What Portland Timbers Coach Caleb Porter Needs To Do In Year 3
Saturday, January 31, 2015
His team badly underachieved, falling from first to sixth place in the Western Conference. They were knocked out in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League. They couldn't attack, then they couldn't defend, and they could absolutely never get their act totally together.
In press conferences after arguably the two most enraging games of the season - the 4-4 home draw with Seattle and the 4-3 home loss to Vancouver - Porter was unprofessional and condescending.
Never in Porter's career had he faced the sustained adversity and sustained setbacks that he did last season. For a man pushing 40, Porter had no experience with real professional failure outside of his ill-fated one-off journey with the US Olympic team.
Porter had to learn how to lose, and it was an ugly process.
There was a lot of whining. A lot of immaturity. And a lot of classless behavior. But Porter came out on the other side, just as his team did with a run to the end of the campaign that was deeply satisfying even if it fell short of the ultimate goal of a playoff return.
That sophomore slump was an imperative for Porter. He learned how to take a punch. He was forced to grow up, and there's no way the Timbers don't benefit from that going forward.
Porter is going to be around for a long time. The Timbers organization - from Merritt Paulson on down - craves stability in a way that every great sports franchise does.
Paulson has had the same general manager going on five years now through thick and thin. They settled on Porter as coach in part because of his obvious gravitas, but also in part because of his long-term vision.
For his part, Porter wants minimal turnover in his playing staff. He’s had virtually no turnover in his coaching staff. He doesn't want to tinker with his starting lineup, or his back-four, or anything. He wants a routine. He wants his eleven guys.
The Timbers’ offseason reflected that. Portland has spent the last year building a team that can be foreseeably be unchanged for the next three to five years.
Adam Larsen Kwarasey is a long-term move. He's no better than Donovan Ricketts, he's just younger. He'll be around in five years when Ricketts is enjoying the Jamaican beach.
The Timbers have, since 2013 began and the Porter era began, tied up nine of their eleven figurative 2015 opening day starters to multi-year contracts.
Overall, the Timbers are figuring out how to run the show. It’s year five for Paulson and Wilkinson. Year three for Porter.
We should get a mellower coach this year. Not on the field, of course, but everywhere else. Porter weathered the storm last year – the most trying three months of his career when Mr. Highs-Low-Lows-High-Fall-Asleep-And-Let-Me-Get-Out-Of-Here completely lost control of his emotions and best self.
Last year was full of Mickey Mouse mistakes, and for all of Porter’s talk about balance and consistency, much of the Timbers’ franticness at the beginning of 2014 stemmed from the coach’s increasingly brazen tactical game management and personnel decisions.
All of the Timbers’ success in 2013 bought Porter a lot of security and pomp and taught him very little.
Porter learned, and most likely improved, much more from the struggle of 2014 when nothing came easy.
Porter is incredibly intense. He’s incredibly competitive. Those are strengths in a coach.
But Porter has two years under his belt now, and the hope is that with an added layer of comfort and know-how comes with more management savvy.
Porter is ready to get comfortable with a rotation. Beloved players who weren’t quite up to par like Futty Danso and Pa Modou Kah – and there’s no question that Porter valued their locker-room presence and contributions – are gone.
It’s taken three offseasons, but it feels like Portland has cut all the excess off their roster. The players the Timbers have now are either proven talents or young prospects.
All signs point to 2015 being a banner year. The Western Conference, with Real Salt Lake getting old and LA not being at full strength until the summer, has lost its sense of invincibility. Even with the much-bandied additions of Houston and Kansas City and subtraction of Chivas, the Timbers have a manageable schedule this year.
There’s no reason Portland can’t be in a battle with Seattle for the West crown. They won’t fall into the trap of a slow start again. That much we know for sure. Hanging on to Ben Zemanski and Gaston Fernandez were imperative for that.
System wise, Porter has a better idea of how he wants his team to play. Portland has, without question, had the most success withdrawing their press and sitting back. Playing more direct – without Valeri and with a true #9 in Fanendo Adi – could also be on the table.
That doesn’t mean the Timbers’ style goes away. The defense should be more able to play out of the back, starting with Kwarasey, who is a clear upgrade over Ricketts in terms of distribution.
Ridgewell and Borchers are both solid on the ball – much better than the Timbers’ last two major center-back signings, Kah and Norberto Paparatto.
This is Porter’s team. Only four players are left from the John Spencer era – emeritus captain Jack Jewsbury, the irrepressible Diego Chara, the player most identifiable with Porter in Darlington Nagbe, and the player he converted into an unrecognizable attacker, Rodney Wallace.
People should be excited about this year’s team. There should be a level of maturity and intentionality about the Timbers that we haven’t seen in years past. Success should follow.
Perhaps that’s why there’s almost no panic that Portland’s best player and captain are recovering from ACL injuries and will almost surely miss the start of the season.
The Timbers are full of quiet confidence. The team, and the coach, are growing up.
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