How Not to Ask Caleb Porter a Tactical Question

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The Timbers' manager is very good at explaining his tactical preferences and in-game adjustments. As long as someone actually asks the right questions.

Sometimes you ask an insightful question that evokes an even better answer. And sometimes this happens:

It looked like you were using a diamond out there. Is that correct?

No.

Not correct? 4-4-2?

No.

I'm going to stop...

It depends on our rotation and our movement. I don't get too caught up in the numbers game.

Ok, that wasn't me but it did come from a post-game press conference with Caleb Porter after the 1-1 draw against the Seattle Sounders in March. But worry not, I found an equally embarrassing way to fail during a post-practice interview session yesterday:

Usually you guys overload the left, when you do overload one side or the other. It seemed on Wednesday, especially in the second half, that it happened a little more on the right than we're used to seeing. Was that an adjustment in the game or something you want to try to do more often?

Uh...I don't know why you would think that we usually overload the left. Our left?

Yeah.

Why do you think that?

I guess it seems like, more than anything, you guys abandon space on the right sometimes. You've talked before about sometimes you have to abandon space to occasionally create some chances. It seemed like that space was more on the left.

But I wouldn't say that we normally overload the left. If you look back through the games and you look back through our plans and our movements and rotations, we've sometimes overloaded both right and left. A lot of games we've overloaded the right. In fact, I'd say we've probably overloaded the left less than the right, to be honest with you.

And it continued like that for a bit longer before the session mercifully came to a close.

Having a conversation with Porter about planning, adapting and executing tactical preferences can be among the most interesting experiences in covering MLS. He takes time to explain the reasons behind his decisions and is often willing to admit that some choices don't always work out as planned. Porter does not mind getting very technical, if he thinks the question deserves a complete explanation and answer. In fact, he does not give 'the good stuff' only to reporters from big newspapers or when the national television crews come to town.

But one thing one does not want to do is try to ask Caleb Porter a question about tactics but do so poorly. Not because he is mean or vindictive, but because if he thinks a question lacks merit, or accuracy, he often makes it clear. Which is why the onus is on the asker of questions to not only get the facts right but to ask in a way that imparts the relevant message.

That's where I blew it Friday morning. What I really wanted to know was Porter's thought process regarding Darlington Nagbe spending more time in wide areas, and Rodney Wallace less time than usual. What I wanted to find out was if it was the plan all along to have Wallace tuck inside more often and leave Michael Harrington space to himself on the left, or if it was an adjustment within the game. I wanted him to tell me if he thought it worked to have Nagbe and Alvas Powell combining on the wing instead of the former slipping inside and leaving Powell that space for himself. Instead I used a term that clearly meant something different to Porter - overload.

To his credit, after the formal media scrum, Porter gave me a few minutes and followed up, asking what I meant. I did my best to say what I outlined in the paragraph above, which made more sense to him. He walked me through the ideas behind moving wide players inward depending on which outside back is behind them and explained that it was a conscious decision to have Nagbe play a bit wider than is his inclination on Wednesday, while asking Wallace to move more toward the middle, as opposed to his usual hugging of the sideline.

The results are pretty clear when looking at the heat maps from the two recent games against Real Salt Lake. But that's beside the point. I was not prepared enough to take the idea that had been circulating in my head since Wednesday night and turn it into a question that was not just coherent, but within the scope of what I know gets Porter rolling.

This post is not meant as a criticism of Porter. Rather, it's meant to point out what a terrific resource is at our disposal, even if we are not yet getting the full potential. No matter how interesting a person Porter is, if we don't ask the right questions, he's going to have a hard time giving anyone the kind of answers that he is so naturally inclined to provide. Not every coach is like this, in fact most are not. The fact that Porter enjoys getting into the specifics is clear, and to be fair, training reports on this very site are already taking advantage of his inclination to break things down.

The good news for everyone is that Porter only wants to hide certain things from his upcoming opponents. He opens up to anyone who is willing (and able) to ask the questions that get to the heart of his tactics in a given game or his larger soccer philosophy. I doubt a scenario like this morning will be the last in my interactions with Porter. But hopefully they won't be often and I'll be able to get information that gives a better understanding of what the Timbers are up to under Porter.

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