PORTLAND, Ore. — This is not the same Portland Timbers, and this is not the same Caleb Porter. For now, at least. That much is becoming clear after Portland’s 2-2 tie here on Sunday against the LA Galaxy. Portland scored two terrific goals by Fanendo Adi, but it was the way in which they were scored—one off a blazing counter-attack, one off a direct longball—that supported what Porter, the Timbers’ fiery coach, has been saying heading into the season.
Gone is the “American Guardiola” (in approach, at least) who valued possession above all else. In its place is a coach who wants to have not just a Plan A but also a Plan B and even a Plan C.
“We’ve become a more well-rounded team, and I think that’s going to pay off over the course of a 34-game season,” Porter said on Sunday after the Galaxy’s last-second header by Alan Gordon had salvaged a point in the Rose City. “We’ve got a lot of different ways we can play. We’re a balanced team. We have good team speed … If we need to go direct, we can. We can play on the counter if we can. If we want to keep the ball a little bit more, we can. That diversity in our team will help us.”
You can look at Portland’s start—ties at home against Salt Lake and LA—in more than one way. On the one hand, Sunday’s game felt like two points dropped, and these were home games, after all. On the other hand, the opponents were two of the league’s top teams, and Portland is still missing two All-Stars in the injured Diego Valeri (out for a month or two more, Porter said) and Will Johnson (out for up to a month more).
The Timbers may well open things up more once those players are back and healthy. But it’s also clear that a philosophy change has taken place with Porter.
To hear Porter tell the story, he has made some fundamental alterations as a coach in the past year. Remember the bizarre scene at last year’s MLS All-Star Game, when Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola refused to shake Porter’s hand after the game? Guardiola has always been one of Porter’s idols, but the Catalan thought Porter’s MLS team had been overly physical in the game and found a way (however immature) to show his displeasure.
That incident itself didn’t cause Porter to shift his philosophies, but it is an intriguing symbol of something undeniable: Porter and his Portland team are no longer all about possession (the Guardiola way). In fact, Porter has recently gravitated toward the Anti-Pep, Chelsea’s José Mourinho, and is now espousing such buzzwords as pragmatism and balance.
Part of that transformation comes, no doubt, as the result of a disappointing 2014 season, in which the Timbers, predicted by many to win the Supporters' Shield, got off to a terrible start (five points in the first eight games) and ended up missing the playoffs by a point. After the season was over, Porter spent a week in London in early December. As part of the trip, he observed training sessions at Chelsea, including Mourinho’s first team.
“I picked Chelsea because for me right now they’re one of the best winning teams in the world, other than Bayern,” Porter told SI.com recently in a wide-ranging interview full of self-examination. “Mourinho is one of the best winning managers. I wanted to dive into: Why do they win? I think it’s his man-management, but it’s also the pragmatism of the way his teams play. In MLS that type of set-up usually translates well. In the last several years I’ve figured out what I believe in, but also what works.”
“The biggest thing I’ve learned the last several years is you don’t always need to decide the game with possession,” Porter continued. “You can decide it without having the ball sometimes and use that to your advantage. Sometimes you can decide it by dumping the ball up to your big man, and that’s why we went and got one [Adi].”
It’s not that Porter has completely abandoned his former principles. It’s just that he wants his team to be capable of playing in different ways depending on the demands of a game. In Porter’s imagination, his Timbers can defend in different ways, either by high-pressing or by retreating and defending in a low block looking to spring the counter-attack. And on the offensive end they can either possess the ball (especially once Diego Valeri returns from injury) or go more direct if necessary.
“Chelsea gets bashed at times for not playing good soccer and parking the bus, but when you watch them they play good soccer,” said Porter. “But it’s about winning. Doing what you need to do to win. I’ve been somewhat of a purist in that regard, where I’d sacrifice the result at times, probably because I *could*. But for me, it’s about putting together a team that still plays in the way I believe in but is capable of adjusting in MLS.”
Chelsea wasn’t the only Premier League team that Porter observed during his London trip. He also watched Tottenham training sessions and attended four different games: Chelsea-Spurs, Crystal Palace-Aston Villa, Tottenham-Palace and West Ham-Swansea. A soccer junkie at heart, Porter would scribble notes from his seat in the stands, and he even sat in on the postgame press conference of West Ham manager Sam Allardyce.
“I wouldn’t do that here [in the U.S.], but to sit on the other side was interesting,” Porter explained. “Allardyce is well-known for being a very good game coach who really doesn’t give a f--- what he does unless he wins. Actually, tactically he’s very good in a one-off game, and he’s a hard-ass and just screaming from the sidelines the entire game. Which I thought was interesting: Here he is at the highest level, coaching Premier League players and just screaming for 90 minutes.”
Like Big Sam, who unveiled a lopsided diamond in the game Porter watched, the Portland coach likes to think he can adjust his tactics as necessary for the situation at hand. When Valeri is healthy, Porter prefers a 4-2-3-1 in which Valeri can be a true No. 10. But with Valeri out, Porter has opted for a 4-4-2, acknowledging that he doesn’t have anyone who can replace Valeri as a like-for-like in the No. 10 role.
In Porter’s opinion, MLS is finally showing more variety from an Xs-and-Os perspective. “There’s no doubt about it, the league is getting better tactically,” he said. “I’m seeing more games that are patient, that I’d call a high-level soccer game. Watching a game from Germany or the Premier League, it’s definitely a box-to-box game. The tempo is high, and so is the athleticism in those leagues. In our league, the athleticism and fitness are very good, but the difference has been at times maybe the teams aren’t quite as compact. There’s not as much patience to the games, and it’s a give-to-get.”
“Which has been exciting, and by the way we’ve been at times exactly that team. But it’s something where if you want to be consistently getting points, there has to be a bit more patience on both sides of the ball. That’s something I’ve tried to add to this team, where we defend with more patience, more compactness, and we attack with a bit more balance. Maybe it’s patience defensively and balance in the attack.”
Right now this Portland team is a work in progress, but there are things to like. Darlington Nagbe has looked lively and productive after a sub-par season last year. Nat Borchers is a huge upgrade on a back line that needed one. And the Timbers are still capable of playing some thrilling soccer.
But Porter’s Possession Obsession? That may well be a thing of the past.