Caleb Porter isn’t the first manager to have failed his most recent audition and still get hired to a new position anyway. But with Wednesday's announcement that the Portland Timbers had tabbed the Akron University coach to be their new manager, his recent stint as coach of the U.S. U-23 national team doesn’t project well.
Of course, Porter's hiring was met with the usual platitudes from his new employer, with Timbers owner Merritt Paulson stating that his new manager is "the best young soccer mind in the country."
That may be, but it doesn't mean he's ready to be a professional coach.
Last March, Porter was tasked with qualifying the U-23s for the London Olympics. It was his first experience both leading and going up against professional players, and to say it didn’t go well would be an understatement. Not only did the U.S. fail to qualify, but the team didn’t even make it out of the group stage. The fact that this flameout took place on American soil, in the complete absence of any hostile crowds, only added to the shock and embarrassment.
Evidently, such a performance counted for little in the minds of the Portland brass. Granted, it took a fair number of crazy events for the Americans to crash out, some of which were beyond Porter’s control. For one, there is just no accounting for some of the goalkeeping errors that plagued the U.S. throughout the tournament. Yet Porter didn’t help himself with a tactical approach that failed to account for the absence of key players like holding midfielder Alfredo Morales, which left him with precious little protection for a back line that looked more suspect with every game.
It was as if Porter’s tactics fit the team he wanted to have, rather than the team he actually had; this lack of flexibility played a major part in the team’s failure to qualify, and such an approach will not work in MLS. Just ask Aron Winter, who burned through precious cycles trying to shoehorn his side into a 4-3-3 without the requisite players to make it work.
This isn’t to say that Porter should be punished in perpetuity for failing to get the U-23s to London. If one coaches long enough, there are bound to be failures and disappointments. And Porter has certainly proven at Akron, which he led to an NCAA championship in 2010, that he possesses some good qualities, such as his knack for identifying and developing young players.
But it’s difficult to accept that a whole lot has changed in Porter’s coaching makeup in the five months since Olympic qualifying. There needed to be more distance between that debacle and his next move. And the résumés of some of the other candidates interviewed look broader and deeper than that of Porter, especially as it relates to MLS and the professional game. Colin Clarke’s teams in Dallas enjoyed regular-season success, but playoff heartbreak, and he has done consistent work in the A-League and NASL since then, most notably with the Puerto Rico Islanders. Preki’s stint in Toronto is no doubt a blight on his managerial career, but the work he did at Chivas USA under a limited budget was impressive. Richie Williams, another reported target, also would have been a solid choice given his work in New York over the years, both as an interim head coach and an assistant.
Does Porter at least give Portland something it needs in terms of a coach? Without question; his aforementioned success in developing younger players will come in handy, as will his prior relationship with former Akron player Darlington Nagbe, who remains one of the team’s key players moving forward. And it’s not as if the league is devoid of examples of college coaches successfully making the move to MLS -- Schellas Hyndman in Dallas is the most recent example -- although his close relationship to owner Clark Hunt played a significant role in that appointment.
But succeeding in MLS requires managing veterans as well as youngsters. And although the Kris Boyds of the world likely will base their judgments on their personal observations of Porter, working with older players will prove to be a significant challenge for him.
Then there is the task of navigating the salary cap and the value judgments such an activity demands. It no doubt will be argued that this is the task of Gavin Wilkinson, who remains the team’s general manager. But when it comes to the current construction of the team’s roster, it must be said that Wilkinson hasn’t covered himself in glory. And if you believe that it was former coach John Spencer who made most of the personnel decisions in Portland, then that will place even more responsibility on Porter.
It seems clear that no matter what happens, Porter will become a better coach for his experience in Portland. Whether the Timbers will become a better team is far less certain.