Caleb Porter, the Destroyer - NBC Sports

Caleb Porter, the Destroyer
Young MLS coach has willed Timbers to top of West
November 1, 2013, 2:45 pm

This article originally appeared in issue No. 3 of "Overlap", a digital magazine from the editors of MLSSoccer.com and Howler Magazine that covers soccer in North America.

Caleb Porter smiles for the camera. It’s not a wide smile—just enough of a grin to let you know he doesn’t mind having his picture taken. He sits on a tree stump and reaches out to touch the handle of an axe with his hand. Another axe handle frames him on the left. Porter looks perfectly at home among the symbols of the Portland Timbers, the team for whom he serves as head coach. But Porter is not posing for a headshot dreamed up by the Timbers’ publicity department. The photo is a memento from his childhood, taken soon after Porter was born some 37 years ago, not far from Portland in southern Washington.

Now that Porter is back in the Northwest, leading the team that was founded about a month before he was born, the photo reads like a sign, some kind of foretelling. The boy returning to Cascadia, to the place of his birth, to take on a job for which he seems destined.

Coaching the Timbers is the opportunity Porter has been building toward since the first time he touched a soccer ball. In his rookie season as a professional coach, he has turned the team from a playoff no-show into a strong contender to win the MLS Cup. He has developed a reputation as a stoic figure, a coach who rarely smiles on the sidelines and gives short, blunt answers in post-game press conferences.

In July, Porter got into a shouting match with Bruce Arena after the final whistle in Portland’s 2–1 win over the Galaxy. As the two coaches walked toward each other for the traditional post-game handshake, Arena was complaining loudly about the amount of stoppage time the referee had added to the game and which had allowed Portland time to score the winner. Porter responded by squaring his jaw and walking right up to Arena, ready to exchange words and —if you were reading his body language—maybe more.

The exchange never went beyond some rough talk. A minute later, the two shared a hug to smooth things over. It was one example of the way Porter meets challenges, both in his life and in this season, his first as a coach in Major League Soccer. 

“I’m a fighter,” Porter says. “I was always taught to go for things and never be intimidated by anything or anyone. You know, I was never the most talented player. Everything I did in playing was because I outfought people, outworked people.”

Porter isn’t just some tough guy. He’s cerebral. After their altercation, Porter made a point to praise Arena in the post-game press conference, calling him the best coach in American soccer history.

What Porter didn’t say is that he would almost certainly like to carry that label one day, too.

******

MINDY PORTER WILL TELL YOU that her son has wanted to be a coach since he was a child. She recalls a little boy who “wasn’t afraid to express an opinion and let his coaches know what he thought.” The boy’s father, Jim, remembers things a little differently. As Caleb’s first coach in the very early years of his foray into sports, Jim says Caleb followed instruction well—at least when it was coming from dad.

“I could definitely see qualities of myself in him,” Jim says. “The determination, the self confidence.”

Porter’s parents had met when they were undergrads at the University of Missouri. Jim was a high school athlete who played football and basketball (though not soccer). Mindy had also been an athlete in high school and was attending college on an academic scholarship.

A forestry management major, Jim had a very clear plan for life after college. He would marry Mindy and the two would head west, to live among the tall trees of southern Washington in a town called Randle. Jim landed a job with a local logging company and set about building a house for his budding family. He selected the trees, treated the lumber, and, with a little help, put up a log cabin. Soon after, Caleb was born.

Jim would spend the next three decades working with a singleness of mind that some people with the Timbers have recognized in his son. Today, Jim is president of Rock-Tenn Corrugated Packaging, a Fortune 500 company with more than 26,000 employees.

“A lot of my work ethic and my drive, and even my leadership and mentoring, came from him,” Porter says of his father. “In my family, it was almost tough love. Not in a bad way. But it was expected that you do well.”

Meanwhile, Porter’s mother was a nurturing presence in his life.

“My mom’s a pretty spiritual person,” Porter says. “She’s always given off an aura that just gives me a ton of confidence and belief that everything in life is going to work out for the best.”

