Caleb Porter finds best of both worlds

11/16/2011 - NCAA Men's Soccer

Akron coach Caleb Porter isn't sure why soccer grabbed him and has refused to ever let go. He didn't have any family history with the game. He competed at several other sports, but soccer was the one that possessed him.

"My dad was never a soccer player," said Porter, a Michigan native. "He was into football, baseball, typical American sports. He also was a triathlete. My mom ran marathons. It wasn't that anybody pushed me into soccer. I think it was the freedom. It was something I chose.

"I can remember as a kid having soccer posters all over my walls and being able to recite everything that happened on soccer videos. I'd memorize every word. I had a soccer goal in my living room that I made out of wood and a sheet. I'd be kicking balls around and breaking lamps."

Porter, whose Zips are the defending national champions in Division I men's soccer and begin NCAA tournament play Thursday against Northwestern, knows there was another important factor in his relationship with the sport.

"There were some coaches I had along the way as well who really inspired my love for the game," he said. "It's like having a teacher when you're young that gets you to love a subject.

"Or it can work the opposite, right? You can get a coach who stifles you, and you never want to play the game again because you don't have fun. Hopefully, you can inspire people to love something if you love it that much."

But Porter didn't grow up dreaming about coaching. He verbalized his dearest wish when he was still just a youngster: to be a professional soccer player. Following a playing career at Indiana that included two trips to the men's College Cup, Porter started his pro journey when he was picked by San Jose in the 1998 MLS draft.

After just two years -- and with two chronically injured knees -- Porter had to say goodbye to the career he'd been pointing toward for as long as he could remember. It was the summer of 2000; he was only 25 years old and felt emotionally crushed … at least initially. What now?

"I had the rug pulled out from underneath me, right as I finally got to where I wanted to be," Porter said. "I couldn't play anymore. But I shifted gears. I wanted to stay with the game."

Another career was calling. Porter, despite his disappointment, was ready to answer.

"It's a huge source of motivation and inspiration for me to do what I do: develop players and help them become pros like I wanted to be," Porter said. "To grow the sport. I didn't get a long day in the sun as a pro. I think that made me extra-motivated to pour all myself into coaching. Now I kind of live vicariously through the players who want to do the same thing. It gets me out of bed every day."

Well … that and his two toddlers. The elder, 3-year-old Colin, is already displaying chip-off-the-old-block traits.

"I see a lot of Caleb in Colin," said Porter's wife, Andrea. "Just wanting things done correctly and being passionate about whatever he's doing."

I didn't get a long day in the sun as a pro. I think that made me extra-motivated to pour all myself into coaching. Now I kind of live vicariously through the players who want to do the same thing. It gets me out of bed every day.

--Akron coach Caleb Porter

In which case, before he's even in kindergarten, Colin might start quizzing his dad about things like why he hasn't made some defensive adjustments to use the speed he has at center back.

A third little Porter is on the way, with Andrea -- a former soccer player at Indiana -- due to deliver a daughter in February. It will be the college offseason, but Porter won't have any downtime in the foreseeable future.

In October, he was named head coach of the under-23 men's national team, which will try to qualify this spring for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Getting his more immediate full attention, of course, are the Zips.

"It's a challenge, because I've had to shift gears and focus on two teams," he said. "There's a lot that goes into this if you're doing it right. You're thinking about all the little details. There's a method, a plan.

"But it's worked because USA Soccer is letting me focus now on Akron. Once the season's done, I will put both feet in with the U.S. team. I have a really good staff here at Akron; I would not be able to do it without them. And fortunately, I have a wife who understands my obsession. She knew what she was getting herself into. It's not a 9-to-5 thing. It's a live-eat-breathe-sleep-it thing."

The culmination … but also just the beginning?

Yes, Andrea knew what she was in for. Early on when she and Caleb started dating, they went out to run together.

"We were just doing laps around the soccer field," she said. "It was supposed to be friendly. And the next thing I knew, we were both sprinting all-out. So I think soccer brought us together, but also just the competitive spirits we both have."

After he had stopped playing, Porter went back to his alma mater to be an assistant for legendary Hoosiers coach Jerry Yeagley, a valued mentor. When Ken Lolla was lured from Akron to Louisville, Porter took over the Zips for the 2006 season.

So it was an intriguing storyline last December in Santa Barbara, Calif., when Akron/Porter met Lolla/Louisville for the title. But let's rewind even further -- to the 2009 men's College Cup in Cary, N.C., where the Zips tied Virginia in the final but lost 3-2 on penalty kicks.

That fueled Porter and his team throughout the winter, spring and summer coming into the 2010 season. The Zips would lose just one game -- at Cleveland State in October -- before taking the title with a 1-0 victory against the Cardinals.

In the final minute of that contest, though, Louisville appeared to have a clear shot at the equalizer. There was a scramble after a corner kick, and Akron keeper David Meves lost the ball following a save that took him away from the front of his goal.

That left Louisville's Aaron Horton with just one man to beat: longtime friend and club teammate Chad Barson, a defender who was the only Akron player between Horton and the goal. Barson deflected the shot, and the Zips had the school's first NCAA title in any sport.

