The Reinvention of Caleb Porter: Reflection and renewal in the Rose City

CALEB PORTER COULDN'T BEAR TO WATCH.

As midnight closed in, Porter paced the empty hallways of the Portland Timbers’ hotel in Plano, Texas, a quick drive south of where a few hours ago his team had beaten FC Dallas in their final game of the 2014 regular season. The Timbers’ playoff fate was in the balance – and out of their control.

More than 2,000 miles away, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Colorado Rapids were in the midst of a high-stakes match that – to the satisfaction of the Timbers players, assistant coaches and staff watching in their rooms – remained scoreless. If Vancouver lost or drew, Portland were in.

Porter paced. The helplessness was more than he could handle.

“I just couldn’t bring myself to watch the game,” he says now. “… so I just walked around the hotel and waited.”

He kept his cell phone close, assuming it would buzz with a text or call once the match at BC Place was final. But as the minutes ticked by and Saturday night closed in on Sunday morning, Porter’s phone remained silent. The message wasn’t lost on him. The season was over. 

By virtue of a thundering Kendall Waston header, the Timbers’ Cascadia rivals had claimed the Western Conference’s fifth and final seed in the MLS Cup Playoffs, eliminating the Timbers in the process. Instead of licking his wounds with his staff or commiserating with a loved one, Porter went to his room, turned off the lights and went to sleep.  

The next morning the Timbers boarded a plane for Portland, a long offseason of pointed questions and roster shuffling ahead of them. Many of those questions would be asked of Porter, still smarting from the first major setback of his MLS coaching career.

His way had failed. The way that sent the Bloomington Cutters to their first-ever Indiana state title. The way that – as an assistant at Indiana, where his head coach said his drive would “tear the heart out of an opponent” – helped the Hoosiers win a national title. The way that turned unfancied Akron into a national-title winning juggernaut. The way that delivered an MLS Coach of the Year award to his mantel after his first professional season.

This is the story of a man so confident that his way was the way, he’d fight you to defend it. It had brought him this far, scratching and clawing for every inch, working himself silly honing and developing it. If his way wasn’t working – at soccer, at life – then he simply wasn’t working hard enough.

But on that October night in Plano, Porter finally submitted. Then he took stock of his life.

“It took me failing with the playoffs for me to re-evaluate myself, my coaching and my life in general,” he says. “The priorities I had in my life.”

Caleb Porter would have to change.

Long sought after by MLS clubs while at Akron, Porter arrived in Portland in December 2012 with one blemish on his coaching record: a 2012 Olympic qualification failure at the helm of the US U-23s. His first season with the Timbers was rosy, as a previously underachieving squad lost just five regular-season games, finished atop the Western Conference and came up just short of MLS Cup. That felt like ancient history when Portland missed the playoffs entirely in 2014.   Photo via USA Today Sports Images

WHEN PORTER ARRIVED IN PORTLAND in 2013, Sigi Schmid, his counterpart in Seattle, texted the young manager some advice: “Get used to losing.” To say that warning fell on deaf ears would be an understatement.

In some ways, you can’t blame Porter for failing to heed Schmid’s words. The Timbers rarely lost that first year. Just five times in 34 regular-season games, as the then 38-year-old led the club to the top of the Western Conference, within two points of the Supporters’ Shield and all the way to the conference championship, where a veteran Real Salt Lake squad ended Portland’s near fairytale season.

Even better, Porter did it his way staying true to the possession-oriented, high-pressure style that he’d perfected at Akron. With Diego Valeri pulling the strings, the Timbers racked up pass sequence after pass sequence, won the possession battle in 24 of 34 matches and reeled off a franchise-record 15-game unbeaten streak. The media even coined a catchy term for it: “Porterball.”

“I got in a little bit of a rut thinking that I had it figured out,” Porter says. “And the reason I thought that was just based on the way it was going. I mean, how could I know any better? So you could say it was stubborn, but it really wasn’t stubborn. I was doing exactly what was working.”