During Caleb’s senior year of college, Mindy broke her neck in a car accident. She was forced to wear a halo neck brace that restricted her movement and should have left her in traction. But an important game was coming up, and Mindy wanted to be there. A friend drove her to the match and she took a seat in the stands, fighting the pain and discomfort.

“That was a tough time and it motivated me to want to make it to his game,” Mindy Porter said. “He was probably a little embarrassed to have me there, with this thing on my neck and head, but I wanted to be there for him, and wanting to be there helped me get through that.”

Caleb wasn’t embarrassed. When he spotted her before the game, he was awestruck—and inspired enough to score a rare goal for her.

Jim’s work took the family to Kalamazoo, Michigan, when Caleb was five. As a young child, Caleb tried his hand at a variety of youth sports, and in those early days Jim was still able to find time to coach some of his teams. Caleb tried other sports like basketball, but none captured his imagination quite like soccer.

Porter’s parents divorced as he entered high school. Mindy went back to school herself, earning two masters degrees and embarking on a career in education. She also started competing in marathons and triathlons.

“Caleb is a mirror image of them,” says Jerry Yeagley, another adult who would come to shape Porter. “Both of his parents are type A, very driven, highly successful. He’s got some good genes in terms of leadership and aggressiveness and confidence, attitude and behavior.”

Yeagley was the head coach of Indiana University and already a college soccer legend. Porter first caught his eye as a participant at an IU soccer camp, where the young player’s skill and tenacity set him apart from the other campers. Porter had worked extremely hard to get to that point. As a senior at Gull Lake High School in Richland, Michigan, he was commuting two hours each way from the Kalamazoo suburb to Detroit on the nights he had practice with his club team, Vardar. He was also a member of Michigan’s Olympic Development Program.

“He knew no fear,” Yeagley says of Porter. “He was a tenacious defensive midfielder. More a destroyer than a creator. He’s the kind of guy who would tear the heart out of opponents.”

Convincing Porter to come to Indiana wasn’t difficult. The Hoosiers had the premier soccer program in the nation and Yeagley was one of the best coaches in college soccer. Porter was redshirted for his freshman year, in 1994. That season, Indiana lost in the final of the NCAA Championship.

“There were qualities about him that made him stand out, which is probably why, even as a freshman, he was someone upperclassmen welcomed into the group,” says Todd Yeagley, Jerry’s son and a junior on the team when Porter arrived.

After serving as a regular reserve player during his redshirt freshman year, Porter impressed enough to be named captain as a sophomore—a role he held for the next three seasons.

“He was an alpha male leader,” Jerry Yeagley says. “One of only two players to be a three-time captain during my tenure here. There was never a player who would think about cheating or being dishonest. They’d worry more about Caleb than about me. That was also an outstanding trait.”

Porter’s play over the next few seasons put him on track to be drafted by a Major League Soccer team. During the summer before his senior year, however, he suffered a serious knee injury while playing for a U.S. national select team at the World University Games. He had to choose between knee surgery, which would cause him to miss his senior year, and playing through the pain and perhaps injuring his knee even more. He chose to play, using painkillers and cortisone injections to make it through games. All season long, his body needed four or five days to recover from matches.

The Hoosiers dominated that season, going 23–0 on their way to the Final Four. There, UCLA ended the run, with current New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis turning in a star performance in the national semifinal. Porter’s courageous run helped him finish as runner-up for the MAC Hermann Award, given to the top college player in the country.

The plaudits were nice, but Porter had paid a high price. His knee was in terrible shape. Instead of a national championship, Porter was left with an uncertain future in MLS.

******

IT’S HALFTIME OF THE FIRST GAME OF THE SEASON and of Caleb Porter’s professional coaching debut. A barrage of early goals has put the New York Red Bulls ahead, 3–1. The sellout crowd at Portland’s Jeld-Wen Field is just a little less loud than usual. As Porter walks down the tunnel and into the locker room, he’s formulating his half-time talk.

