Porter’s Timbers

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.


Caleb Porter during his stint in charge of the US Olympic qualifying campaign
Caleb Porter’s time as USMNT coach was not a roaring success
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.



15 thoughts on “Porter’s Timbers

  1. I’m interested in your thoughts/opinion of Porter not coming on board until after the Akron season concludes. Good? Bad? Both?

    1. I don’t think it’s ideal for the Timbers. Best case would’ve been to get him in now and get him on the training ground with the players so he could assess them fully ahead of 2013. However, we don’t know whether his remaining at Akron was a condition of Porter, of Akron (in return for perhaps letting Porter break his contract for a reduced fee, for instance), or of both and if that’s the case you can understand why the Timbers have acquiesced as Porter was clearly their #1 guy.

      I don’t think it’s a disaster, but it’ll be interesting to see how Porter divides his time and how it effects the Zips’ season because I don’t believe for a second that he won’t have daily involvement in the goings on at Jeld-Wen, even if it’s only a phone call at the end of the day to get up to speed from McAuley or Wilkinson.

      So yeah, a bit of both but I think it’s workable. Not ideal, but workable.

      1. agreed it’s not ideal, for either side. Akron has to find a new coach while going through a season in which their current leader is grabbing the reigns of another horse, and that other horse is headed towards a cliff hoping Porter pulls the reigns before the season starts.

        As far as player assessments, I’ve got a gut feeling that he’s got hours upon hours of film to look at on each of them individually; I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a bit of turnover in short order from anyone he figures is unsuited to his style of play, without much more than some basic analysis and phone calls.

        If I got to bet on it? Aside from the oft’ mentioned Palmer and Boyd, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see Jewsberry and/or Smith head out the door. Neither seem terribly quick, and as much as I like having both of them around from a work-ethic and fan perspective, I don’t quite see how they fit into the “death by 10,000 passes” method of play Porter employs.

  2. Great write up.
    I like this choice, and think it bodes well for the future of the team. I’m curious how much interaction he will have with the team between now and December, if it will be hands off till then, or if he will start laying the groundwork for next season while he is still at Akron.

    1. I really doubt it’ll be hands off. He might not be on the training ground, but I’m sure he’ll be involved in trade targets, and player assessment, albeit at a distance. He’ll give Akron his primary focus, but I can’t see any way that he simply ignores the Timbers – that’s his future and his career as a pro coach could very well be defined by how he does in Portland, after his poor experience with the national team already sullied his rep a bit in the eyes of some. He’s not going to leave that to chance.

  3. Based on what I hear about Porter, and what I’ve seen on the field the last couple of weeks, I’m excited about this.

    Two questions more out of curiosity than anything:
    (1) Why did he accept after turning down DCU?
    (2) How did he get out of his contract with Akron through 2020?

    And three related questions that are crucial to the future of the club, which I hope and assume have been discussed at length and agreed upon:
    (3) What will be the respective roles of MP, GW, and CP?
    (4) What is the balance of power between GW and CP in Paulson’s mind?
    (5) Are all three agreed on the vision and direction of the team so there are no more “philosophical differences?”

    1. 1) Kinda hard to tell. Maybe he simply didn’t fancy DC at that time and figured a better opportunity would come along eventually. Maybe he figured that he’d better make the jump to MLS now rather than let his failure in Olympic qualifying be the thing that defines him as a potential top flight head coach. Maybe he didn’t want to go stale at Akron and the Timbers were right job, right time. Maybe Gavin Wilkinson is just a charming bastard. Without being able to get into his head, it’s impossible to say.

      2) Again, that’s a tough one to answer without having the details. Most accounts put him on around $300k at Akron, so that’s a hefty lump. My suspicion, and it’s pure speculation on my part, is that the agreement for him to see out the year with Zips is tied to Akron agreeing to waive at least a portion of the compensation they’d be due. I’m coming at this from a European perspective, though, so perhaps the system over there is different. Someone else may have a better idea than me.

