The Portland Timbers confirmed one of MLS’s worst kept secrets today when he announced that Caleb Porter would be their new head coach, taking over following the completion of the Akron Zips’ season in time for the 2013 MLS season.
The move to Portland will be Porter’s first foray into professional club management after a hugely successful time at the University of Akron, where he oversaw the development of a number of current MLS stars including the Timbers’ own Darlington Nagbe.
Many expected the Timbers would go with experience after the disappointing end to the John Spencer era, but owner Merritt Paulson was effusive in his praise for Porter, saying “Put simply, I believe Caleb Porter is the best young soccer coaching mind in the country.”
The lustre was somewhat taken off Porter following his failure to guide the US U’23 team to the London Olympics, but clearly the front office heard enough from him to convince them that that failure was a mere blip in the career of a hugely promising head coach.
Caleb Porter moved into coaching relatively young after injuries curtailed his playing career at 25. His first coaching job was as assistant to Jerry Yeagley, and then Mike Freitag, at Indiana University and Yeagley, in particular, was a massive influence on the young coach.
Porter had played under Yeagley before turning professional, where the experienced coach sought to channel Porter’s natural intensity for the good of the team. The player had earned the nickname “Jean-Claude Van Damme” for his habit of tearing off his shirt to intimidate others during summer caps.
“Not in any ways was he a dirty player,” Yeagley said of Porter, “he was a hard player.”
Porter, a defensive midfielder, was a key part of that Indiana team and would later be drafted by San Jose Clash in 1998, but the intensity that had made him captain at Indiana bubbled over on his debut, where he managed to get himself sent off.
His career in MLS never really got off the ground, and knee injuries put an end to it altogether in 2000. Back at Indiana, he was mentored by Yeagley and his skills as a coach developed quickly, and soon made him stand out such that the University of Akron hired him to take over as head coach there in 2006.
With the Zips, he took a team that had a single NCAA Round of 16 appearance in the previous ten seasons and developed them into a powerhouse of US College soccer.
Porter’s eye for detail and man management abilities soon had the team firing on the field, while his eye of talent saw some of US soccer’s brightest prospect turning up in Ohio.
Porter was an enthusiastic adopter of technology, embracing statistical analysis systems like Match Analysis to give his teams that little bit extra edge that would, eventually, take them all the way to the NCAA final in 2009.
Although they would lose out on penalties to the University of Virginia, Porter had done enough in his time in Akron to attract the attention of DC United following the resignation of Tom Soehn after another poor season for the Black-and-Red.
Few could’ve blamed a young coach, fresh off some success, for having his head turned by the bright lights of Major League Soccer, but Porter chose to stick with the Zips, signing a new five year contract.
The decision would prove to be a good one for Porter as 2010 saw the Zips go one better when they won the national championship, fired to success by a certain Mr Nagbe, who won the Hermann Trophy that year, as well as Perry Kitchen and Darren Mattocks.
Porter’s sterling reputation at college level led to his appointment last October as head coach of the US U’23 team that would seek qualification to the 2012 London Olympics. It was a role that allowed him to retain his position at Akron, following his signing a 10 year contract after his 2010 championship success.
Despite big promises and high hopes, the qualifying campaign came to a crashing halt after a loss to Canada and a draw to El Salvador that saw the US eliminated.
It was a grave disappointment to all US Soccer fans, and Porter came in for much criticism for failure. Blame was laid at his door by some for his supposed “tactical inflexibility.” That’s a phrase that should get every Timbers fans worried after the experience of John Spencer where the Scot seemed unable or unwilling to deviate far from a throwback 4-4-2 style that was consistently being out-thought by other MLS coaches.
With the national team, Porter sought to replicate the attacking, possession based system he utilized at Akron. You don’t have to dig very far into Porter’s history before references to Barcelona and Arsenal abound regarding his team’s playing style.
In his early years in Ohio, he had his team playing with a fluid and mobile 4-4-2, but has changed it up recently, moving to a more “European” 4-3-3. One that that has remained constant has been Porter’s adherence to playing attacking football.
“We want to be known for playing the game in an attractive, attack-oriented way,” Porter has said of his Akron team. “We [want] people to see us win, but also feel good about the way we won.”
Porter places a high value on playing the game in an aesthetically pleasing way, and being proactive in their approach. His team’s will commonly look to keep the ball, and move it around at great pace, switching up between bouts of quick, short passes and long ball into space.
