On December 19th, the New England Revolution announced Caleb Porter as their next head coach. This coming after Bruce Arena’s resignation following allegations of inappropriate and insensitive remarks.
Porter has had a pair of MLS head coaching gigs prior to joining the Revs, spending time with the Timbers (from 2013-2017) and the Crew (from 2019-2022). He won an MLS Cup at each of those stops. He also failed to make the playoffs in about half of those seasons.
As such, finding opinions about Porter’s body of work isn’t exactly difficult.
The overwhelming narrative surrounding the former Akron Zips manager is that he’s smart and self-assured, perhaps to a fault. One article described him as “hyper-competitive, brash, and [with] the charisma of a keychain”.
He’s also been described as a “tactics guy”.
The thing I like most about Caleb Porter is that he’s a tactics guy.
The #NERevs have a good roster. Porter will add a few pieces then he has to identify the right tactics.
— Seth (@SethMan31) December 19, 2023
In his previous stops, it has often felt like a battle between ‘the tactics’ and ‘the players’. If things were working, and the players were executing on his vision, his teams had great success. If things weren’t working, however, he would often frame their struggles as a failing of personnel — not the tactical framework.
Given all that, it’s clear that tactics are going to play a big part in how successful New England can be in 2024 and beyond. Let’s take a look through some past data, formations, and even Porter’s own words to get a sense of how the Revolution may look in 2024.
How Porter Sets His Teams Up
Let’s start with the easy part of this equation: the formation.
Caleb Porter has started the year in a 4-2-3-1 formation in each of his last 5 seasons as a head coach. He has really only deviated from that formation to cover for injuries.
This works well for New England, as they are ideally suited (from a personnel standpoint) to play a 4-2-3-1. In fact, under Bruce Arena, the Revs already employed that formation for large stretches of 2o23.
Mastering the 4-2-3-1 Formation: A Twitter Thread
Are you looking to dominate the field with the 4-2-3-1 formation? Look no further!
In this Twitter thread, we'll break down the basics of this popular soccer formation and provide tips for mastering it. pic.twitter.com/WmYyX0hPLG
— TacticalFootballGenius (@tacticalfgenius) June 20, 2023
It’s a formation that makes sense when you have a Carles Gil to pull the strings as a CAM or ‘number 10’. The central attacking midfielder is a crucial position in a 4-2-3-1 as much of the attack runs through that part of the field. Having an top caliber no-10 (like Carles Gil as well as former Caleb Porter CAMs Lucas Zelarayan and Diego Valeri) makes everything flow smoothly.
In 4 of 6 Caleb Porter seasons where data is available, his ‘number-10’ finished with a top 15 FotMob Rating in MLS (Valeri #10, #13 — Zelarayan #4, #15). Now hewill get the opportunity to coach Carles Gil who has finished in the top 5 at FotMob Rating every year he’s been healthy. That includes #1 finishes each of the past 3 seasons.
Possession with a Purpose
While in Portland, Caleb Porter developed a reputation with the Timbers as a manager that sits back and hits teams on the counter. Despite using that strategy to great effect in their 2015 MLS Cup winning season, it was a reputation Porter was eager to shed.
“Forget ’15” Porter said in an interview with MLS’ ExtraTime Radio “…we won a trophy, we countered”.
Counter-attacking soccer can be a highly effective strategy, if used correctly. And perhaps no team better embodied good counter-attacking play than Porter’s 2015 Portland Timbers. The strategy served them well, but if you ask Caleb Porter it was merely a means to an end.
“…We played to that and it worked, and I hope people realize that’s good coaching. Was that the preferred way I like to play? No. But I’m glad we played that way to win an mls cup.”
So if it’s not ‘defend-and-counter’, then what tactical identity does the newly appointed Revolution manager prefer? What is his tactical identity?
“If you want to know my identity, go back to [the 2017] season”
Revs fans may remember the guarded and aloof press-conferences of the Bruce Arena era, where no question would receive a straight answer. This does NOT appear to be the case with Caleb Porter.
“We scored 60 goals, we lead the west in scoring, and we won the west. We played in a very dominant way. And we played out of the back, and we kept possession, and we pressed.”
It’s worth noting that the interview took place back in 2019 when he’d just taken the job as head coach of the Columbus Crew. Since then we’ve gotten a decent look at how those tactical ideals played out.