      As for your other three Q’s, Spencer was given a lot of leeway and control in regards to how the squad was put together, I’d suspect that part of Porter’s demands would’ve been similar levels of control over team matters even if MP and GW’s instinct after getting their fingers burnt may have been to wrest some control back from the head coach. We’ll just have to wait and see. I don’t think Porter is coming here just to coach. He’s been the main man at Akron for so long, and been so successful, that I suspect he’ll want to repeat that model, as far as he can, in Portland.

      1. In response to 2) above:

        I can’t imagine the Athletic director at Akron going along with a reduced buy-out. If he leaves now, you’re looking at a 600k+ swing to the books between salary and buy-out. As happens often in American college football, you simply promote an assistant for a year, and go on a coaching hunt. That kind of money would attract a LOT of good coaching talent, even if it is to Akron, OH.

        In other words, I wouldn’t be surprised if MP simply ate most if not all of the 300k.

      2. Yeah, most likely that. MP probably figured this season was a wash-out anyway, Wilkinson could hold the fort and work to Porter’s guidelines re: tactics etc and we don’t have to pick up Porter’s salary until December. It’d be interesting to know how far, or if at all, Paulson pushed the issue of an immediate start.

  4. “Wilkinson’s seemingly perpetual presence in a position of power in Portland provokes a perdurable and passionate peevishness.”

    I…just…wow. Kudos, sir. 🙂

  5. Kevin, you are often quite vocal about pointing out how little possession other commonly held statistics bear out when it comes to winning and losing. How do you feel about a possession & style-minded coach taking over? As a bonus question, do you think the Timbers switching to a 4-3-3 and playing more of this type of football under GW was part of the club’s transition to a Porter regime? Or perhaps part of the overall efforts to woo Porter to Portland?

    1. I think that holding up possession as a barometer of how one team deserved to win, or was the “better” team is a fallacy. And the figures simply don’t stack up that having more possession translates into more goals or better results. That’s why I sometimes rail against the use of stats like that as if they have any great meaning. Statistically speaking, they’re practically worthless.

      Now, that said, and trying to make myself clear without sounding like I’m contradicting myself, I’m all in favour of playing a possession game. Basically, I feel there are two, broadly speaking, types of possession – there’s “keep ball” and there’s “possession with purpose”. Keep ball is what it sounds like – just holding possession, passing back, no real impetus, slow – you get the idea. Possession with purpose is moving the ball around, probing, looking for weakness, changing the angle of attack – for example, look at how Barcelona will move the ball around in the middle and final third of the pitch. It may look like they’re just moving it around for the hell of it, but in fact they’re always looking for a space to open up ahead of them, always looking to pull the opponents out of position.

      The problem with possession stats as they are, and as Opta measure them, is it weighs these vastly different types of possession equally. When you then factor in the fact that some teams are happy to play direct, or on the break, then the idea of using possession as some kind of meaningful guide to reading a match becomes even more flawed as some teams are happy to give it up – that’s their plan.

      I hope that makes sense!

      Anyway, back to your point, I’m happy to see us adopt a possession based style as I feel we have the kind of players in attack who could benefit from it, and it helps to alleviate some of the pressure of our back line which is, to be kind, “a bit shaky”. It’s also the kind of football I like to watch. Also, from everything I’ve read and heard about Porter’s style, he’s very much a Possession with Purpose guy. He wants to keep the ball, but he wants to hurt opponents with it, not just make pretty passes and string together 25 passes that go nowhere.

      As for why the change came about, I think it’s a bit of both. GW probably wanted to shake things up anyway, and try something different, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, over the past few weeks or so, Porter has been giving his input into how he’d like the system implemented. I’d say it’s over the past three games that we’ve really seen the team make strides forward in terms of it’s play, and going by rumours and hearsay, that seems to be right around the time that Porter was definitively identified as the man the front office wanted. I think it’s interesting that it’s over the past few matches that Nagbe has really come alive and looked much more comfortable and at home, and who was the last coach to really get the best out of Darlington Nagbe on a consistent basis? Caleb Porter.

  6. Anybody want to place bets on Kris Boyd’s last day in a Timbers uniform? If we put the over/under at September 15th, I’d go under.

    1. I would go over. I think he is here til season’s end, and then is moved. Just me though… and the international transfer window is closing and I don’t think he will stay in MLS. All my own speculation, but I really feel that he won’t be moved that soon.

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