Driven by past failure, Caleb Porter finds success in Portland
How would you handle your biggest professional failure?
Would you erase it from your memory like it never happened? Would you point fingers at those who failed you? Or would you wallow in it? Would you let your failure define you and your career?
Caleb Porter took a long, hard look at himself, stared his failure in the face and studied every tiny detail. Then he punched that failure in the nose — knocked it out cold — and started working again.
You know the basics: Porter was named the coach of the 2012 U.S. men's Olympic soccer team, and that team failed to qualify for London, losing once (to Canada), tying once (with El Salvador) and going out in the group stage on a freak stoppage-time goal, a goalkeeper error, that Porter and his players won't ever forget.
But what you don't know is what Porter did next. He wrote a book about it. Working 12 hours a day for more than a week — "my wife hated me," he says — Porter put together a 150-page report examining every aspect of his time in the U.S. job. In the bound report, of which only 10 copies exist, Porter detailed every training session, every game, every piece of strategy in his tenure. He reflected on what he could have done differently and what he did well.
"I felt it was something I had to do to learn from it," says Porter, who had built an NCAA powerhouse at Akron from 2006 to 2012. "International coaching is very cruel. I lost one game in five months, and in the end it wasn't enough. And now I'm a failure and I can't coach and I don't know what I'm doing. But you have to listen to that. It was very humbling, and it hardened me too. To go into a pro environment you have to have thick skin and deal with that. I needed that in some ways to be ready."
Says Portland owner Merritt Paulson, "Caleb didn't just go back and lick his wounds. He wrote an entire analysis on the team and his experience. And he fingerpointed at himself."
There was something else that Porter's Olympic autopsy revealed in him, too, he says:
"It made me really, really hungry."
How hungry was Caleb Porter? Hungry enough to accept a pay cut and a loss of job security to take over as the Portland Timbers coach this season. Hungry enough to overhaul the Timbers, turning a team that had a minus-22 goal differential last season into one that was plus-21 this season. And hungry enough to challenge anyone who was doubting him—over his Olympic failure, over being a college coach—to earn a finalist nod for the 2013 MLS Coach of the Year award.
Portland has a big task ahead on Sunday to overturn a 4-2 first-leg deficit against Real Salt Lake in the MLS semifinals (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), but is there anyone who doubts that Porter's team is capable of performing the feat in the pro-Timbers madhouse that is Jeld-Wen Field?
At least one thing is certain: Portland will be ready at kickoff. From a preparation standpoint, Porter is extreme. Paulson says he has given stadium tours to friends at 7 a.m., only to find Porter already deep into his workday. ("One of my biggest jobs with Caleb is to get him not to burn out," Paulson says.) Porter's players see the evidence as well, says Timbers captain Will Johnson, one of several key additions to the team this season.
"He's a very intense guy, very dedicated and passionate, all those things you can see on the sidelines," says Johnson. "But there's so much more under the surface. He's very intelligent soccer-wise, and he's a tireless worker, a total perfectionist and a great man-manager. The way he handles the locker room is the most impressive thing. He gets everybody to buy into the team concept. Everyone's motivated and ready when they're needed to step up."
After multiple knee surgeries ended Porter's MLS career at age 25, he became a coach, first as an assistant at his alma mater, Indiana, and later as a head coach at Akron. His first salary at Indiana was $24,000 a year. At Akron he started at $70,000. But Porter was constantly studying the game, developing his philosophy, or as he likes to call it, his "blueprint."
For three years in a row, Porter and his Akron staff went on educational trips to Europe, studying firsthand some of the world's top clubs: Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, Rafa Benítez's Liverpool, Roy Hodgson's Fulham, Marcelo Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao. Porter's crew watched training sessions, spoke to reserve-team coaches and marinated in the culture of the clubs.
"I would try and pick up as much as I could watching these pro training sessions, seeing their methodology at work, seeing matches as they took shape," Porter says. "For me it was invaluable to study those teams for essentially six weeks every year. During the whole time I was with my staff talking about the game, bouncing things off each other. It was an education. A lot of the things I do in training come from the time I was over there studying those teams."
It's an ongoing process. Paulson says he recently saw Porter nose-deep in the Guardiola biography "A Better Way of Winning," by Guillem Balague. For his part, Porter says his teams and his tactics are always evolving, but he also has a few bedrock principles about he wants his guys to play.
"I've always believed in a pressing game and a possession game," he says. "Yet within that I've learned you need to be adaptable and pragmatic. Bayern and Dortmund are pressing teams, but they're also good on the counter. Bayern can play possession, go direct and hit you on set pieces and on the break. You can win in a lot of different ways. But I still believe if you want to be a dominant team you have to have control, and to have control you need to have the ball.
"This team has the ball a lot, but we won't die in beauty, and if we need to go direct this team can go direct. If we need to drop off, we can do that too."
Nobody expected Portland to make such a big turnaround in Porter's first year, but smart player acquisitions (Johnson and Diego Valeri foremost among them) and a few well-timed tweaks during the season have kept Portland at the top of MLS's Western Conference.
One of those tweaks came when Porter tightened up the Timbers' defense after a start that saw the team scoring regularly but leaking too many goals. Another change came after the last time Portland lost 4-2 at Salt Lake, in August. It was the only time all season that the Timbers have lost two straight games, and Porter made some adjustments — the back line ended up becoming Michael Harrington, Pa Modou Kah, Futty Danso and Jack Jewsbury — while calling himself out and challenging his players to be better.
"If we didn't have the right guys in the locker room, if we hadn't built a healthy culture, if there wasn't mutual respect, the wheels could have fallen off," Porter says. "You see that all the time around our league, whether the coach is making excuses leading to more failure or the players are pointing fingers at the coach. But you can lose the locker room in one game if you don't have it built the right way."
There's that question again: How do you handle failure? Portland and Porter have had two weeks to digest their 4-2 first-leg defeat to Salt Lake, their only loss in the last 11 games. RSL's win knocked them back on their heels. How will the Timbers respond? What new tweaks has Porter made with his team?
The Timbers coach has already won over his owner, Paulson, who extended his contract recently, to say nothing of Portland, where Widmer Brothers recently introduced a special "Caleb Porter" beer ("Big Hearts and Brass Balls"). The beer, which may soon come in bottles, made its debut in Portland's home regular-season win over archrival Seattle.
"It made it even sweeter that we won the game against Seattle," cracks Porter. "Because no one wants a beer named after a guy that loses."
And to that, everyone in Portland will raise a pint.