Warshaw: On possession, pragmatism and Caleb Porter's return to Ohio

The last time Caleb Porter coached in Ohio, his team played the best soccer you’ve ever seen on American soil. They were a team that built from the back, passed through the midfield and combined in the final third.

They dared teams to pressure them and then humiliated them when they did. Pass, move, pass, move — chase, chase, chase — thank you very much. The midfielders looked calm and controlled. The attackers oozed confidence, grace, and creativity. Their soccer made the heart sing.

In his seven years at the University of Akron, Porter won an NCAA national championship and made northeast Ohio one of the stopping points for elite talent in America. The college game is… different from the professional level, no doubt. But regardless of the level, the Zips left a mark on anyone who watched them play.

Now, Porter’s back in Ohio. Columbus Crew SC named Porter as their head coach on Friday afternoon. He replaces Gregg Berhalter, who recently took over as the US men’s national team coach.

Caleb Porter during his Akron days | Getty Images

Porter returns to the Midwest after six years away, five of them with the Portland Timbers. He brings an MLS Cup ring with him, putting him in an elite group. Only four other managers in MLS right now how have proven they have what it takes to win a league title. When you look around at many of the coaches in MLS, it’s fair to wonder if they really have what it takes to win trophies. You don’t have that concern with Porter.

But who he is as a coach at this point? That’s a little tougher to decipher.

His five seasons with the Timbers took multiple turns. He carried his “death by 1,000 passes” soccer to the Timbers and finished first in the West in the regular season in 2013. But then the Timbers went 0-3-5 to start 2014, missed the playoffs and the team never looked the same.

Porter assumed a less risky style in future seasons. The club bounced back to win MLS Cup in 2015, but while playing less attractive soccer. They then finished tops in the West again in 2017, though it hardly looked like the teams Porter coached from 2006 to 2013. The 2013 Timbers attempted the fourth-most passes in MLS, the 2015 Timbers attempted the 12th-most passes and the 2017 Timbers attempted the 10th-most.

Tim Bezbatchenko and the rest of the Columbus braintrust should feel good about nabbing Porter, but it’s less clear which Porter the Crew will get.

What Crew fans should expect

Speaking to FourFourTwo in 2017 about his growth as a coach, Porter said: “I've had to learn an even deeper level of adjustment and tactical awareness, and that's made me a much more well-rounded coach. I still have my beliefs, I still have my philosophies, but I think when I came here, I had a couple philosophies. Now I have 100 philosophies.”

It’s a fine answer from a coach. I just hope he returns to his foundational philosophy upon returning to his managerial roots. I’m a romantic about Porter’s Akron teams, as I imagine anyone who watched them would be. I didn’t love the way he coached the Timbers teams — a team with Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara shouldn’t finish outside of the top 10 in passes attempted (or miss the playoffs twice in five years).

Porter and Timbers maestro Diego Valeri in 2013 | USA Today Sports Images

I’ll never blame a coach for playing to win, but Porter offered something at Akron that few coaches have ever provided in America. I get that it was a college team, but if only you had seen them...

One can’t help but hope Ohio brings the best out of Porter. And Columbus feels like the perfect place right now to bring it out of hibernation.

The squad already has the fundamentals of possession. The Crew finished fifth in MLS in passes attempted in 2018 and were one of the top possession teams for years under Berhalter.

Perhaps more importantly, the climate feels right for it around the Crew organization. Possession soccer is risky; if it doesn’t go right, it usually goes awfully wrong. And when things go wrong, fans get angry. Most coaches abandon possession play because of fan pressure more than anything else.

But the Crew have a unique situation right now. They have a positive vibe around the fanbase after the transfer of operating rights to the Haslam and Edwards families and the possibility of a new stadium in the near future. Porter is stepping into an upbeat environment; he should have the time to work through growing pains. And there’s no better way to reward Columbus fans than with the soccer Porter is capable of coaching.

It’s a smart hire for the Crew SC. They bring a coach with a winning pedigree back to an area he knows well. But it’s the upside, if the right Porter shows up, that should really give Crew fans life, 1,000 passes at a time. Just like he did the last time he coached in Ohio.

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