When 2014 arrived, MLS adjusted. Teams got physical with the Timbers, they countered them, sometimes they just flat-out beat Porter at his own possession game. And when Portland wasn’t up the field dominating, they weren’t comfortable and quickly became exposed.

The Timbers went winless in their first seven matches of 2014, and Porter struggled with the shift in fortunes. He hadn’t hidden his competitive, and sometimes combative, nature since arriving from Akron in December 2012. He sparred with the media and opposing coaches. He was surly in postgame press conferences after losses, and the mood often carried over into the next week as reporters continued to prod for answers.

“[Losing] would affect him, and I think his players could feel that,” Jerry Yeagley, Porter’s head coach and later mentor and boss at Indiana, told MLSsoccer.com.

Fans grew restless, flying banners demanding the ouster of general manager Gavin Wilkinson while Porter faced questions about whether his job was in jeopardy. As he had in 2012 when the #GWout hashtag began appearing in Timbers fans’ Twitter feeds, owner Merritt Paulson steadfastly stood behind Wilkinson. Likewise, Wilkinson never had any doubts about his head coach.

“You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he told MLSsoccer.com.

In the summer, Porter and general manager Gavin Wilkinson spent big to bring center back Liam Ridgewell in from the English Premier League on a Designated Player contract and signed Nigerian striker Fanendo Adi on loan from FC Copenhagen. The margin was tight – they stood a mere two points from the final playoff spot – but the moves weren’t enough to return Portland to the postseason and the highs of 2013.   

Publicly, Porter maintained the roster only required a few tweaks. What he didn’t tell anyone at the time was that the biggest offseason change needed to be his own.

“I’m never too dark because I’m such a fighter,” Porter says of that 2014 offseason. “But I would say it just really opened my eyes to my life. If you build your life around the job as a coach and you build your life around winning and yourself, then I would say when that’s not working out then your life feels a little empty.”

In that winter of 2014, Porter not only changed how he coached – he changed the way he lived.

Following a game at Providence Park, Porter is joined by his son, Jake, and daughter, Stella. As he reflected on his failure to lead the Timbers to the playoffs in 2014, Porter realized he'd shortchanged his family and himself in pursuit of success. “I kind of felt like I was cheating them, cheating my wife, and I thought, 'Why would I even have kids?'" Porter says with time to reflect.  Photo via Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers

PORTER'S FATHER WASN'T AROUND MUCH. A logger in Tacoma, Wash., when Porter was born in 1975, he gradually worked his way up the ladder and is now the president of an international paper company.

He was rarely home from the office earlier than 8 pm, an overarching figure in Porter’s life who instilled two things: a relentless work ethic and an instinct to lead.

“It helped me because I know his drive, I know how hard he worked,” Porter says. “He was cutting down trees, and now he’s the president of one of the top paper companies in the world. I saw how hard he worked, it was his passion. It was work ethic or drive, and whether that’s nature or nurture or both, it’s something I picked up on.”

When the failures of 2014 set in, Porter realized something was missing. Working at breakneck pace, living and breathing the game, had worked in a professional sense, but it left a noticeable void in his personal life.

“I’ve talked to him countless times when he was an assistant, when he was at Akron, when he came to Portland, that balance is extremely important and very hard,” Yeagley says. “I mean, it’s so easy to be working 24-7, there’s always something, and to be able to keep balance in your life and not letting it consume you and being able to give time to the family and being able to handle that and manage that is a big part of maturing as a coach.”

Porter asked himself what was he killing himself for. He had a growing family – wife Andrea, two sons, Colin, 7, and Jake, 5, and a daughter, Stella, 4 – to support but, like his own father, he rarely saw them. And when he did, he was admittedly absent.

Andrea, like her husband a former player at Indiana who met Porter at a soccer camp during his time as a Hoosiers assistant, couldn’t help but notice the distance.

