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Caleb Porter and MLS’ culture of tactical similarity

Written by Will Parchman


The parity MLS provides is undoubtedly one of its greatest attributes. If we compare TFC to a Cardiff or a Hertha Berlin, the scope of optimism MLS allows is wider than perhaps any league in the world. Fans in Toronto can expect futility now, but they can just as easily expect it to vanish in short order with a couple signings and some good bounces. Conceivably, TFC could be in the playoff hunt next year and it wouldn’t be all that surprising.

But the parity also acts as a tactical leveling agent. The chasm between the most and least efficient teams in the league is as shallow as it is anywhere in the world, which means MLS’ broader tactical sense tends to root out tactical differences and eliminate them like antibodies. The San Jose 4-4-2 is always dangling just within reach for adventurous coaches whose schemes haven’t found their mark.

The NFL is a more apt comparison in this sense than any soccer league. The differences are so slim that any successful adaptation by a host will be assimilated in some way by its opponents. This is why the wildcat and scrambling quarterbacks and spread offenses have been so vociferously shouted down while they work so wholly in college. In the case that tactical direction works, other teams may not use the scheme in the same way it was initially introduced, but when teams are this close, everyone can afford to steal tactical capital from everyone.

To say everyone is the same is a disservice to teams attempting to alter the paradigm, but it’s not as outlandish an idea as it seems.

Look at it this way. Manchester City, currently the most fluid passing team in the Premier League, has completed 504 short passes through its first five games. Stoke City, the least fluid, has completed 229. The amount of tactical experimentation in the middle of those two completely opposite poles is fairly pronounced.

The margins in MLS are considerably tighter, and nobody has exposed the bare beams of the league’s tactical similarity more than Caleb Porter. As men like Porter and Oscar Pareja are now proving (and as men like Jason Kreis and Peter Vermes have helped propagate), it’s possible to introduce a fluid, possession-based attack that plucks out space and moves it to fit the game plan. But the tactical necessities it takes to do this under the guise of MLS’ pervasive top-down parity (and personnel) makes this task considerably more difficult. And it never looks quite like your tactical ideal. Which is why so few have even attempted it and even fewer have succeeded. Remember when Paul Mariner tried to introduce the 4-3-3 in Toronto?

It’s not that Porter’s teams have abandoned his fluid style (far from it), but the league’s even shelf has robbed its ability to get beyond a certain complexity.

Through last weekend, RSL completes the league’s most passes per possession with 3.51 (Portland is third with 3.21). The Chicago Fire have completed the fewest with 2.37. Borne out over the course of a game, what that stat tells us is that RSL will heap on more meaningful passages than will the Fire. So what’s the difference between the two teams through 29 league games? Nine points. The fewest possessions per game? FC Dallas with 126.8. The Sounders have the most with 138. The 10 extra points that bought the Sounders is the difference between first and eighth in the West. Which is incredible.

During his six years at Akron – and increasingly more so as he became more comfortable taking risks – Porter’s teams tended to average anywhere between 10-15 passes in the attacking third before taking a shot. In 2010, when Akron won the national title with Darlington Nagbe, Darren Mattocks and Scott Caldwell (among others), the Zips fell over possession like a blanket, pinging passes in a blooming umbrella about 35 yards from goal. As you watched, the umbrella seemed to gradually collapse until somebody found a killer ball. But this part is important. You watch the midfielders take a touch and their gaze snaps up vertically, not horizontally.

Possession metrics are grossly overrated, a fact that is seeping out of the analytics community with increasing speed. The ability to hold possession is only as useful as the key passes and shots on target it cultivates. But they are still valued in tandem with the fruit they produce. The only stat that ultimately matters is goals, and the value of two entirely different avenues of getting to the same place is purely academic. A counter-based team that scores 2.8 goals per game is no less valuable than a possession-based team that scores the same amount.

In this sense, Porter has always been the most direct possession-style coach in American soccer. He was always engineered with the ability to adapt to MLS, it’s just happened sooner rather than later. What outsiders see is that Caleb Porter has turned MLS on its ear with a truly Continental possession-soaked attack that has introduced something new to the league. This couldn’t be further from the truth. What he’s done is operate inside MLS’ even framework with a slightly modified approach than what Kreis and Vermes have already been doing.

As Devin Pleuler expertly laid out in August, Porter has clearly tailored his style (he didn’t come up with Death By 1,000 passes as Akron and he apparently doesn’t like Porterball, so let’s call it “soccer”) to MLS’ unique framework. Idealism is shorn off in MLS in favor of pragmatism, and Porter’s introduction to MLS is the starkest example we have of this phenomenon. He was never quite this direct in college, or with the U23’s for that matter.

While RSL does play a similar style to Portland, Salt Lake possesses the ball considerably less times per game than does Portland, a style Jason Kreis has honed with meticulous precision over the years. Knowing that his press will turn teams over and with Kyle Beckerman as a metronomic backstop, RSL works inside MLS’ constraints by making incredible use out of a smaller sample size of possession. RSL is 17th in the league in possessions per game and first in passes per possession.

In lieu of this, Porter has largely organized himself in a 4-3-3 with Will Johnson holding in the middle and the other parts more or less interchangeable. Alhassan has played everywhere from the left wing to right midfield. Nagbe too. So while the constant has been Porter’s insistence on knocking it around, the framework under which he’s been able to do this has become considerably more oppressive. Which, as we’re about to see when the playoffs roll around, is both a limiting agent and one of the league’s greatest, most unique strengths.


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  • Chris Gluck

    good article – fits into my research and approach on the compelling regression/analysis of my ‘combined data points’ that show value relative to points in the league table as opposed to just ‘time’…

  • The Through Ball

    The futility of tactics comes down to MLS’ style of crash-ball. Any player who wants to hold the ball for more than 3 seconds can expect 1 or 2 players coming in to injure him with a tackle.

    Unless a team has a player like Donovan who can pass to kill, as well as the 3-4 players around him to enable this skill, teams are forced to resort to the boring long ball offense. If not, they risk losing a player to injury and the list is long.

    It’s exhausting for the fans to watch. I can only imagine how tiresome is it for the more skillful players and coaches on the field.

    • Sgc

      People always use “long ball” as their code word for anything they don’t like. Long ball is a particular style of play, and most MLS teams don’t play it.

      It usually involves a big, burly guy to knock down your long balls, and a second guy behind him to serve as his outlet. It’s usually used by teams that are overmatched against the opponent they’re playing on that particular night (such as Celtic against Barca yesterday), and parity tends to make that style (just like tiki-taka styles that depend on dominating the flow of play) more rare, not more common.

      Most MLS teams look tactically like mid-level teams in most leagues when facing a near-peer. Less talented than in the better leagues, for sure, but the approach is similar. As far as physicality, it’s probably no more physical than the Premier League, and less than the Scottish League. MLS is the only league that I know of with a Disciplinary Committee that will go back and punish players for violent infractions that the game refs missed.

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