Caleb Porter has no margin for error in 2017
PORTLAND, Ore. – On July 9, 2012, the Portland Timbers called an abrupt press conference at Providence Park. Surprise barely set in before the reason became obvious. John Spencer, the only head coach in the club’s Major League Soccer era, had been fired. The second-year franchise wasn’t improving quickly enough.
It took over four years for the team to reach a similar low, but on Sunday, it happened in Vancouver. As the team went down two, three, four goals in its must-win finale, memories of its 2015 title became irrelevant. Every hope the team held throughout 2016 – be it in Major League Soccer, CONCACAF Champions League, even Cascadia Cup – had come crashing down over the course of four days. With an embarrassing 4-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place, Portland’s 2016 was over.
In the wake of the loss, rivals have laughed, fans have recoiled, and two players have been arrested for drunk driving. More than one voice has asked whether head coach Caleb Porter would go the way of Spencer, even if such speculation is premature. The men’s soccer side of the Portland organization will spend the next few weeks in shock, and even then, it’s unlikely it will have answers for this unexpected swoon.
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Assessing various needs
How far, exactly, Portland has fallen is a question few seem to be asking. Those talking about it are evaluating the Timbers on a binary scale -- yes or no; playoffs or none; failure or success -- but when it comes to assessing the extent of the problem, the paradigm is not very helpful.
To think Portland is 100 percent broken just because it didn’t meet its checkbox goals is too simplistic. The team was three points from a playoff berth and two points from advancing in CONCACAF Champions League. You could point to specific games where one goal would have put the Timbers in the next round. That margin is far too narrow for a pass/fail evaluation.
The Timbers, though, need to build in some margin for error, something they failed to do this season. Cutting it too close until the end, trying to patch a squad that developed too many holes, the Timbers counted on another late-season run to get them over the red line. Based on Porter’s past, that was a reasonable bet. Ultimately, though, the Timbers were reminded: A deep Western Conference with seven or eight resilient squads can’t be counted on to relent.
It was a lesson the team should have learned in 2014, when a strong October left the team one point short of the postseason. It’s a lesson fans should wonder if Porter, general manager Gavin Wilkinson, and president Merritt Paulson are prepared to commit to now.
If Portland is to build that margin – a type of buffer that can stave off 2014’s and 2016’s disappointments – it may take an overhaul. The club has major work to do in multiple areas just to maintain the team’s current level.
Fanendo Adi, in one of the league’s worst-kept secrets, is expected to be sold back to Europe this winter, depriving the team of one of its two proven goalscorers. Lucas Melano, a $5 million disappointment out wide, will either be loaned out or, potentially, bought out. Nat Borchers’ presence in central defense hasn’t been fully replaced since he tore his Achilles, and club captain Jack Jewsbury is now retired. That’s four starters Portland needs to replace, even if the last was never intended to be one.
Then there’s age-based regression. The team’s best player, Diego Valeri, is entering his age-31 season. Same for destroyer Diego Chara. Captain and defensive anchor Liam Ridgewell -- one of the players arrested on Monday -- is two years older, and if Steven Taylor truly is the man to replace Borchers, he’ll go into his first full MLS season as a 31-year-old, too.
Between departure and age, Portland has reason to wonder what it can get from seven of its starting XI positions. It’s a serious task for a team that needs to address all those problems just to keep up. Given MLS’ constricting salary rules, do the Timbers even have the resources to make strides this offseason?
There’s hope in a player like Darren Mattocks, whose late-season influence at left wing was encouraging. The role Alvas Powell is forging on the right flank could put him in future Best XI conversations. Jake Gleeson, the other player arrested Monday, will only improve as experience allows him to prevent some of the shots he’s giving up, while Darlington Nagbe gives the side an element of quality in midfield which, for it’s lack of production in the final third, is still irreplaceable.
Porter's increasing pressure
Even if that core can be built around, the obvious questions must still be addressed: Why did Portland collapse this year? Why couldn’t the Timbers break through on the road? What happened that led to the collapse in Vancouver? And, with talents like Adi and Valeri that are the envy of most clubs, why is the Timbers’ season over before November?
Part of this has to go down to mentality, a quality that was an asset during Porter’s first three seasons but, this year, may have backfired. We quoted the number leading into Portland’s final games of the season: The Timbers had only lost two MLS games in October under their high-profile boss. Yet in the last four days of this campaign, the team stumbled twice: a home draw against Deportivo Saprissa before an embarrassing capitulation in Vancouver. The shock MLS felt after those results spoke to expectations: Despite a trying 2016 season, people still thought the Timbers would come through.
Throughout the season, Porter emphasized keeping an even keel – not letting the highs of, say, a nine-game, mid-season unbeaten run faze you, but never getting too down after any one performance. As injuries, absences, or hard luck on the road piled up, that mindset seemed to serve the team well, but whereas in past seasons the team eventually flipped a switch, this season, that change never came. The same team that was absolved from being too critical of its spring and summer losses failed to rise to the occasion this fall. There was never a sense of urgency against Saprissa, even though the importance of that result had been made clear. Worse, there was never a sense of fight against Vancouver. It showed in the result.
Given Porter’s past, it’s tempting to chalk up this failure as an aberration, but consider the best-case scenario. Had the Timbers won-out, they would have barely made the playoffs while merely meeting the expectations of MLS teams in Champions League: advancing to the final eight. At that point, the team’s season wouldn’t necessarily be a success or a failure; it’d just be where it was supposed to be. While an even-keel, wait-until-October approach has the virtue of producing a stress-free season, it also keeps you from fully assessing your problems. It becomes a high-risk, low-reward strategy that invites the worst-case scenario.
As of Sunday, Portland is experiencing its worst-case scenario, part of the reason why people are asking about Porter’s job. As of now, that question is premature, as are those about Wilkinson’s future. Yet this is where the Spencer corollary becomes helpful. At the end of Portland’s first MLS season, everything seemed on track to challenge for the postseason in year two. Halfway through that campaign, when Paulson decided the team’s direction had gone off course, he changed. And he changed quickly.
That’s not a difficult scenario to imagine next season. Paulson will be committed to investing in a new squad, one which Wilkinson will assemble largely at the behest of Porter. What the coach says he wants, he’ll get; at which point, it will be his responsibility to produce.
If that doesn’t happen – if, say, come July, Portland isn’t beyond its 2016 malaise – Paulson will no longer be asking questions. He’ll be demanding answers. And if, like 2012, the answers he gets conflict, or the different excuses lead to pointed fingers, he’ll make a decision. That decision is unlikely to work in Porter’s favor.
Don’t expect that decision to happen as early as July, though. Unless there’s an early-season collapse, Porter will get more leeway than Spencer did; most likely, the entire season. He’s earned it, and based on his pedigree, he’ll likely turn things around. Porter responded to missing the playoffs in 2014 with an MLS Cup in 2015, and to some people’s minds, his entire MLS career is partly a response to the failure he had trying to qualify the U.S. under-23 national team for the 2012 London Olympics.
Sunday’s failure, though, means the margin for error is thin -- potentially none. Paulson gives people like Porter and Wilkinson the benefit of the doubt, but he’s not one to waste time when his loyalty proves ill-founded. If Portland’s 2017 doesn’t quickly make Timbers fans forget about 2016, the course will quickly be corrected.
Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.