Caleb Porter has spent less than one season as a professional coach, but he's been the most impressive manager in Major League Soccer in 2013. The 38-year-old appears to be well on his way to a coach of the year award after guiding the Portland Timbers comfortably into a playoff position halfway through the MLS season.
Their latest victory, a 3-0 stomping of the Colorado Rapids on Sunday, was just the latest in a long string of impressive results. The Timbers are undefeated since March 9, rattling off an undefeated string of 15 MLS games and 17 games in all competitions. Porter already owns the record for longest undefeated streak by a first year head coach in MLS history, and Portland have an excellent shot to match or break the MLS record of 19 straight without a loss.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Last year's Timbers were unwatchable, on top of being terrible. Porter was expected to simply start the wheels in motion toward playing entertaining soccer and capturing a winning record, not execute a complete turnaround in one season. He's done it, and the most incredible thing about Portland's success is the way that Porter has gone about achieving it. The Timbers have found a perfect medium between Porter's ideal tactics and the tactics the current personnel is best suited to, suggesting that this team isn't a flash in the pan and that long-term success is on the way.
Previous coach John Spencer was unpopular in Portland not only for his poor record but for his team's very direct, conservative, long ball-centric and generally difficult watch style of soccer. Portland Timbers blog Stumptown Footy recalled the decision to fire Spencer and what owner Merritt Paulson said about Porter when he was appointed as Spencer's successor while recapping the year that was last fall.
When Paulson announced the decision to hire Caleb Porter, his word choice in describing the new leader -- "cerebral," "tactical," "reflective" -- seemingly betrayed his true thoughts about all the things John Spencer wasn't.
Even though Portland got burned on Spencer -- a rising star assistant coach at the time of his hiring -- Paulson decided to go down the same road and go after a young and unproven manager who had been highly touted as a great mind in American soccer circles. He appears to have gotten it right this time with Porter, and he's a bit lucky that his gamble paid off.
The biggest reason why his hiring was a gamble is obvious. Porter been wildly successful at the college level, but has never coached professionals and had a very short professional career himself. In his first head coaching job outside of Akron, managing the United States' Under-23 national team, Porter's team failed to qualify for the London Olympics.
While the Timbers have a large and loyal fanbase who certainly would have stuck around through another year or two of rough results, nothing is forever. Toronto FC used to have the best stadium environment in MLS by a mile, but their stadium is now half-empty on a weekly basis. Appointing a "safe" coach who could have snuck the Timbers into the playoffs could have been a very easy trap for Paulson to fall into after he got burned by a promising, but inexperienced coach with his previous hire.
There's also the matter of Porter's approach to the game, something that was worrying in the wake of his hiring, especially given the team that was hiring him. Porter's Akron teams regularly had some of the most technically talented players in the country and played a short passing, possession-based style rarely seen in American college soccer. Some had the audacity to refer to them as the Barcelona of college soccer, because whichever team passes the ball best in their league has to be the Barcelona of that league. Akron's style was called "death by 1,000 passes."
After leaving Akron and taking over as Portland manager full-time, he dropped his quote in an interview with the team website.
To decide the game you must have the ball and statistics show the more you have the ball the better chance you have to win.
Sounds like the epitome of brainwashed Cule-speak, right? It was really easy to doubt Porter.
There's an equally true variation on the old cliche, "if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is." If something sounds too dumb to be true, it probably is (with @_FloridaMan being the world's most notable exception). The idea that a college coach would come into MLS, one of the most physical and direct leagues in the world, take over its most physical and direct team, then try to make them play like Barcelona sounds stupid because it is stupid. Porter is not an idiot, so he never intended on doing anything like that.
There's a post-script to the quote above. Here's what Porter followed up that possession line with.
It will certainly take time to build towards controlling games this way and it will be important to look at our personnel and the team we are playing to be realistic with our approach. The bottom line -- especially in the building stage -- is we will do what we need to in order to give ourselves the best opportunity to win each game. Winning is the priority, plain and simple.
That's why Porter's Timbers are undefeated in their last 15 games, why they're currently tied for first in the league in points, why they have the league's best goal differential and why their success is sustainable. Porter isn't an ideologue and isn't committed to asking his team to do anything they're incapable of doing. He elaborated on that even further in the same interview.
As far as system, I have always been very flexible and have adapted my teams depending on the personnel I have. I believe a system has to fit the players and their individual strengths/tendencies.
He's stuck by that, and the proof is in his team selection.
On Sunday night, the Timbers gave another start to Rodney Wallace on the wing. He rewarded Porter by setting up all three goals in their win. Wallace has been an attacking fullback for most of his career and his main attribute is his pace. By no stretch of the imagination does he fit into anyone's definition of what a wide player should be in a possession-based, tiki-taka system, but Porter has found a role for him. Wallace is one of Portland's most talented players, so he gets utilized, regardless of his fit or lack thereof in Porter's ideal system.
Porter would also love to have more of a playmaker in his midfield in an ideal world, but great deep-lying distributors aren't particularly easy to find in the United States. Portland needed to add quality to their midfield this offseason more than they needed a specific player, so they acquired Will Johnson, despite having a fairly similar (if inferior) player in Diego Chara already. The Timbers have figured out how to make a midfield with both Chara and Johnson work, and Chara has improved drastically this season. Now, he sits back, shields the defense and recycles possession instead of trying to be a do-everything superstar in the middle.
The Timbers also don't have a center forward who can do as much interchanging with midfielders and distributing as he can scoring, or a player with excellent skills with his back to goal. They have a pair of good athletes -- Frederic Piquionne and Ryan Johnson -- who are more goal-poachers than anything else. They're not prototypical center forwards for anyone's possession-based game, but they're performing well and fitting well enough into what Porter is trying to do.
Portland keeps possession better than most MLS teams, but they have players who don't shy away from physical challenges and they can play fast, direct and on the counter when necessary. Their best attacks often come from very fast attacks through Wallace, Will Johnson or one of their forwards, rather than through a beautiful interchange of passes. They're stylish and technical by MLS standards, but their speed and tenacity are their best assets; "Porterball", as Portland's style of play has been dubbed, is much more Borussia Dortmund or Colombia than Barcelona or Spain.
Expect the Timbers to inch closer and closer to something that resembles Barcelona if Porter remains in charge, but don't expect to see his team play that way by the end of this season. Porter doesn't have his team playing tiki-taka and that's a good thing. It shows that he's not dogmatic in his approach to the game and that he's able to work with the players he has at his disposal, even if they're not the kinds of players he wants long term.
Porter knows how to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of his team and his opponents better than most coaches in MLS even though he's only in his first year as a professional manager. As he coaches in more professional games and Wilkinson has more time to build the kind of squad that Porter wants, the Timbers are only going to get better.
The Portland Timbers' run isn't a fluke, and Porterball is here to stay.