“I actually was looking back at some pictures,” Andrea tells MLSsoccer.com, referring to an off-weekend family trip to the Oregon coast during the Porter’s first year in Portland. “And I have a couple where he was literally on his cell phone the whole time watching games. So he would be there with us physically but not quite mentally.”

The emptiness Porter felt in the winter of 2014 made him acutely aware of the price he was paying for his professional habits. Why did he work late every night? Why did he live and die with every result? Why were his kids growing up without him?

“I kind of felt like I was cheating them, cheating my wife, and I thought why would I even have kids, you know what I mean?” Porter says. “I don’t want to be the coach who 30 years from now I look back and, ‘Oh, you had three kids but you never saw them, you never spent time with them.’ Then you know what, don’t get married and don’t have kids if you want to be one of those types of guys.”

Though Porter entered the league dogmatic and defiant about his preferred style of play, dubbed "Porterball" by fans and media, he was forced to adapt after being humbled by an up-and-down 2014 season. He turned pragmatic in 2015, leading a charge up the table in the final weeks of the season before going unbeaten in the MLS Cup Playoffs to capture the Timbers' first MLS championship.   Photo via USA Today Sports Images

PORTER ENTERED 2015 ARMED with a new perspective, not only on life but also how he would manage his team. It led to two gigantic decisions, one a foundational shift in tactical identity and the other stemming from his newfound work-life balance.

Where he’d been dogmatic in the past, Porter discovered newfound flexibility.

Though he’d done everything in his power to cultivate a Barcelona of the Pacific Northwest approach – singular dedication to possession and pressing in the name of dictating the game – during his first two MLS seasons, Porter came to grips with the fact that the Timbers weren’t Barca or Bayern Munich. MLS’s structure, its parity, the complexity of the travel and playing conditions meant his preference was moot.

“When everybody was saying I was this wunderkind coach, I was really naive, and I see some of that in other coaches that are coming up through,” Porter says. “Eventually you will get kicked in the teeth if you think you are going to do the same thing every single game. Over time it does not work, especially in MLS.”

Porter focused on “cycles” and “phases of play.” He wanted his team to be just as comfortable sitting deep and absorbing, looking to hit on the counter, as they were pressing high up the field, stringing passes together. The team’s personnel reflected that, with Ridgewell, now captain, anchoring a defense that also features veteran Nat Borchers, and Valeri, Adi and Darlington Nagbe leading a potent attack backed up by the indefatigable Diego Chara.

There would be games when the Timbers dominate and games when they didn’t. Though he was no longer preoccupied with aesthetics, he was still a creature of habit and preparation. With time to reflect, Porter senses some delusions of grandeur in his early days in MLS. He also recognizes the selfishness in his refusal to adapt.

“In theory, I should have 100 philosophies, and it’s all dependent on the situation, it’s dependent on the opponent, your team, your year, depending on a lot of different things all the time,” Porter says. “I think this feeling of, ‘We’ll play the beautiful game. We’ll play this one way. We’re going to revolutionize the league,’ was the way I was [before].

“But it’s a self-promoting way to think because it’s about you: 'I’ve got this great way, the best way. I have a lot of philosophies, and I have a way of working.’ I think the best coaches are guys who make good decisions based on situations, and they’re not naive and they don’t make it about themselves. They make it about the job, and they make it about winning.”

Still, evolution is a slow process, and it was no different for Porter and the Timbers. As 2015 wore on and the team hovered around the playoff red line, Porter began to pay more attention to the human side of the equation. He came to a conclusion that turned a decent season into a great one: Nagbe was ready for more.

Many were surprised when Porter said he didn’t feel Nagbe was ready to carry the team upon his arrival in Portland. This was a player who he’d helped raise in the game, for whom he’d assumed a father-figure role. The two were close, and Porter knew what Nagbe was capable of physically and, more importantly, mentally.

