Porter's rising star took a beating after failing to guide the U.S. U23 team to the Olympics this spring, but Portland has handed him a lifeline.Five months ago, Caleb Porter sat at the podium and faced the media in Nashville. His shoulders hunched, eyes glazed, and his voice quivered as he spoke about what was the greatest, and to that point, the only failure of his career.
“I'm sorry for the fans, I'm sorry for U.S. Soccer that we didn't get the job done,” Porter said.
After the USA U23 team failed to advance to the semifinals of Olympic qualification, it seemed unimaginable that we'd be here at summer's end, talking about the 37-year-old being named head coach of the Portland Timbers in Major League Soccer.
For Porter – one of U.S. soccer's rising coaching stars – Portland is no longer just another step up the coaching ladder, it's a chance to prove he's still worthy of the lofty reputation that took such a massive bruising in Nashville.
Porter was a prodigy at the University of Akron. Named head coach at age 30, by the time he was 35, he had built a powerhouse, leading the previously unheralded Zips to a NCAA runner-up spot in 2009. He was approached by D.C. United with a job offer, but had the leverage to be able to turn it down.
The following season, he won his NCAA championship – Akron's first in any sport. Five of his players were drafted in the first round of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft and by that time, his ascent to the top of the coaching world appeared destined to continue unfettered.
His burgeoning reputation led to his appointment as U.S. Olympic head coach in Oct. 2011. Despite having never coached professionals before, he was entrusted with leading 20 of them to the London Games. Very few questioned the move.
Then, calamity. The USA failed in a massive way and Porter was exposed.
It wasn't just that his team lost to heavy underdog Canada and drew equally-unfancied El Salvador in a must-win situation, Porter's tacit admission that he was out coached was striking.
“They set up in a Christmas tree, 4-3-2-1, and it's not a shape they've used,” he said after the Canada game, confessing he had been caught off guard. That wasn't all, though.
“We were a little surprised when we saw the start sheet and they had seven new guys in the lineup,” he also admitted.
Against El Salvador, he didn't fare much better. Though his team would've advanced without a last-gasp Sean Johnson howler, Porter didn't have his team ready to match its opponent's intensity, as it was devastated by two quick-fire goals in the first half. Late on, he kept two subs in his pocket when his team was obviously in need of reinforcements.
After the game, Porter was clearly devastated, taking the loss harder than any of his players. For the first time in his coaching career, complete and utter failure stared him in the face.
“I think the Olympics hit him hard, just as it did us players,” D.C. United midfielder Perry Kitchen told Goal.com. Kitchen played for Porter at Akron, and was also a part of the Olympic qualifying team.
“Coming off the Olympics, he doesn't want that to be what people think, that on the biggest stage he was a failure,” Kitchen added.
And so, unlike in 2009, this time when MLS came calling, Porter accepted.
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If the Nightmare in Nashville hadn't happened, Porter's hiring would've been seen by most as a slam dunk. Instead, it's a major risk. Can a coach who has succeeded mostly fielding teams with a major talent advantage do well in the world of parity known as MLS? Can a coach who failed on the biggest stage of his career rebound at the pro level?
“I think he'll do well,” Kitchen said. “It might be tough at first but I think he's a great soccer mind and I think he's ready for the step and ready for the challenge in a professional environment.”
Kitchen isn't the only one who thinks highly of Porter's cranial prowess.
“Put simply, I believe Caleb Porter is the best young soccer coaching mind in the country,” said Timbers owner and president Merritt Paulson in a press release announcing Porter's hire on Wednesday.
Paulson and the Timbers are betting big that they're getting more of the Akron Porter, and less of the Olympic qualifying Porter. For a coach with aspirations of coaching the U.S. national team one day, his MLS premiere represents a second chance, and a first crack at redemption.