Last season, while the Montreal Impact and their fans enjoyed a great inaugural season in the MLS, the Portland Timbers struggled and fell very short on expectations.
Questionable roster moves (including one that saw Montreal get starting GK Troy Perkins in exchange for shaky GK Donovan Ricketts), firing the manager as well as turmoil between the GM and the fan base only made the season more difficult.
Coming into this new MLS season, hope has been restored to the Portland area. With the hiring of former Akron Zips manager Caleb Porter, the Timbers Army can rejoice with the belief that owner Merritt Paulson has found the man that can bring the MLS Cup to Oregon. Porter is well known for creating a powerhouse program at Akron which has included current Impact players such as Evan Bush and Zarek Valentin.
It is no secret that last season must have been hell for Timbers' fans. I'm sure no one predicted that the team would finish with just 8 wins and a -25 differential. What went wrong?
What went wrong? Where do we begin? When Portland came within a few points of making the playoffs in their first season, unrealistic expectations were created. A pressure cooker type of environment was building up in Portland. John Spencer, who started off the season as manager, did not thrive in this situation because he wasn't able to make the necessary tactical changes to improve the team. Instead, he assured his own exit by sticking with players he was comfortable with even if they were not getting him the needed results. Now, add in some untimely injuries, suspensions and the season just went deeper into its downward spiral.
Last season, on Twitter, Timbers' fans had a special hashtag '#GWOUT' to call for the firing of GM Gavin Wilkinson. GW has not been fired. Have the fans backed off? Are they willing to give him another chance or does the fire still burn for his exit?
Some of the fire is still there for some of the older fans from the Timbers Army. Many feel that Gavin Wilkinson has disrespected the TA over the years. There were also many questions surrounding who had the final say on player acquisitions. Wilkinson and Spencer never seemed to be on the same page. Since Porter has been in charge, there is a lot more consistency with the acquisitions and that is allowing fans to take a wait and see approach with their feelings towards GW.
The decision was made to hire Caleb Porter as the new manager. Can you give us a brief overview of his managing experience?
Caleb Porter's managerial experience is sparse when it comes to dealing with professional players but he did manage a very successful collegiate program at the University of Akron. He was able to transform the Zips into one of the powerhouses of college soccer and then parlayed that into an opportunity to manage the USA U-23's during the Olympic qualifying. While the U-23's failed to qualify, it is really hard to place a lot of the blame at his feet.
How was the announcement of his hiring received by the fan base?
There was a lot of cautious optimism among the Timber Fans. Some were and still are unsure about hiring a college coach. However, those who follow the college game know that Portland now has a very tactically intelligent coach. Sadly, some fans only remember his failure to qualify the U-23's for the Olympics and have doubt as to whether or not his managerial skills can transfer successfully to the professional game.
Will he also remain the manager of the US U-23 team?
There are no rumors as to whether or not he will continue as the U-23 coach. However, I would venture to say that he will not continue as the manager moving forward. If he were to continue managing the U-23's, In order for him to manage the U-23's, he would have to take time away from his coaching duties for the Timbers and I just don't see that happening.
What changes has he made to the organization? To the culture surrounding the team? What style of coaching does he bring to the table?
Since taking over the team in November full time, Porter has completely changed the culture of the Portland Timbers. He has brought in high energy players who are coachable, willing to work within his system and that will work hard for a full 90 minutes. From an organization point of view, he has added more video analytics and statistical tracking to help him better analyze player and team tendencies.
Porter plays a possession based game that utilizes the outside backs as an attacking option. The ball is moved from one side to the other until they break down a team. If Portland turns the ball over they immediately pressure the ball to win it back and continue their attack.
How is his relationship so far with Gavin Wilkinson and owner Merritt Paulson? Do you think there is a potential for friction down the road? A power struggle?
Merritt Paulson is Gavin Wilkinson's biggest fan in the organization. MP has gone as far as to tell the disgruntled fans that they will line up to kiss Gavin's behind when Portland turns it around. Merritt did say however that if there are similar problems later on and if Portland doesn't turn it around, he would have to look at Wilkinson and the overall body of his work but we are still extremely distant from such a scenario becoming reality.
Do you see him being the manager long term? Can he be the one to bring an MLS Cup to Portland?'
Having sat in on two other coaches' (Spencer and Gavin) post game press conferences, I get a feeling that Caleb is very tactically proficient compared to a lot of other managers in the game. He is also a very good judge of talent and he is able to get the most out of his players. Proof of this is by looking at the number of his Zips that were drafted by MLS teams during his time at Akron. It will take him some time to adjust to the professional game but I believe that he can make Portland an MLS Cup contender within 2-3 years. Porter is a great coach and despite having interacted with him on a limited basis so far, I see something special in him.
Only time will tell if Caleb Porter can be successful at the MLS level but since he's tasted such great success at Akron, this is a great test for him in Portland. If you speak to any of his former players, they will all tell you that this move is well deserved.
A special thanks goes out to Stumptown Footy for their collaboration. You can follow them on Twitter @StumptownFooty
Article written by Gio Sardo. You can follow him on Twitter @GioSardo