The key to this style of play is repetition, repetition, repetition. What the fans see on game day is the mere tip of the iceberg, beneath the surface lay countless hours of work on the training ground, drilling players and pushing them to develop tactically and technically.
While I don’t think Porter should escape all flak for the national team’s failure to make the Olympics, international football is a completely different beast to that of the domestic game. He wouldn’t be the first club coach to find life difficult in the international arena, and he won’t be the last.
Where club football affords you the time with your players to work on the intricate details of your tactical system, at international level there simply isn’t the time. You have to quickly mould together a diverse group of players, who are all likely playing in different systems domestically, and quickly form a cohesive unit.
Perhaps Porter was too ambitious in trying to force through his fluid system in such a short space of time, but that shouldn’t be such a problem at the domestic level.
Some critics also pointed out Porter’s lack of professional coaching experience as a problem, the insinuation being that top players wouldn’t listen to this young, unproven in their eyes, coach in the way that they perhaps would with a Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley – both of whom also learned their trade as University coaches.
One of Caleb Porter’s biggest critics in this regard was the
twattish outspoken twitter trainwreck football fuckwit pundit-turned-coach Eric Wynalda.
“Caleb Porter was just given a job to coach a bunch of professionals, which is something he knows nothing about. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he failed and the team failed and that we didn’t qualify for the Olympics. Does Caleb Porter do a good job? A fantastic job, and his job is to be a recruiter, and what he’s been phenomenal at is convincing 10 families to send their kids to his university so they can have a successful program. But asking him to stand in front of a bunch of professionals and tell them what to do wasn’t going to work. It was never going to work.”
Whereas I’m sure players would have a ton of respect for Mr Wynalda.
Caleb Porter’s Timbers
I don’t foresee this being such a problem at the Timbers. I don’t think players look at a coaches resume before deciding whether to respect a coach or not – that comes by by the coach interacts and gets on with the job. If it purely came down to Wynalda’s rather cynical view of professional footballers, there would be no career for Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger or Andre Vilas-Boas. All coaches with little to no professional playing experience, but who quickly won round players with effective coaching and man management. Well, at Porto at least for Vilas-Boas – let’s not talk about Chelsea – but you get my point!
So what can the Timbers fans expect for Porter’s Timbers? To be honest, I think we’ll see more of what we’ve seen under Wilkinson. It’s hard not to think that this is an appointment a long time in the inking, but which has seen the groundwork being put in place for some time now.
The way the team are playing is certainly on the road to how Porter would likely want the team doing. The key to how the club will progress will be in how effectively he can put his ideas across, and how far he can develop the talent already here or how much control he’ll have over the recruitment policy.
There are rumours that the Perkins trade was instigated, or at least okayed, by Porter. This may not exactly endear him to some fans, but if true then the trading of such a popular and influential first team player would suggest that Porter’s word will carry a lot of sway with the front office, though there will still be a not insignificant contingent of fans for whom Wilkinson’s seemingly perpetual presence in a position of power in Portland provokes a perdurable and passionate peevishness.
Some may question Porter’s loyalty to Akron, staying in the post till December and whether he’ll have enough time to implement the kind of changes he’ll likely have to to turn around the ailing Timbers. I don’t think it’s such a great concern as I’m sure, even though he won’t be discussing the issue publicly, he’ll be maintaining daily contact with Wilkinson and the coaching staff and keeping abreast of matters in Portland. It’s far from ideal, but I hardly think he’s going to rock up in the Rose City in December completely unprepared.
I suspect that there will be a lot of dead wood to be cleared out by Porter before the Timbers kick off their all-conquering 2013 season. Guys like Kris Boyd and Lovel Palmer, to name but two, don’t strike me as players who fit into Porter’s high impact, possession-led way of playing. The coincidental timing of an announcement that Jeld-Wen Field will be widened to 74 yards next season is most fortuitous as it will suit the direction that Caleb Porter will want to take the team in. It may – may – also shut up a few tumshies around the league, stopping them banging on about how small the pitch is. Let’s see how they like having a stadium full of rabid fanatics bearing down right on top of them now.
Of course, we’ve been down that road before with John Spencer given a lot of rope in regards to player acquisition, and it didn’t exactly work out great, but this is a clean slate. The potential Caleb Porter has as a coach is great, and the ambition of Merritt Paulson is no secret.
Marrying the two could, at last, produce a side that delivers true and lasting success to a fan base that has already proven itself loyal to the team through the most trying of period. Imagine the noise they’ll make when the MLS Cup comes to it’s spiritual home in Soccer City USA.