COLUMBUS, Ohio – Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter spoke a lot in the days leading up to Sunday’s MLS Cup about the fortuitous path of his career leading to this point.
He recalled winning an NCAA national title as an assistant coach with Indiana in 2003 under his mentor, Jerry Yeagley – on the same MAPFRE Stadium field which hosted Sunday’s championship game. There was the moment that Porter chose to leave a comfortable college head coaching position to take over at Portland in 2013, reuniting him with Darlington Nagbe, the player who he discovered as a youngster, brought to the University Akron and who ultimately would become one of the most important components to the Timbers’ success.
That path culminated with the pinnacle achievement of North American club soccer when the Timbers beat Columbus Crew SC 2-1 on Sunday at MAPFRE Stadium to clinch the club’s first title just five years after its entry into the league.
“That was the vision,” Porter said in his postgame press conference. “That’s one of the reasons that I left Akron. I left the stability and security of college soccer. I had a big contract and everybody was happy, but I wanted to come do something that has never been done. I saw a sleeping giant here in Portland, I saw the fan base, the infrastructure and that was why I jumped off the cliff and left.”
There were also times when Porter could have easily questioned his path.
He found instant success in his first year as a professional coach, leading Portland to the Western Conference Championship series in 2013 before falling to Real Salt Lake. But last year, the Timbers faltered early in the year and fell a point short of the playoffs.
With a month left to go this year, the Timbers were again facing scrutiny after a 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City on Oct. 3 left them below the playoff red line. Porter said it was not only a formation tweak – shifting Nagbe into a more central role – that led to the team’s turnaround, but also – and more importantly – a faith in his philosophy and the players with whom he instilled his faith.
“I expect in this job that you’re going to get criticism when you don’t get results,” Porter told MLSsoccer.com in the team’s champagne-soaked celebratory locker room. “What I would say is that if you look at the body of work over the last few years, it’s pretty impressive, and I don’t say that for me, I say that for the team and the club. … I think the fans are always going to criticize coaches and players when they don’t win, and I have no problem with that. I expect that. I took this job knowing that, I don’t really read it, but I also don’t get mad at it, either.”
Porter also was never shy of self-examination.
When the team showed defensive weaknesses in 2014, he and general manager brought in veteran Premier League center back Liam Ridgewell on a Designated Player contract, bucking the league trend of focusing the largest investments on attacking players.
The Timbers proved to be one of the best defensive teams this year, with the addition of veteran center back Nat Borchers, manifesting with just six goals allowed in six MLS Cup Playoff games – the foundation of a rejuvenated attack over the past two months.
“I think when I first come in last year people questioned a DP center-half as they call it, and trying to shore up the defense in the team,” said Ridgewell, who has taken the armband from previous captain Will Johnson as he recovers from injury. “And we missed by one point last year to get into the playoffs, and I probably took that as hard as anyone; they took me in to try to make the playoffs, and we didn’t. So this year to win it, and win it the way we did, is a really good thing. And I feel proud to be part of it and proud to be captain.”
Ultimately, another tweak by Porter, a formation shift that placed Nagbe in a key box-to-box midfield role, rejuvenated their attack – an aspect of the game that was never a problem in Porter’s first two seasons – and led to their current nine-game unbeaten run that ended in Sunday’s triumph. Still, Porter shied away from pointing to that one reason as a turning point in the season.
“We’re all a part of it,” Porter said. “Without good players there’s never a good coach. Without a good coach there’s probably not good players either. So you’ve got to get both going. I don’t deserve the credit, we all deserve the credit, everybody. Listen, it’s not even just the players and me, it’s the staff, it’s the kit man, it’s the team admin, everybody plays a role. … So this is for everyone.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.