For the most part, he was true to his word. The Crew, under Porter, were a possession heavy/ball dominant team. They held above 50% possession, on aggregate, in 3 of his 4 seasons in Columbus. The Crew under Porter kept the ball and were methodical and deliberate in their build up.
“You look at my teams, I like to dominate possession in the front half and I like a lot of creativity, patience, ball circulation, combination play, and rhythm in that front half and control there.”
All that possession has it’s benefits and drawbacks. Controlling the game with the ball allows your opponent fewer opportunities to score. In 2020, the Crew allowed the 2nd fewest goals in the league. In 2022, they allowed the 4th fewest.
The drawback to being so deliberate is that it can become plodding. Over the 3 year span in which the Crew averaged above 50% possession, they had the 7th lowest ratio of progressive passing distance to total distance.
This indicates a higher percentage of lateral passing (and back-passes). While that’s great for keeping the ball (and can absolutely be an effective strategy) it requires both skill and complete buy-in to be truly effective in the attack. We can see it’s hold on the Crew players fade season by season as they went from 8th most goals in 2020 – to 15th most in 2021 – to 19th most in 2023.
There’s no way to tell exactly how this system will look with New England’s personnel. Between Gil, Chancalay, Vrioni, and Borrero the Revs should have enough creativity in the attack to find the back of the net.
“Most of my teams end up scoring goals. Because it’s possession with a purpose and it’s effective and it’s exciting and entertaining.”
Here’s hoping his words come to fruition in Foxboro.
The Wings: Not Just for Crossing Anymore
So, just to recap, it looks like a ball-dominant 4-2-3-1 could be in play for the Revs in 2024.
The team will likely play out of the back (as opposed to booting it long from the defensive third), play deliberate/lateral passes and look for opportune moments to strike. Certainly a popular style among a certain sector of the soccer intelligentsia, if not terribly unique.
There will, seemingly, be one notable wrinkle.
“I like my wingers, when we get higher, to not be so narrow too early.” Porter says, again from the same 2019 ETR interview. I’ll let him do the talking:
“Part of why the outside backs end up just crossing the ball is because as the ball gets switched out and circulated, they’re the ones that get on the ball.
And you have to serve it, because the wingers are in.
I like to create actions where we switch play and circulate the ball, find the wingers. They drive in…now the outside back gets played in on the move. And then now we fill the box. Or if it’s not on, and it gets to the winger we switch it back through start to pull apart the back four and look for little combinations…two and three man combinations.”
To me, this sounds pretty different from Bruce Arena’s New England Revolution. Are there any Revs fans reading this with long memories? Can you remember all the way back to…2022?
Those that can remember that far back, may recall that New England relied heavily on the cross as a means of generating chances.
The Revolution attempted the second most crosses in the league that season and attempted a cross on ~4.2% of their total passes. A lot of that stemmed from the personnel on the field. Brandon Bye and Dejuan Jones are both excellent crossers of the ball. New England had, arguably, the best aerial threat in the league in Adam Buksa. The system worked.
Well…Until it didn’t.
Eventually Buksa found another home in France, and the Revs pivoted to the less aerially-dominant Giacomo Vrioni. The crossing continued, but the goals didn’t follow.
Meanwhile, Caleb Porter and the Crew were using a different tact. One that resulted in many fewer crosses, only doing so about 3.5% of the time.
They crossed at a much lower rate than New England, primarily because crossing wasn’t the objective.
“My style is I like to create a lot of combination play in that final third. Get endline, get the outside backs in on the move, look for cutbacks. Be more patient instead of crossing balls in all the time. That’s my style.”
The wingers, in a Porter-system, remain wide when in possession. This allows for overlaps with the fullbacks, but it takes numbers out of the box, meaning there are fewer crossing options available. The natural consequence is shorter, more intricate combination between the full-backs and the forwards.
Look at the positioning of Striker Miguel Berry in this match from 2022 against DC United. See how much further to the sideline his involvement is than Adam Buksa for NE?
Berry is pulled wider in Porter’s system, to get involved in interchanges with the wingers and fullbacks. This takes him further from goal, but gets him more involved in/around the penalty area. The effect is less obvious once Cucho Hernandez takes over at ST, but even he spends a good amount of time out wide.
Given how much New England struggled to get their strikers involved in 2023, getting these kinds of touches may be useful to the offense. Furthermore, a striker like Giacomo Vrioni may be better suited to this type of play than as a target waiting for service.