I will never forget the evening I watched the USMNT U-23s play El Salvador.
In spite of the shockingly disappointing result, the style of play was the most exciting thing I had ever watched. It had the beauty of a free-flowing passing game AND the thrilling dynamics of a high-speed direct game. That night, I became a Caleb Porter fan.
Porter had combined the best of both worlds.
There was short, quick passing. Fluid off-the-ball movement. But there was also a drive to keep the attack moving forward as quickly as possible. Through-the-middle penetration was balanced with crosses into the box from the wings.
I'm not sure any of us has a complete grasp on the definition of Porterball. But there are clues when you compare the TImbers with that U-23 squad.
Obviously Porterball emphasizes possession and high pressure. But from my observation, the most unique feature to Porterball is the urgency in attack. It's not urgency to the extreme like we saw with John Spencer, where you send a couple of strikers on a sprint for the goal and launch the ball up-field towards them. Or when numbers get forward you put the ball on the wing and cross every single time.
No Porterball is more patient than the old-school English direct game. But it is NEVER patient like Barcelona or Ajax. It never doddles around the midfield all afternoon, or rotates the ball back and forth around the box all evening looking for a seam to exploit. It always feels like something is happening, and when the ball reaches the final third, we know an attempt at penetration or a cross is not far away.
It's the kind of game that is much more beautiful than the traditional direct style of play, but never gets accused of being boring, the way a Pep Guardiola side would.
But that urgency in attack is also the blind spot in Porterball. MLS teams have discovered how to exploit it. They have learned that if you clog and press in the midfield, our team won't wait for an opening. We will force it because we can't wait. Waiting is not part of the philosophy. We keep it dynamic and exciting.
Unfortunately, because of our opponents adjustments this year, we keep forcing bad passes and turning the ball over.
Could we keep the ball better and get it forward more consistently if we had more patience on the buildup? If we were willing to pass laterally and backwards more often and look for that opening? Maybe.
But can Porter handle that? Can Gavin and Merritt handle that? Is that too big a departure from the brand of football the Timbers are built around? Are we willing to adjust our urgency on the buildup at the risk of playing a more "boring" passing game?
Come to find out, there is a reason teams like Barcelona and Ajax are more patient in their buildups. Patient football forces defenders into that situation where they suddenly and instantly must switch gears defensively. That is very hard to do, especially for MLS-quality defenders. That's what causes a guy like Futty Danso, who had been playing great previously, to suddenly have a nightmare game against Real Salt Lake's patient attack.
When facing Porterball, defenders don't have to be as flexible. They don't have to focus on patience and positioning for minutes on end, then suddenly switch gears and sprint to cut off a through ball.
And in the midfield, teams can use a high-pressure backline and midfield to close down targets and intercept balls as we predictably try force it forward.
So does Porter have the willingness, or the leeway from the FO, to be more patient? Or does he have an even better solution that somehow fixes our woes on the buildup without sacrificing the urgency in attacking?
As this amateur tactician sees it, there's a hole in Porterball, or at least the style of football I've come to to see as the definition of Porterball.
But if anyone has the intelligence and patience to figure out a way to fill the whole without destroying the brand, it's Caleb Porter, and in Caleb Porter I still trust. I look forward to seeing how he adjusts, because when he does, "it's going to be scary".