“I’m a student of psychology and I knew how important that speech was, and how important it was to send the right message in the first game,” Porter will tell me later. “It isn’t always about just screaming at players. You have to get them to believe and buy into what you want them to do.”

There would be plenty of time for screaming at his players. Today, he’s trying to build their trust.

“I’m not a betting man,” he tells his dispirited team during that talk, “but if I were, I would bet everything on you coming back in this game.”

He’s right. Two goals in the second half earn Portland a tie. The rejuvenated crowd sings the team off the field with a chorus of “CA-LEB PORT-ER! CA-LEB PORT-ER!”

After the press conferences and other post-game activities, Porter eases into a chair in an empty office in the bowels of the stadium. He sips wearily on a beer. I expect him to be a little happier about saving a point in his first match, especially after going down in the first half. It’s the first of several extended interviews I’ll conduct with Porter over the course of the season. We start at the obvious place: his arrival in Portland. I note that some people have criticized the Timbers for hiring a college coach with no professional experience.

“It drives me crazy to hear anyone suggest that I haven’t paid my dues, or put in the work to get here,” Porter says. “I have put too much work in and overcome too much to stand there and let anyone suggest I haven’t earned this opportunity.”

Simply being drafted into MLS was a big achievement for a player with Porter’s ailments coming out of college. The San Jose Earthquakes took a chance, selecting him with the 27th overall pick in the 1998 draft. A scan revealed he was carrying a variety of chronic knee issues: a chipped bone in his femur, no cartilage in one knee, and a dislocated kneecap.

Porter spent his rookie season rehabilitating. When he did finally make it onto the field, in 1999, he drew a red card in his first professional match. The pain was still there and Porter pushed through it just as he had in college. Unable to regain his pre-injury form, Porter was waived by San Jose during the ’99 season and picked up by the Tampa Bay Mutiny. He had a new team but the same knee issues. Porter underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees in the off-season but his knees were just too broken. After making only seven appearances for Tampa Bay, Porter retired in the middle of the 2000 season.

In what has become a theme throughout his life, Porter’s disappointment came with a new opportunity. Retiring as a player at the age of 25 meant he could get an early start on the coaching career he had long been considering. Jerry Yeagley called him right away with an offer to be his assistant coach.

“He’s a natural coach,” Yeagley says. “When I brought him on I knew he would be very successful, and knew he would [eventually] be going on to his own program.”

Porter spent six years on the bench at IU, first under Yeagley and then Mike Freitag. Indiana won three NCAA titles in his time there.

“I credit him for a lot of my leadership and man management approach,” Porter says of Yeagley. “He was a master of psychology. I remember wanting to run through a wall for that guy. He was tough, but he was caring. He knew how to manage a program and his attention to detail was unbelievable.”

Yeagley’s Indiana also helped form the playing identity that would become Porter’s hallmark with every other team he would coach.

“The reason I like the high-pressure philosophy is because when I was at IU, we never once sat back against any team we played,” Porter says. “We always disrupted opponents by playing that way. That aggressive, proactive, dominating approach certainly came from IU.”

Porter honed his craft on the same staff as Todd Yeagley, then an assistant to his father. The younger Yeagley, now IU’s head coach, led Indiana to the 2012 NCAA title. They were close from their days as roommates in college; as assistants, they loved to push each other’s buttons and often wound up having heated arguments.

“We were like brothers,” Yeagley says. “We never threw a punch but we probably came close a few times. Caleb is passionate and that’s a gift, but it can also be a curse. When he was younger he could let that passion get the better of him, but you see him now and you know a big reason for his success is the way he approaches everything he does with passion and intensity.”

In 2006, the University of Akron offered Porter a job as its team’s head coach. The Zips didn’t have a prestigious program, but under Porter the team soon became known for playing a beautiful, possession-based style that was a far cry from the physical, direct game for which college soccer was known. Akron quickly became a national contender and a production line for pro prospects like Teal Bunbury, Darlington Nagbe, DeAndre Yedlin, and Darren Mattocks. The Zips reached the NCAA final in 2009 and won the title in 2010.

