The first-year Timbers boss led Portland to the top seed in the Western Conference while incorporating an attractive, possession-driven style of play.It's impressive enough to take a team from well beyond the playoff picture to the conference's top seed in one season. But to effectively overhaul the club's culture in the process requires a special mind for the game.
Taking over a Portland team fresh of an 8-16-10 record, Caleb Porter, in his first MLS season, led the Timbers to a 14-5-15 mark that ensures the path to the MLS Cup out West will go through Jeld-Wen Field.
The 38-year-old, who joined Portland after seven dominating seasons at the University of Akron, did so while putting his idiosyncratic stamp on the Timbers' style. With Porter came a free-flowing 4-3-3 approach that kills teams with possession and patience — a stark aesthetic upgrade from 2012's identity-lacking squad that often settled for a sloppy game of pinball.
Call the new look "Porter ball" or call it "Timber-taka." No matter the label, the philosophy has turned around the Timbers and led to Porter earning Goal USA's MLS Coach of the Year honors.
Porter beat out a field including the New York Red Bulls' Mike Petke and the Colorado Rapids' Oscar Pareja. And he did so by getting the most out of a talented but previously underachieving Timbers roster.
Given freedom by Porter to orchestrate the attack from different positions, Darlington Nagbe achieved career highs with nine goals and four assists. Moved from left back to a wide forward role, Rodney Wallace (seven goals, six assists) enjoyed a breakout campaign of his own. Jack Jewsbury, a career holding midfielder, made a seamless transition to right back.
When it came to Portland's newcomers, Porter could not have integrated them any better. Will Johnson, a solid winger over five seasons with Real Salt Lake, evolved into an MVP candidate while deployed centrally. In addition to winning tackles and spraying balls all over the pitch, Johnson scored nine goals to triple his career best.
And Argentine playmaker Diego Valeri wasted no time finding his niche in Porter's system, notching 10 goals and a league-leading 13 assists from the top of that midfield triangle.
Under Porter, the Timbers are never out of a game. Their five losses were easily the fewest in MLS this year, and they came by a combined six goals. After enjoying a 15-game unbeaten streak earlier this season, Portland ended the campaign on a 5-0-3 run to finish atop the West.
Defensively, the long-term absences of Mikael Silvestre (torn ACL) and David Horst (broken leg) didn't keep Portland from boasting the league's second-stingiest back line.
Although Porter got Goal USA's nod, it's hard not to admire the job Petke did in New York. As a 37-year-old in his first year as a head coach, Petke seized control of a locker room filled with big names and strong personalities while leading his hometown team to the Supporters' Shield — New York's first major title.
Pareja, meanwhile, relied on a heavy dose youth as he steered Colorado through a slew of early-season injuries and got the Rapids back in the playoffs.
But it was Porter, who is preparing his Timbers to face the Seattle Sounders or Pareja's Rapids in a Western Conference semifinal, who stood above the rest as he gave Portland's rabid fan base the winner it deserves.