When he took the job in 2013, Porter knew Nagbe wasn’t ready to take on a primary role. He put him on the wing – where his speed and skill on the ball made him a matchup nightmare, but lack of assertiveness made some wonder whether he was destined to be a star – and gave the reins of the attack to Valeri while leaving leadership to veteran Will Johnson, a setup that lasted most of Porter’s first three seasons.

But late in the 2015 season, Nagbe’s fifth with the team, Porter felt it was time for him to break out of his shell. He’d watched his protégé grow up in Portland, stood beside him as he married and became a father. Nagbe had become a man, and Porter knew they weren’t getting all they could from him on the wing.

So on Oct. 14, with Portland in seventh place and outside the playoff field with three games remaining, Porter made the move: Nagbe was moved to central mid. That night, the Timbers went to Rio Tinto Stadium and pipped Real Salt Lake 1-0. Four days later, they went to Carson, Calif., and shellacked the Galaxy 5-2. A week after that, Nagbe’s brace and assist handed the club a 4-1 home win against the Rapids and the third seed in the Western Conference.

The rest is history. A pair of posts helped the Timbers sneak past Sporting KC in the Knockout Round. Adi and Chara sent Portland past Cascadia rivals Vancouver – and Porter’s good friend, Carl Robinson – in the semifinals. Dairon Asprilla unleashed a lightning bolt and Borchers mopped up a rebound to provide the margin in the next round against FC Dallas. Valeri’s quick thinking and Rodney Wallace’s incisive finish saw the Timbers Army lift MLS Cup in Columbus.

With Nagbe in the center of the park, the Timbers hadn’t lost a game. Now they were champions, history makers in the Rose City. Yeagley called the move a “masterstroke,” but it was just the final piece of the puzzle. Ultimately it was Porter’s willingness to humble himself in the face of failure two years prior that gave his players the platform to make history.

"I think a lot of it came down to good coaching," Borchers told reporters in a champagne-soaked locker room after the match. "Caleb kept us focused on this run. He gave us confidence. You need a coach with an edge. Caleb has got that edge."

Porter's carved out extra family time in order to maintain a sense of balance between work and home. Here he walks toward the Timbers Army with the eldest of his three children, Colin. His wife Andrea says that balance has been healthy for her husband: "It’s never easy for him, but I think he’s gotten a lot better at it.”   Photo via Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers

THAT EDGE IS OBSCURED ON THIS late March morning. Porter is calm, just as he was standing amidst the puddles of champagne and beer, streaks of grass blades and mud, inside the locker room at MAPFRE Stadium last December after the Timbers topped Crew SC, 2-1, to lift the cup. His remarkably grounded demeanor through it all is perhaps the most surprising aspect of Porter’s rise from a sometimes petulant prodigy to championship coach.

This from a coach who seemed ready to brawl Bruce Arena – a coach whom he says he studies and greatly admires – when the Timbers beat the LA Galaxy for the first time under Porter. This from the same man who drew the ire of Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich in the 2014 AT&T MLS All-Star Game and prompted FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja to hand him a tissue after a loss in Portland.

But this Porter is a different man, one in which competitive juices still flow freely but who feels more settled than he ever has during his MLS career.

“The big thing I’ve always felt is if you end up winning it, you should be happy but also you should be more satisfied,” Porter says. “Anybody who wins anything, they expected it, so that’s why I feel great, and I am happy, but I’m never surprised. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, I mean that more in a way of belief because you can’t win things unless you have a genuine belief that you’re going to do it.”

On this day, the sun is shining at the Timbers’ practice facility in the western suburbs of the Rose City. Porter takes his time coming off the grass field. He wasn’t happy with the previous day’s session, saying the group lacked intensity and, most importantly, joy as they went through the paces. So, with a bye coming up, he has them play in short-sided scrimmage competitions the entire session.

