Fan Op Ed: Is “Porterball” the key to Winning Championships?
by Roy Gathercoal
Let’s start out with one important fact: I have no right to tell Caleb Porter anything about coaching. I have even less standing to question what is taken to be conventional wisdom across the coaching world. Conventional wisdom says when you are ahead in a game, you protect your lead by managing the game.
By “managing the game” in the second half against Vancouver, however, it sure did look like Caleb Porter just frittered away Portland’s real shot at the Cascadia Cup, and might have crippled our go at the Supporters’ Shield.
Last year, a tongue-clucking Kasey Keller lectured a frustrated Portland side, calling them immature and lacking experience because they continued to play their game of soccer even when leading the Sounders by one goal. He claimed that everyone knows that when you are up by a goal, you should try to run the clock down by running to the corners, making long passes to avoid trouble and by walking instead of running whenever possible as the game winds down.
He is not alone; I have heard a steady chorus from around the world chanting this same refrain; “if you are ahead, stop playing hard and start wasting time for your real enemy is the clock, not the other team.”
Other coaches have commented about the pressure they feel from fans to score goals, even if it is not the best strategy for the team. Some coaches feel they have to actively resist this pressure from the noisy chanting fans, for whom there are never enough goals.
I have to admit that I understand the potential for fan pressure, but I don’t really deeply get why not scoring goals could be in a team’s interest–as long as they are playing with reasonable caution and faithfully pursuing “their game.” In football it is highly unlikely you will score if you don’t control the ball. While possession does not necessarily win games, I don’t see where it would hurt your chances.
After the first goal against Vancouver, Portland’s play obviously and visibly changed. Instead of tight possession-oriented passes, aggressive runs to the opponent’s goal and hard immediate defense that marks Porterball, the Timbers walked whenever not directly involved in the play, strove to ensure that the man with the ball had one safe outlet (even back towards his own goal), and generally took a much more relaxed approach to the game.
Instead of high pressure and purposeful passing to advance the ball to goal-scoring opportunities, we switched to playing full-field keep-away. Unfortunately, Vancouver continued to play football. The Timbers’ players were asked to play a style of football different from that they have practiced day in and out all season. Then Vancouver scored and we switched back on to Porterball. Scoring quickly, we switched back and gave up another score.
We never really achieved again the level of sharp play we demonstrated the first part of the game. We looked tired and confused. Their quality of play did not deserve scoring two goals in the second half. This should have been another clean sheet, three points in both the race for the Supporters’ Shield and Cascadia Cup. When we played our game, Vancouver generated few opportunities.
My blood pressure soared. I had seen this pattern time and time again in the early and early mid-season when instead of pushing for a second or third goal against an opponent, we let up on the gas and became a different team with a different team ethos and a different playing style. Time and time again those games ended in ties as we struggled to score, then coasted once we succeeded only to discover we needed to struggle again to match our opponent’s easier goal.
Coach Porter talks about body memory. He says that if we practice the way we expect to play, our bodies will remember those patterns when the big game is taxing our energy and personal resources.
When the Timbers are playing Porterball, they interact like a ballet troupe. Everyone looks like they know what they are doing and is confident about what they will be doing next. The confidence coats the field. When the switch is made, to play the conservative “manage the game” style, we are no longer working from those muscle memories. Now we are imposing an entirely new mental overlay to counter what has become second nature–playing Porterball.
When in this “mature game management mode” we commit more fouls. We turn the ball over more often, and allow more penetrating runs through our midfield. Our tight back line becomes porous. Nothing matters but running down the clock.
Of course we ended with many ties! We worked hard for those ties. We fought hard for our first goal, then stopped playing the game that had gotten us that goal; we became a different team. When our opponents scored against that team we again switched on Porterball until we scored again. You see, we could play all night and even if you randomly stopped the game chances are good that the score would be tied at that moment, for most of the time we would be coasting, running down the clock until our opponents scored and we again had to turn it on.
Caleb Porter has done a magnificent job at transforming the Timbers, on and off the field. Instead of being nice guys who fate always foiled, we became a team expected to outplay our opponents
The Timbers have always been giant-slayers–but in 2012 we would follow up a giant-killing by losing to two or three teams not at all giant. In 2013 we slayed giants right and left–especially with ties against top of the table teams–and then would beat (or tie) the mediocre teams. This is a huge transformation! Instead of believing we could work up some magic mojo to pull off a big upset of Seattle, we now believed we could whoop ‘em, either place. Mojo was optional because we are a good team.
Coach Porter deserves the praise for most of this transition. He somehow took this group of often-underperforming men and showed them, convinced them, proved to them that they were among the elites. . . perhaps of the world, even. After all, we have come to understand, you don’t know that some highly ranked team could beat you until they actually do it!
And very few teams have beat the 2013 Portland Timbers. Very few. It happened five times in MLS competition so far. It might not happen again in 2013. The team with the next fewest losses has dropped 9 games so far. Almost double our loss total!
This is all wonderful. I fully expect to see Portland become the team that doesn’t lose across many MLS seasons. This is what being a champion is about.
We have also become the team that doesn’t win as often as you would expect from our quality of team. Among the top ten teams in both conferences, only Portland has but 12 wins so far this year. And among the teams we tend to compare ourselves; New York, Kansas City, Salt Lake, Seattle and LA, all but the Galaxy have three more wins than we have so far.
We are poised on the cusp of the playoffs in which one loss ends the season. Please, Coach, don’t put that hunger to possess the ball, to get it back when it is stolen, and the desire to score goals on the back burner just because we are up a goal. Conventional wisdom is just plain wrong here. Porterball should run from beginning to end of the game.
After all, as you have so wisely pointed out “the other team cannot score if they do not have the ball.” To that I would add “the team with the most goals–not always the last goal–wins.