It was unexpected. Caleb Porter had guided a dinged and damaged Portland Timbers team to the top of the Western Conference during the regular season, and then – as they proceeded to pick up a few more dings, and sustain yet more damage – they battled gamely in the Western Conference semifinals before falling, 2-1 to Houston.
This was an understandable loss, and there was no real indication something was amiss in the halls of power at Providence Park. But clearly something was, and on Thursday night, Porter walked away from the Timbers, who confirmed the news on Friday morning.
Paul Tenorio of FourFourTwo, who broke the story, initially reported that it was a mutual parting of the ways. Steve Zakuani, the former MLS star who played for Porter both in college and then in the pros, had a different take:
Mutual is a generous term from what I’ve heard https://t.co/xyBvWLTT8d— Steve Zakuani (@Zakuani11) November 17, 2017
Chris Rifer of Stumptown Footy reportedly heard something similar:
It seems very much like Porter, who signed a multi-year extension ahead of the 2016 season, decided to walk away, and it's not at all clear that he has a new gig lined up already. Coaches almost never do that, so "unexpected" is indeed the word.
Whatever the reason (internal power struggle? fatigue? desire to be on the market when new expansion teams are announced in the next few months, and thus have a chance to pick up a dual coach/GM role?), Porter is now a free agent with a pretty successful legacy behind him, and the Timbers are now moving into a new era.
Let's tackle the second part first.
It's never been clear how much sway Porter had in personnel decisions, and how much of that was left up to GM Gavin Wilkinson. Whatever the power-sharing arrangement was, it's hard to imagine this Portland offseason will belong to anybody but Wilkinson now. He'll primarily be tasked with getting the central defense younger, with injecting some depth into central midfield, and then figuring out if they can get Fanendo Adi healthy. If he does that, the window of opportunity for this core group (Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, David Guzman, Sebastian Blanco, Darlington Nagbe) to win a title probably stays open for another year, and maybe two.
That will take some work, but it's not impossible.
Long-term, the Timbers need to figure out where they stand in regards to youth development. While much of MLS is veering toward getting younger players into high-leverage positions, the Timbers have grown older by the year. This despite trading up for US U-20 national team forward Jeremy Ebobisse in last year's SuperDraft and bringing another youth international, left back Marco Farfan, through their academy.
You can go out and buy talent, of course – literally everybody in the league does that from time to time. But the most successful teams this decade have both bought talent from outside MLS and built from within, be it through academies, the draft or even promoting guys up from the USL. It's provided a level of stability to franchises like Seattle and Toronto. And finding answers via those avenues gives teams a chance to swing for the fences on potentially difference-making imports while, at the same time, acting as a cushion should veterans get injured or start to underperform.
To be honest, I don't really think it's a choice. The Timbers have to do this if they want to keep up, as does everybody else in the league. With or without Porter, this was going to be the path, and it's one his successor should be committed to.
Pivoting back to Porter for a minute... I think I get it. Whether it was a unilateral decision on his part, or a mutual one where everybody shook hands and retreated to their respective corners, it makes a certain amount of sense. Five years as a head coach is an eternity in most leagues, and while MLS isn't "most leagues" when it comes to job security, half-a-decade is still a good, long while. To that point, as of Thursday morning, only D.C. United's Ben Olsen and Sporting KC's Peter Vermes had been with their teams longer than Porter had been with the Timbers.
I guess it was time. Better a year too soon than a year too late.
His legacy in the Rose City, then, was already secure. In his five years Portland won MLS Cup (2015), and topped the West twice in the regular season (2013 and 2017). And while 2014 and 2016 were disappointing, the Timbers were never "bad." For their first two years in the league, they were exactly that, and Porter deserves credit for pulling them out of the abyss and into respectability, then beyond. They have a Cup, right? That's what he was brought there for, and he delivered, even if his last four seasons could never quite muster the fun and flair of his first team, the 2013 group that came so close to winning the Supporters' Shield.
An educated guess is that he's going to his own personal Cambodia for 2018 with an aim to recharge his batteries and then land a dual coach/GM job for the 2019 season(*). That could be with one of the yet-to-be-announced expansion teams, or he could be waiting for jobs to come open at the end of next year.
(*) From what I understand, any speculation about him being offered or taking an interim role with the USMNT is baseless. Those are just Twitter rumors.
Either way, Porter's likely to have options. He left his mark on Portland. And while he's done in MLS for now, he's clearly not done in MLS for good.