After ending his brief professional soccer career in 2000, Caleb Porter immediately joined the men's soccer staff at Indiana University as an assistant coach.
For the next 18 years, he never stopped coaching.
Porter stayed at Indiana for six years before gaining national acclaim as head coach of Akron University from 2006-12, building a powerhouse in Ohio. That success earned him a shot with the Portland Timbers, where he further build his name over five successful seasons.
After the 2017 season, Porter stepped away from the Timbers and decided, finally, he could use a year off. During that time, he enjoyed a valuable commodity that we often figure we don't have the time to do: He sat, thought and reflected on nearly two decades of his professional life.
“When you’re on the hamster wheel for 18 years, you never really get off it," Porter told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. "I went back from every single season to reflect a little bit, back through all my notes and training sessions. It was a very cathartic process, almost evaluate that journey and prepare for the next job. There’s very much a story in a coach’s career.”
Porter stayed disciplined in his vow to spend the entire 2018 season in the shadows, re-affirming his philosophies and ideals.
“I tried to think long and hard about the type of soccer that I believe in, my ideal way of going about it. I wanted to come in very clear. I’ve been coaching a long time … throughout those 18 years, I was always learning, growing and adapting," he said. "Through the course of your career, you maybe get away from what you believe in."
All of that reflection helped land him in Columbus.
Porter was a sought-after free agent, not short of options in his year gone. He wanted to ensure he chose the right job and is emphatic with his belief that he chose correctly with the Crew.
“I analyzed the team a lot," Porter said. "I looked at where they were successful, how they were successful and I tried to keep that. Why would I change that? But I’ve also tried to put in some twists. While I believe in a lot of the same things Gregg (Berhalter) did, in terms of playing out of the back and in possession … there are a few little changes for me in the way I like my teams to play in attack.”
Berhalter set his team in a 4-2-3-1 predominantly, which is what Porter did in Portland. He added that a lot of the automated movements and other trained behaviors ran parallel with the soccer he wanted his team to play.
It's why there hasn't been an adaptation period in Columbus, it's part of why the Crew have sprinted to a 4-2-1 record. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?
“If you watch the Crew from this year to last year, you’re going to see a lot of similarities," Porter said. "That’s a good thing. Also, there are some things that we need to continue to do better.”
The club will look to continue their bright start to the season this weekend, against a familiar opponent for their new coach.
Porter is set to face the club where he made his name in MLS for the first time as the Timbers head to Columbus on Saturday (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada). The 44-year-old downplays the significance of the matchup.
“Honestly, I haven’t thought about too much what it’s going to be like," Porter said. "I learned long ago on this job that emotions, past experiences and nostalgia really don’t play a role in my process of preparing a team. I keep it business-like week-to-week. As you can imagine with the jobs I’ve had, it feels like every week we’re playing someone that I’m connected to.”
That's not to say he doesn't reflect back fondly on his five years with the Timbers, where he won MLS Cup 2015, that doesn't mean the club doesn't mean anything to him and it certainly doesn't mean that the relationships he crafted, valued and still hold will go anywhere.
“I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity in my coaching career to be at good clubs with a good group of people, that was certainly the case at Portland," Porter said. "I enjoyed my five years there, we accomplished a lot. The memories and relationships don’t go away. When I take a job, I invest in the club and relationships with those people in the club, and the players in that club. Those moments and relationships are special to me."
After the game ends, there will be a quick analyzation period of the 90 minutes purely from a tactical standpoint. And then, just like it's always been on the hamster wheel, Porter will turn focus to the club's next game on Wednesday against D.C. United.