It’s part of a leadership concept Porter has harped on recently, the theory of forming, storming and norming. Coming off Portland’s championship last winter, Porter tried to keep his players grounded in habit (norming) while picking the right time to push their buttons (storming), keeping in mind they had just lifted a trophy mere months prior. Lighting them up might mean the message falling on deaf ears.

“At this level, you can’t [BS] your players, they see through every thought,” Porter says. “If you’re not genuine, they see through it. If you’re [BSing] them, they see through it. If you’re fluffing them, telling the positive, and if you don’t mean it, they see through it.

“… Right now I’m figuring out how much letting them go and how much rattling the cage to create that healthy tension, how much storming, because that for me is the key to performing is that little bit of healthy tension.”

Settled behind plates of pulled pork, barbecue chicken, baked beans and corn on the cob in an upstairs conference room overlooking the training fields, Porter re-lives the pain and triumph of 2014 and 2015, outlines his vision for the present and, somewhat unexpectedly, reflects on the shift in priorities that changed the course of his life – and that of his family’s.

This version of Caleb Porter is home at 4 or 5 pm, playing with his kids in the cul de sac in front of his Lake Oswego home, kicking around the ball or watching them ride bikes. He’s inside around 6, usually posted on the deck grilling meat from a grass-fed cow the family purchased while his wife fixes the vegetable sides – the healthy stuff – before dinner around the family table.

“For me, that’s the best thing I do in life, having an hour or two with them because they’re so funny, the kids just talking to them, asking them about their day,” Porter says. “That feeling of family, I don’t think there’s anything better than that. I used to think that wins were better, but there’s nothing better than feeling of family, your kids, your wife and that meaningful relationship. I will go on record as saying that’s more important than any win, that’s more important than a job.

“I think, because I get that now, I can have a long career because I can have a balance in my life. I have substance, a purpose outside of the job. That probably gives me more purpose in the job, more patience in the job. It makes the losses a little bit easier to struggle with, even though I still struggle with the losses, honestly.”

Wilkinson, for one, is a bit skeptical that Porter has truly softened the edges – “sometimes you just want to leave him alone” – but there’s an understanding that the balance is important not only for his family but also for his perspective as a leader.

“I think the confidence is definitely maintained,” Wilkinson said. “I think the approach to the game has changed slightly, but any cerebral coach is going to figure out that there is a better way to do things.”

As he walks out of the training facility and into the sunlight, Porter describes how he’ll spend the off weekend. Not coincidentally, he and Andrea have rented a house on the coast for a couple of days.

“He has definitely evolved with that,” she says. “It’s not like college where it’s a three-month season. You have to deal with it 10 months straight, not really having any weekends off, just back to back, so you kind of have to find some peace in the ups and downs of the season. It’s never easy for him, but I think he’s gotten a lot better at it.”

Porter wants to make Portland his home for years to come, win the CONCACAF Champions League this time around and make a run at repeating the Timbers’ MLS Cup triumph. It’s been slow going so far – the team is eighth in the Western Conference on nine points (2-3-3, 9 pts) and saw a late own goal spoil a 1-0 lead in New England on Wednesday night.

Two year ago, Porter would have lingered on the dropped points for weeks, maybe even months. These days, he’ll still stew, but it’s on to the next one. He’s secure in his identity and that of his team. The contract extension he signed ahead of this season was for five years, and he has no intention of leaving.

“I love it here and plan to be here forever. That’s the plan,” Porter says. “I’m never a guy who looks ahead too much. If you look ahead too much, you lose sight of the present. I like the club job to be honest, I like the day-to-day, building. I like being around a locker room, the same guys. So I can see myself being here forever, but I also know I have to win.”

Now he knows what that will take, on the field and off, even if that sometimes means admitting he’s wrong.

“It was definitely hard, but I think any coach’s wife, they realize there is that passion, and I respect that he’s passionate about something,” Andrea says. “… I think it’s been healthy for him to be able to sit back and spend a little more time with the kids, but he’ll always be thinking about the game in the back of his head because that’s just who he is.”


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