McCarthy's Musings: Ambition prompts Caleb Porter to leave security behind for MLS gig in Portland

Porter will cut short a lucrative, long-term deal with Akron to join the Timbers when the college season ends in December.
A mixture of comfort, infrastructure and security in his present job at Akron allowed Caleb Porter to bide his time and wait for the right opportunity to make the leap to MLS.

He found it in Portland.

Porter will depart the Zips after the 2012 college season concludes and join the Timbers as their new coach in time for the 2013 season, the club announced on Tuesday.

“He's very ambitious,” Portland investor/operator Merritt Paulson told on Wednesday. “He wanted to make sure he chose the right opportunity when he got it. And this is a powerful platform in the world of soccer. The Portland Timbers are helping to shape and grow the sport of soccer in North America like few other clubs in the league. He gets that. He gets our vision.”

Porter, 37, felt so strongly about the opportunity with the Timbers that he relinquished the type of contractual security rarely afforded to college soccer coaches and never granted to professional bosses. His deal with Akron would have carried him through the 2021 season. Instead of seeing out that lucrative pact, he will now join a club that retained John Spencer for a season-and-a-half before sacking him.

A comparison between Porter's revamped Akron contract and the deal handed to former MLS Cup winner Peter Nowak when he left the U.S. national team setup to join Philadelphia in 2009 reveals the extent of the risk Porter took to make this leap to MLS.

Caleb Porter   Peter Nowak
Six-year extension through February 2021, signed in December 2010 Duration of contract
June 1, 2009 to December 31, 2012 
$270,000 Base salary $373,050 
$80,000 to assist Akron president in the promotion of the college Additional yearly compensation n/a
$15,000 retention bonus, per season, placed into escrow account – payable upon completion of the contract in Feb. 2021 Bonuses  $69,500 signing bonus payable by January 15, 2010
$7,500/year for country club membership; $800.00/month for car Perks 16 round-trip tickets (coach class) between Philadelphia and Naples, Fla. for Nowak and his family members per year; guaranteed business- or first-class air travel during the season, depending on the type of plane; three full suits per year; all reasonable expenses related to completing UEFA Pro License; undisclosed marketing agreement 
 $200,000 in the first three years, $150,000 in the remaining eight years – payable by Porter Liquidated damages for breaking contract Currently in litigation 
 n/a Transfer fee $75,000 payable to U.S. Soccer for the release from previous contract with the federation. Sources

(Note: Nowak cost several MLS teams some money when the terms of his contract were made public earlier this year. Both of these deals represent above-average compensation packages for MLS bosses. To the delight of agents and prospective MLS coaches, the cost of business just went up substantially with Porter's move to Portland. One would imagine the Union brass has heard a word or two about its severance practices from the league offices and the executives of other teams since jettisoning its former coach and sparking litigation in the process.)

As the terms of Porter's Akron contract indicate, the former NCAA champion left behind a fantastic deal in its early stages to join the Timbers on a presumably comparable contract with far fewer long-term guarantees. One question immediately springs to mind: why?

There are any number of potential thoughts that enter the reckoning in these matters, but two possible themes stand out as the most logical justifications in this instance: the remote prospect of landing a better job than this Portland gig and the pressing need to remove some of the Olympic-inspired tarnish to his reputation.

Porter's inability to navigate a U.S. squad including current full internationals Terrence Boyd and Brek Shea past Canada and El Salvador in the group stage in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying represents the first significant failure of his career. The shocking outcome did not reflect particularly well on either his tactical approach (not pragmatic enough under these specific circumstances) or his team selection (particularly in defense).

No amount of success at Akron could completely erase the notion that Porter bungled his first attempt to manage a group of professional players in rather spectacular fashion. For an ambitious and competitive sort like Porter, this scenario represented something of a problem. Only a jump to the professional level – perhaps with a bit more haste than originally intended, though there isn't much, if anything, left for him to accomplish in the college ranks – could truly solve it.

Portland appeared on the scene at the right time and with the right gig to help Porter provide the necessary riposte. There aren't many better jobs in MLS than the post at JELD-WEN Field. Few, if any, of the clubs with more resources available (Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Toronto FC and Vancouver) would likely contemplate hiring a college coach unproven at the professional level, particularly after a high-profile Olympic failure. None of the other recent openings – not historic D.C. United in 2009 with no stadium solution in sight (a job offer Porter wisely refused), nor any of the realistic vacancies available since – probably beats the opportunity to send out a team in front of the Timbers Army.

It requires a bit of vision to read the landscape and understand that this Timbers gig might be about as good as it gets on the employment front. Sure, it isn't a perfect scenario because the roster is in a state of disrepair and the team isn't very good right now, but these jobs don't come open without a few warts involved. The back four needs a complete overhaul, the midfield needs a significant revamp and the forward line has a Kris Boyd-sized issue looming during the close season. But every new job requires some housecleaning. At least there are already a couple of promising young players in the fold who might fit into Porter's possession-oriented system on a wider field next season. One of them, Darlington Nagbe, has barely scratched the surface of the talents that could one day take him to one of Europe's top leagues.

Porter, in some ways, fits into the same category as his former Akron forward: a glittering collegiate star waiting to transform into a similarly successful figure at the MLS level. Their futures will be intertwined once again as Porter shifts his career trajectory away from the security in Ohio to the perilous road ahead in Oregon. It is a brave step for Porter to take. He must hope his ability, his self-belief and his vision back up his courage and his judgment as he prepares to make the long-awaited transition to the professional ranks in December.

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