Interest from MLS followed. D.C. United approached with a contract offer after the 2009 season, but Porter decided to stay in Akron. He thought he had more to learn as a college coach. The next overture came in 2011 from U.S. Soccer, which was seeking a coach for the U-23 team that would be entering the qualification process for the 2012 London Olympic games. Porter would work closely with Jurgen Klinsmann, who had recently taken over the full national team. If things went well, this first step into the national spotlight would give Porter experience coaching in a major international tournament. U.S. Soccer told Porter he could take the job while continuing to coach his team at Akron. He accepted.

******

Since his arrival in Portland, Porter has overhauled the team’s personnel, tactics, and overall philosophy. The team he inherited was widely regarded as soft and easy to play against, and it wasn’t exactly known for attractive or technical soccer.

As Porter set about building a team that could play the kind of high-pressure, possession-based style best exemplified by clubs like Barcelona and Bayern Munich, he knew he needed to dramatically revamp the midfield. His vision for a dangerous 4-3-3 system required a quality playmaker as well as a two-way midfielder who could link the defense and attack.

Enter Diego Valeri and Will Johnson, both acquired by Porter before the 2013 season. Valeri, a designated player brought in from Argentina, is a creative force. Johnson, a Canadian international, came in a trade from Real Salt Lake, and he has proven to be the league’s smartest off-season pick-up. Valeri has exquisite touch and vision; he is the player that Porter used to want to be like. Johnson—with his ability to read the game, his extreme tenacity, and his natural leadership qualities—has all the gifts that made Porter special as a player, too.

“Even though I was a holding mid, a hard player, it’s not that I really ever wanted to be that player,” Porter says. “Growing up, I was always attracted to the creative players. I loved Roberto Baggio and Ruud Gullit and Maradona. I’m captivated by those types of players, and it’s probably because they could always do things that I couldn’t. Ultimately that’s the player I wanted to be.”

And yet he understands the importance of building around that type of player. When Johnson arrived, Porter saw him as a natural captain. After working it out with incumbent captain and long-serving Timber Jack Jewsbury, Porter made Johnson the team captain, a position he has filled perfectly.

“He understands me as well as anybody,” Johnson says of his coach. “We’re both fighters and competitors.”

Porter made another good decision when he moved Rodney Wallace, a fast but unreliable fullback throughout his MLS career, into a wide forward role in the team’s new 4-3-3. The change has helped Wallace become a force in the Timbers attack and one of the most improved players in the league.

The new system has also suited star attacker Darlington Nagbe, who played for Porter—and won the Hermann Award for best college soccer player in the country—at Akron. The Timbers now play a possession-oriented game not unlike the style Porter developed with the Zips.

In late October, Portland clinched first place in the Western Conference, and the team was in the running for the MLS Supporters Shield until the last weekend of the regular season. In 2012, the Timbers’ goal differential was -22. In 2013, it was +21. The 43-goal swing is the largest in league history from one season to the next. By almost any measure, Portland has experienced an incredible turnaround for a club that didn’t make the playoffs in its first two seasons in the league. But it almost didn’t happen at all.

******

CALEB PORTER’S STINT AS COACH OF THE U.S. U-23S started out with so much promise. His implementation of a possession-oriented system seemed well suited to the talent in his player pool. With players such as Juan Agudelo, Brek Shea, Freddy Adu, Mix Diskerud, and Terrence Boyd at his disposal, Porter had a fantastic array of attacking options.

Porter had set high expectations for his team, saying that he would model its play on that of FC Barcelona: high pressing, lots of possession, and fluid in the attack.

“I think many coaches are scared to attack, and scared to play, and scared to have the ball, and scared to press,” Porter told me in December of 2011, about college and youth national team soccer. “If you sit behind the ball and defend, that’s the easy thing. That’s what everybody’s done and tried. I’m going to try something new, something different, and I’m confident that it can work.”

