The Caleb Porter Era is over.
The top-line summation of Porter’s time in Portland is straightforward: He was among the best coaches in Timbers’ club history. Posting a 68-50-52 record over his five years in Portland, Porter’s 1.54 points per game are the best in the brief MLS era and second best of any coach in the Timbers modern era. Throw in an MLS Cup, two regular-season conference crowns, and a soon-to-be-MVP, and Porter’s place in Timbers history is secure.
There also isn’t any question that Porter left the club in better shape than he found it. The transition to MLS was a rough one, with the 2012 season turning into a race for the Wooden Spoon. Just a year later the Timbers were in the race for the Supporters Shield, and would find themselves completing that quest for a major trophy just two years later.
There were, of course, low points during Porter’s tenure. Missing the playoffs in 2014 and 2016 remains baffling given the quality of the teams on either side of those seasons. Even those low points, though, were higher than anything John Spencer achieved.
The Timbers are, simply put, a much better club today than they were when Porter arrived. And although Porter doesn’t get all the credit for the club’s growth over the last half-decade, he gets a hefty portion of it.
But the Timbers aren’t the only ones that benefitted from Porter’s tenure in Portland.
The Akron coach arrived in Portland with an impressive college coaching resume and some big ideas for how he wanted the Timbers to play. If there was any question about whether Porter’s ideas would translate to the MLS level, those were put to rest when his team finished atop the Western Conference table and advanced to the Western Conference Final. The 2013 Timbers were as fun as they were good, and they were a disruptive force in the league just a year after the Timbers were pummeled into irrelevance.
Then 2014 happened. Porter stuck to his ideas, but the league adjusted. The Timbers were as fun as ever, but they were far from as good as opponents counterattacked Porter’s team to an October death.
There’s more to being a good manager at the professional level than having a good idea about how to set up the team. The league, after all, caught up to Porter’s ideas in 2014. That — together, it must be noted, with some bad luck — conspired to keep the Timbers out of the playoffs in Porter’s second season.
The offseason after that disappointment, however, showed Porter was becoming more than just a coach with a good idea. In 2015, Porter transformed his one-time possession-based team into a counterattacking menace. Although the metamorphosis took some time, its completion in the fall was ultimately the key that unlocked the Timbers’ path to MLS Cup.
In the two seasons that followed, the once-doctrinaire Porter become a much more tactically-flexible, pragmatic manager. That transformation manifested itself not just on the field, but also in the way Porter talked about his teams. In his early years in Portland Porter frequently talked about the way he liked to play. In his later years, he talked more about finding the way his team best played.
The result was a Timbers outfit that was harder for opponents to figure out. Although it didn’t immediately pay dividends in a 2016 season in which a thin roster struggled to overcome injuries, it would the year after. The injuries struck again in 2017, but Porter’s tactical flexibility together with a deeper roster allowed the Timbers to claim another regular-season conference title despite rolling out a new lineup and new approach on a near-weekly basis. That, quite simply, wouldn’t have happened with 2013 Caleb Porter at the helm.
If Porter left the Timbers better than he found them, then, Porter’s experience with the Timbers left the coach better than when he found the Timbers, too. Porter’s departure, then, marks the end of an era that was marked by mutual growth between club and coach.