have to wrap his head around losing quickly.
“Psychologically, you have to prepare to lose as many games in a month as you’ll lose the whole season,” he tells MLSsoccer.com. “That’s something you have to think about and react to, how you’ll present yourself to your team.”
He’s also going to have to win over a locker room in Portland full of professionals to whom he has proven absolutely nothing at this level. Well, everyone except for Darlington Nagbe, his former Akron protégé. And he may need more familiar faces around him.
Arena, for instance, surrounded himself with some of his former Virginia players like Richie Williams, Jeff Agoos and John Harkes. Schmid ended up adding Danny Califf, Pete Vagenas and Sasha Victorine to a locker room already full of former Bruins. And Hyndman finally got his FC Dallas squad moving in the right direction after adding his former SMU captains in Ugo Ihemelu and Daniel Hernandez.
“If you don’t get the locker room, you’re not going to get the field,” explains Hyndman. “Talent can only get you so far. Chemistry will make you a champion.”
Porter can probably forget about adding other high-profile Zips for the time being – the odds his future Cascadia rivals will be willing to part with, say, Steve Zakuani or Darren Mattocks are pretty slim. But he may draft his former players, and may deal for others. That could help him turn around the last-place Timbers.
Working in Porter’s favor is what, by all accounts, his peers feel is the right demeanor to coach in MLS. It also helps that he’s a former player in the league, a thee-year career spent in San Jose and Tampa Bay. He’s also plenty familiar with the league’s players, having sent 14 of his former Akron students into MLS and coaching nearly 30 MLSers during the last U-23 cycle.
He also plays an attractive style with great success, is a keen student of the game domestically and abroad and has done his homework. And his support system in Portland – between owner Merritt Paulson and GM Gavin Wilkinson – is obviously behind him 100 percent.
But despite the success of The Fraternity, it’s still very much going to be a learn-as-he-goes process.
“There’s no formula you can follow,” says Schmid. “It’s just something you have to feel. When you coach a good college team, you play a certain style of soccer and a lot of teams can’t compete. Now at the pro level, you play with that same style, a lot of teams already play like that. And they know how to stop you.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.