Caleb Porter rallies Portland Timbers after first-half blunders cast locker-room pall

PORTLAND, Ore. – It didn’t take long before Caleb Porter was faced with his first daunting task as a MLS head coach.

His Portland Timbers had dug themselves a 3-1 hole against the New York Red Bulls in the first half of their season opener Sunday evening at JELD-WEN Field. And when Porter strolled into the locker room, what he found were, predictably, a lot of long faces staring back at him.

“When I first walked in they seemed certainly a little bit down and disappointed, knowing they didn’t expect the game to be where it was, down 3-1 at halftime,” said Porter, who was making his professional coaching debut after building the University of Akron into a powerhouse.

And Porter’s message was simply a reiteration of what he's preached since the first day of preseason training: put the pressure on.

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Portland did just that, unleashing a total of 21 shots, 13 of which came in the second half, to the Red Bulls’ 10. The Timbers also upped their 60-percent possession rate to 65 percent in the second half.

The result? A 3-3 draw that flattered the Red Bulls, who hung on for a point despite suffocating second-half pressure from the Timbers.

“The first thing I told them is you can’t do anything about the mistakes,” Porter said. “But we needed to put it behind us and focus on what we’re going to do to pull the goals back and get a result and mentally they did that. It doesn’t happen very often down two goals to come back, but this group continues to show they have the mental toughness.”

Porter said it wasn’t as much a tactical adjustment as it was a mental one. He said the team came out a bit “nervy” early on. But he did address some “spacing issues” and encouraged his players to be more patient circulating the ball and to play down the wings more in order to open up the inside channels.

“We’re best when we get on the front foot in the front half and we lock teams in with possession and pressure, and that’s exactly what we did,” Porter said.

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Porter also showed he’s not hesitant to call a spade a spade in his first postgame press conference as a professional head coach. He accused one reporter who asked about the status of goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts of “stirring the pot” and labelled another question “ludicrous.”

He was also crystal clear regarding which team he felt was better on the night.

“Two of the goals we basically gave them,” Porter said, referring to several defensive blunders that directly led to New York goals. “It wasn’t anything they did to earn them, we gave them to them. If you give up goals, you’d rather it be in a way where they do something to break you down. But we gave them two goals on a platter, and that’s ultimately what cost us three points. … It was more we made them take their foot off the gas because we jammed it down their throats.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.