The clearest evidence that Porter’s work was bearing fruit came in a friendly against Mexico’s Under-23 team in February of 2012, less than a month before the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The U.S. team dominated Mexico, outplaying El Tri on the way to an emphatic 2–0 win.

When the U.S. opened the tournament with a 6–0 drubbing of Cuba, the Olympics felt within reach. But the picture began to change on March 24th, when Canada frustrated the U.S. with its defensive play. The Canadians scored a pair of goals on set pieces, and kept a clean sheet. The U.S. now had one win and one loss. The top three teams in the region would advance to the London Olympics. The U.S. would need to beat El Salvador in the group stage finale in order to advance to the semifinals.

Things started perfectly for Porter’s team. Terrence Boyd scored in the very first minute of the match and the U.S. was in control right up until the 35th minute, when El Salvador equalized. U.S. goalkeeper Bill Hamid was injured on the play, but instead of taking a knee and receiving treatment, he gamely got back up and continued in goal. Unfortunately for the U.S., El Salvador came right back and scored the go-ahead goal just a minute later. Hamid was having more trouble than anyone had thought. Porter replaced him with Sean Johnson.

Porter’s team responded well in the second half, with Adu setting up goals by Terrence Boyd and Joe Corona just three minutes apart. For the last 25 minutes of the match, the U.S. looked like it was in control. But in the final minute, El Salvador’s Jaime Alas hit a hopeful shot from 20 yards out. It looked relatively harmless, but the ball knuckled slightly as it approached Johnson, squirting past him and into the net.

That improbable goal eliminated the Americans from Olympic qualifying. When Porter sat down for his post-game press conference, he was ashen-faced, almost in tears.

“That humbled me,” Porter tells me. “It grounded me and made me suffer. I realize that you’re going to have short-term failures and those experiences have helped shape me. The Olympic qualifying experience is something that made me stronger, and it made me a better coach.”

Porter confided that the experience made him understand that he needed to be more flexible as a coach. He needed to learn to adapt more to his team and his opponent.

“It made me better,” he said. “I actually gained a lot of confidence through the experience, because a lot went right. But in the end, I was viewed as a failure. In the end, I needed to get better. Sometimes you don’t know that you need to re-evaluate your beliefs until you fail.” 

Porter had endured defeats in the past. He’d missed out on an NCAA title as a player and, as a coach, he had lost the NCAA title on penalty kicks with Akron. But nothing compared to the pain and finality of the failed Olympic qualifying campaign.

“The hardest part was that I couldn’t correct it,” he says. “There was no next day, next training, next game. It was over. When I got home, I called my assistants [at Akron] and told them I was crushed. I had no desire to be around a team. I needed time. My heart was broken.”

The players who wouldn’t be going to London shared his pain. Several of them sent Porter emails and text messages, thanking him for the experience.

“They could have blamed me, and thrown me under the bus, but they didn’t,” Porter said. “In fact, almost every player on that team has connected with me at some point to let me know they enjoyed the time with the team and had respect for how I managed them.”

“He knows what he wants from the players and talks to players in a way that you feel comfortable,” says Diskerud. “He trusts you, and you want to return that trust by playing well.”

Diskerud has thrived with the senior team since moving on from the Olympic experience, as have Boyd and Joe Corona. Others, such as Amobi Okugo, Perry Kitchen, and Kofi Sarkodie, have become some of the best young players in MLS.

The failure to reach the Olympics had a personal upside for Porter: he was available the next time a Major League Soccer club came calling. The Portland Timbers were searching for a coach to replace John Spencer, who was fired midway through the 2012 season. Merritt Paulson, the Timbers’ owner, and Gavin Wilkinson, the general manager, looked beyond the Olympic debacle and liked what they saw in Porter: the successful teams he had built at Akron, and the way he processed the lessons from his brief time in charge of the U-23s.

