Players in all sports are most scrutinized, celebrated, mocked and glorified in big moments. The true measure of an athlete is how that athlete performs when the spotlight shines brightest and when it means the most. It's the same for coaches. It's, did you beat Ohio State? Can you win in the playoffs? Grady Little doesn't get fired if he leaves Pedro Martinez in an inning too long in May against Baltimore. He gets fired for the same mistake in October at Yankee Stadium.
MLS is a coaches league. With a claustrophobically tight salary cap, and the unique playoff structure - a general free-for-all between the better teams in the league at the end of the season - coaching often makes the difference in a system rippling with parody.
If you look down the years at the champions of MLS, it's often the best coach, not the best team, that wins. The last two years, LA have been steered to the title by America's most successful coach ever, Bruce Arena. There's no denying that the Galaxy didn't have very good teams in 2011 and 2012, but they struggled mightily out of the gate in 2012, and weren't the number one seed for either of their MLS Cup wins.
Arena also won MLS Cup with DC United in 1996 and 1997, giving the former national team coach league victories in MLS' first two seasons, and its last two. The coach Arena beat in 2011 and 2012 was Houston's Dominic Kinnear, who took two ordinary Dynamo teams to the title game in back-to-back years. The Scot has an impeccable record - he won consecutive titles with Houston in 2006 and 2007.
Of five American coaches to win MLS Cup, three have coach the US national team, including Steve Sampson, who took the 2005 LA Galaxy from the lowest seed in the playoffs to the championship. With over half the teams in the league making the playoffs, it's nice to be good in the spring and summer, but you have to be good in the fall.
Caleb Porter knows this. Between the lines of all his talk about keeping highs low and lows high, he knows that while he may have turned around the Timbers in the spring and summer, the rest of MLS has not yet begun to fight. The Timbers have created many fantastic memories and delivered a handful of simply scintillating performances, but in the grand scheme of things, the team's first big was last Wednesday against Real Salt Lake.
Portland lost, and Porter was out-coached by another MLS Cup winner, Jason Kreis. We're out of the MLS dog-days of summer. Approaching September, with around ten games to go in the regular season, things are about to get intense.
The uptick in stakes doesn't come at a great time for Porter. Things haven't been going swimmingly at Jeld-Wen Field lately, with the Timbers experiencing their worst run of 2013 form. Portland has only won one MLS game in the last month and a half, as the gleam of Porterball begins to wear off. Teams are ready to play the Timbers, and it's showing.
Porter has expressed frustration with the physical, defensive tactics teams are using to stifle Portland's uptempo attack, but what does Porter expect? That's how you play a possession team like the Timbers, and it's worked for Vancouver, San Jose, Philadelphia, and Salt Lake recently. Teams aren't going to stop playing Portland that way any time soon.
Instead of wringing his hands, Porter needs to adapt. The way Caleb crooned over Real Salt Lake's attacking style that he felt would create a great game in the US Open Cup semi suggests that he hasn't found a way to combat these defensive tactics. The goals have stopped flowing at the wrong time.
There are other problems, most notably, the defense. With injuries taking down Mikael Silvestre and Futty Danso, Pa Moudu Kah has been forced into action as Andrew Jean-Baptiste's center-back partner. Kah is a serviceable backup, but he's not an MLS starter or a good partner for AJB. Kah is too hot-headed and nearsightedly aggressive, where Jean-Baptiste needs the steady and commanding presence that Silvestre and Futty provided.
The defense has slipped. It can't keep slipping. The fullback situation is also a problem - Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington just don't give the offense enough dynamism. Will Porter turn to Alvis Powell? He has the pace and power. He's also a rookie's rookie.
Porter needs to get the offense clicking again. It's stagnant. The movement that made the Timbers so potent early in the year has slowed, as has the tempo and runs off the ball. Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe are both brilliant, but they both often occupy the same spaces on the field, causing one to slip out of the game. What's the answer?
Frederic Piquonne and Ryan Johnson are both solid to very good players, and both play drastically differently. Which guy does Porter turn to? So far, there isn't a clear first choice forward. Piquonne and Johnson have both been good and struggled in turns this year. Can they play together? It would shake things up, it would be a much-needed second look for the Timbers offense. Will Porter go to it?
Things are tight in the Western Conference. Insanely tight. Of the nine teams in the West, eight are just eight points off the lead. Seattle is in seventh place. Portland is in third. If Seattle wins their two games in hand, they'd overtake the Timbers. Fifth is the cutoff for the playoffs.
It's Porter Time. The Supporters Shield, the playoffs, and eventually MLS Cup are up for grabs. Ask Arena, or Kinnear, or Kreis, or Sigi Schmid, and they'll tell you the you have to start ironing everything out right now. Craft a machine. Portland came out of the gates on fire. It wasn't realistic to expect them to continue that form through the whole season. But it matters right now.
If Caleb Porter is the manager we think he is, and we think he can be, Portland will get right back on track. They have an off-week to figure things out. Then it's Dallas and Real Salt Lake and Seattle and the stretch-run of the season. I don't have all the answers. Let's see if Porter does.