Porter to imbue new attitude in US squad
When and Where
The US men begin their road to London on Thursday, March 22 in Nashville against Cuba, the first of five possible matches in CONCACAF's qualifying tournament.
|Thur., Mar. 22||6-0||Cuba||Group stage|
|Sat., Mar. 24||0-2||Canada||Group stage|
|Mon., Mar. 26||9:00 p.m. ET||El Salvador||Group stage|
Beating regional competition is nothing new for US senior and youth national soccer teams. In the CONCACAF region, victories have come to be expected. What we have not seen enough American teams do over the years is win with style, and win playing brand of soccer that could honestly be deemed beautiful.
Caleb Porter is determined to change that.
The coach charged with the task of making sure the United States qualifies for the 2012 Olympics, Porter has the look of a young visionary coach who could really help change the way the game is played in this country. He took charge of the US Olympic qualifying team last fall and set out to implement a possession-oriented, attacking style of soccer rarely seen by US national teams at any level.
Over the course of the next two weeks, at the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament, we will find out if Porter has succeeded in transforming the US Under-23 national team into a team capable of dominating opponents and entertaining fans with relentless, attacking soccer.
Porter will have plenty of help in implementing that style. The US Olympic qualifying team boasts a stacked roster that is very well-suited to play the type of soccer he emphasizes. Boasting goal-scoring threats like Juan Agudelo and Brek Shea, as well as creative midfielders like Freddy Adu, Mikkel Diskerud and Joey Corona, the US Olympic qualifying team has the weapons to score goals in bunches.
That collection of talent coupled with Porter’s attack-minded mentality, could be a marriage made in heaven. Not only for American soccer fans, but for a national team program that stands to benefit from what some might consider a radical approach to the game, at least for an American coach.
“I think everybody’s scared to attack, and scared to play, and scared to have the ball and not score, and scared to press,” Porter said. “I think if you just take the easy way out and you sit behind the ball and defend, that’s the easy thing. That’s what everybody’s done and tried. I’m going to try something new, something different, and I’m confident that it will work.
“To play this way you have to be technical. To play this way you have to want the ball,” Porter said. “You basically have to have 11 guys on the field that are comfortable on the ball. Eleven guys on the field that are comfortable with pressing. It takes a well-rounded player, but I think there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be effective.”
That mentality and the resounding success Porter has enjoyed on the college level has made him one of the hottest commodities in American soccer. The 37-year-old was offered the D.C. United head coaching job a year ago and turned it down to stay at Akron.
Porter was far from being a technically savvy player when he was a standout for national power Indiana University and injuries cut short a budding career in MLS. Back then he was a hard-nosed defensive midfielder known more as a pit bull than a playmaker.
“Even though I was a holding midfielder and a hard player, it’s not that I really ever wanted to be that player,” Porter said. “It was just that, based on the qualities I had, to make it that’s what I had to be.
“I’m a competitor so I’m going to find a way to win, and make it, no matter what, but growing up I was always attracted to the creative players. I loved guys like Tab Ramos. Growing up I loved Roberto Baggio and Ruud Gullit and Diego Maradona. These are the players I had on my walls and always gravitated towards.
“I’m captivated by those types of players, and it’s probably because they could always do things that I couldn’t, and ultimately that’s the player I wanted to be.”
Porter has already proven his style can succeed on the college level by transforming the relatively small University of Akron into a national powerhouse known for its beautiful soccer and ability to produce elite professional talent.
That transformation has come courtesy of a combination of possession-oriented offense and high-pressure defense that international soccer fans have grown accustomed to watching FC Barcelona master. That is no coincidence as Porter counts Josep Guardiola among the list of managers he has studied to mold the style of play he teaches his teams. That list also includes the likes of Johan Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and Marcelo Bielsa.
“The essence of this style is you are the deciding team,” Porter said. “I would rather be the deciding team and be proactive and go into a game trying to control it than to flip a coin and sit back and hope you can hit a team on the counter. Hope they won’t break you down and pinch a result.
“We need more of that because we’re not helping ourselves by just defending and destroying and sitting back,” Porter said. “Even though you can win that way, it’s not going to help grow the sport.”
Porter knows that talking about teams like Barcelona, and about coaching philosophies of masters like Cruyff and Guardiola might be taken as the overly ambitious notions of a young coach, but he firmly believes that there is no reason why an American team can’t play a game predicated on technical skill and high-pressure defending.
“I’m not naive or unrealistic,” Porter said. “I don’t think we’re just going to roll a ball out and start playing like Spain, but going into each game we will have the best chance to win games.
“We aren’t going to dominate every team we play for 90 straight minutes, but when we have the ball, we’re going to have the ball, and when we don’t have the ball we’re going to be organized and we’re going to squeeze our opponents until we do have the ball.”
Early indications are that Porter’s approach is working. The US Under-23 team recently faced archrival Mexico, a team that has traditionally given the United States trouble at all age levels, and beat them 2-0. Beating Mexico 2-0 is nothing new for American teams, but the way they won created a stir. The Americans dominated possession, something Mexico usually does to the United States, and thoroughly outplayed the Mexicans in all facets of the game.
Though it was just a friendly, dominating the team expected to be the United States’ biggest challenge at the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament opened plenty of eyes. It served notice that this US team could be something special.
Of course, if it doesn’t work, and if the United States struggles, or worse yet, fails to qualify for the Olympics, then Porter will be seen as a coach who shot for the moon and missed.
Porter’s confidence in his system, and in the team he has built, makes it tough to imagine that scenario. As much as he is trying to win with an approach no American coach has really tried at this high a level, he has too much confidence in his approach to let fear of failure make him change what he believes in.
“You have to be brave to throw this out,” Porter said. “It’s either all or nothing. If you’re all-in, it’s a really difficult style of play to play against.
“And if you do it right it can be beautiful.”
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.