“What was really interesting to me, in talking to him about his Olympic qualifying experience, was what he learned and would have done differently,” Paulson says. “It showed his sense of reflection, and for a guy who had a reputation for maybe being arrogant, he was very willing to admit that he doesn’t know everything and is always looking to improve.

Far from showing Porter to be tainted, Paulson believes the experience made him a better coach.

“The team and the players had a terrific experience playing for him,” he says. “That experience made him hungrier and made an ambitious guy even more ambitious.”

In fact, if the U.S. had qualified for the Olympics, Porter probably wouldn’t have landed the job in Portland.

“He wouldn’t be our coach right now,” says Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson. “If he had gone to the Olympics, we would have looked at other candidates. The timetable wouldn’t have worked.”

The Timbers hired Porter in August of 2012, but with Akron just a month from starting a new season, Porter couldn’t leave the program he’d built on such short notice. The Timbers worked out a compromise, allowing Porter to coach Akron for one more season while also working on his plans for the Timbers from Ohio. He worked closely with Wilkinson, who served as interim head coach for the rest of the 2012 season, and when Akron’s season finished last December, Porter took over completely. Early signs are showing that he was well worth the wait.

“I knew that I was ready, and my time with the U-23s, even though it ended on a negative, confirmed that I could do it,” Porter says about the jump to MLS. “Ultimately it was going to take the Portland Timbers, a special opportunity, for me to leave. I could really see myself there, with the fans, and going back to my roots. It just made sense.”

******

On a perfect night in October, Porter exits Jeld-Wen field through a door on the east side of the stadium and begins walking. Usually, after a game, he drives straight home. But tonight his Timbers have beaten their arch-rival, the Seattle Sounders, in what will probably stand as the sweetest victory enjoyed by Timbers fans since joining MLS. Porter is going to meet some friends for a celebratory beer near the stadium.

The three-block stroll to Kell’s Irish Pub takes a while. Porter is met by grateful fans who thank him. They’re happy about the win, yes. But they’re grateful for something bigger: Porter has imbued their team with heart, with toughness, and they want to let their coach know how much they appreciate him. Porter lets them know that the feeling is mutual.

“I really want to bring a winner for them,” Porter had told me back in March, referring to Portland’s famously devoted fans. “Every single game, they give everything, so I want to make them happy.”

These small pockets of relaxation are rare for Porter. Another thing he had told me back in March: “I don’t enjoy, sometimes, wins that I should enjoy. I’m so businesslike that it’s just, ‘On to the next one….’ I don’t really take time to smell the roses.” A cliché, but it stuck with me because his father had chosen the same words when, during our interview, I asked him what advice he would give to his oldest son.

“Caleb needs to find that balance between work and home,” Jim had said. “I would tell him to make sure to stop and smell the roses.”

Jim’s commitment to his career, and the distance it created between him and his son, was a topic Caleb and I had discussed several times. Jim, who lives outside Atlanta, also told me he’d been listening to Timbers games on the radio from the beginning of the season. When I mention this to Caleb, he laughs. It’s just like his father, he says, not to tell him that he’s been following along with the Timbers from a distance. That has begun to change over the course of the season though, with Jim texting and calling after matches. Jim made his first trip to Portland for a Timbers home match in late October.

Caleb is aware of the need to step back from the coaching grind and spend more time with his wife and three children. But that isn’t always easy to do. During a beach vacation on a rare off-weekend this season, he was unable to unplug from coaching completely, setting aside time to review game video and prepare for the next fixture.

Sacrifices such as these have been worth it, from the team’s perspective. And Caleb’s struggle to prepare as completely as he knows he needs to, while also carving out time for his family, is an experience that has created a certain understanding between the Porter men.

At the pub, the night of the Seattle game, Porter slows down. He has a drink. He talks with his friends. Throughout the evening, fans line up to shake his hand, pose for pictures, and thank him for his work. Hanging on the wall is a sign for a locally brewed beer named after the coach. “Big Heart and Brass Balls,” it’s called. The style is “A Caleb Porter."



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