After Barson made that play, Porter actually started to laugh. It was mixture of relief, joy and just a little disbelief. Horton was a talented striker -- he's since moved on to the pro ranks -- but put the ball in about the only place where Akron could have stopped it.

"We still sometimes will bring it up: 'Wow, it really happened,'" Andrea said of the NCAA title. "I was happy for Caleb but also for the players who'd worked so hard for it. I listen to a lot of the conversations he has with them from the time he recruits them. It became a moment that was just so exciting for them."

Barson is what you'd call the NCAA's picture-perfect definition of student-athlete. A straight-A biology major, he's an aspiring doctor who plans to follow his parents and two older brothers into the medical profession.

This season, Barson is one of the Zips who has been a big help to the team's stability after they lost so much to graduation and/or the pro ranks. Seven key players are gone from the championship team, five of them underclassmen who went pro. That included Hermann trophy winner Darlington Nagbe and Kofi Sarkodie, who is with Houston Dynamo. Houston will face Los Angeles in the MLS Cup final on Sunday.

On one hand, it was a great accomplishment for the program to have helped so many young guys have a chance at the same dream Porter himself once had. But by the same token, it left the Zips with more holes to fill than they had anticipated.

"It's definitely a new role for the few guys who are the returners from last year: being the leaders and example setters for the younger guys," Barson said. "They're coming into a program that has quite a bit of tradition and high standards. We let them know there's a certain way we do things here.

"The one word I would use to describe Coach Porter is passion. He's the best coach I've ever played for and the reason I came to Akron. It's great playing for someone who cares so much, who wants to grow the game and who now is going to be helping do that even more for our country."

Style is substance

Barson really isn't just talking in platitudes. Porter wants to do more than win games. He wants his teams to play the sport with what he feels is the right mindset: an aesthetically pleasing way that highlights the physical "artwork" that is soccer at its best.

We want to be known for playing the game in an attractive, attack-oriented way. Our philosophy is to win, but win in a way that will develop players, grow the sport and inspire others to follow our lead.


"We want to be known for playing the game in an attractive, attack-oriented way," Porter said. " Our philosophy is to win, but win in a way that will develop players, grow the sport and inspire others to follow our lead.

"We worked hard to transform the program so we could play the way we have the last several years. We did it not by defending deep and essentially destroying the game, but by possessing the ball, being proactive and letting our players be creative and express themselves. The things you admire about the top teams in the world. We wanted people to see us win, but also feel good about the way we won."

No surprise -- the guy who pined for so long to be a pro player wants his college team to play in the polished style of professionals. As mentioned, it's been harder this year because of all the personnel losses.

The NCAA tournament bracket came out Monday, and folks are still trying to make complete sense of it. (Not an infrequent occurrence, however, when it comes to the NCAA and brackets in all sports). The loudest howls come from the Lobos at New Mexico, who are undefeated and ranked No. 1 but still just the No. 10 seed overall.

Akron is unseeded after going 13-3-4, including a loss in the Mid-American Conference tournament semifinals at home.

The Zips were 23-1-1 in 2009 and 22-1-2 last season. This year was more about Porter nurturing the team along, knowing he didn't have the same stockpile of talent that led to the gaudy records of the previous two seasons. The reality is that the Zips could still go on a run now, or the season could be over quickly. They're on that kind of tightrope. But Porter hasn't lowered the expectations. He still believes Akron could defend its title.

"It would have been easy to chalk up this fall as a rebuilding year," Porter said. "But I'm not wired that way; I believe in keeping the standards high. The top programs, that's how they approach it."

Porter's contract was extended through 2020 after last year's championship match. And while his success means there will always be chatter about his leaving the college game, he, Andrea and their kids have found a soccer oasis in Akron.

"For our family, it's just been amazing seeing the support," Andrea said. "We feel like we stumbled upon something we didn't even fully realize was here. It's just been way beyond what we could have ever imagined. It's hard to tell what the future will be, but we are definitely happy in the life we have here.

"I think the step of going to work with the U-23 team while still being able to stay here at Akron was great for Caleb."

But it means Andrea is prepared for a hectic time in February, when the baby is due but Caleb will be preparing for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. The semifinals and finals of that competition come March 31-April 2 at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City.

Which, incidentally, is the home field of Teal Bunbury, 21, a former Akron star who tied for the lead for Sporting Kansas City in goals this MLS season with nine and could be on the U-23 team. That squad is currently at a training camp in Germany this week, although an injured Bunbury is not there.

Neither, of course, is Porter. His multitasking whirlwind is spinning specifically toward the first hurdle of the NCAA tournament.

"I've gotten better at compartmentalizing," Porter said. "I have two young kids and one more coming, so I've learned to turn off the soccer for a little while and spend time with them. I think that's made me a better coach.

"But there's barely an hour that goes by that I'm not thinking about soccer. To get ahead in anything, you have to put the work in, and I'm a grinder. I hope my passion for the game is contagious and rubs off."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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