Caleb Porter is a believer.
The former Portland Timbers head coach, now set to guide the Columbus Crew in the 2019 season, is blunt with his assessment of what he thinks this team is capable of.
His goal is to be an MLS Cup contender.
“Every team I coach I think has the opportunity to be title contenders,” Porter told Goal. “And if I don’t believe that, I shouldn’t be coaching.”
Porter notes the MLS season is about finding a way into the postseason then winning four times. He would know – his 2015 Timbers team did just that en route to that year’s MLS Cup title.
“If I have no vision of winning a trophy, then when we get into that position, the players will have no vision for that and it won’t happen.”
If belief is required, Porter has landed in the right place. After all, “Columbus Crew SC, title contender” looked like an impossibility four months ago. Heck, “Columbus Crew” did not even look likely.
Nearly 18 months have passed since news broke that then-owner Anthony Precourt intended to relocate the Crew to Austin, TX. The prospect of losing one of MLS’ original teams put a damper on a 2017 playoff run that saw the Crew advance to the Eastern Conference final.
And it would create a pall over a lot of the 2018 season for the team and their fans – something that was clear to goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
“You could tell right away the situation with them [the fans] – they were not happy and understandably,” Steffen told Goal. “They felt betrayed.”
And if any player on the team could understand their pain, it was Crew captain and Ohio native Wil Trapp.
“The toll that it was taking, not so much on me on the field, but on the off-the-field perspective with family, friends,” Trapp told Goal. “The idea of growing up with this club and it disappearing from Columbus was difficult.”
Players were left between a rock and a hard place. Steffen described their inability to affect the relocation question directly while also having to worry about whether their whole lives would be upended by a move to Texas. All the while they were left performing for those fans who were angry – though not with them.
And yet, Columbus would again return to the postseason in 2018. This time they would exit a round earlier, but the weeks that followed brought the news that Trapp called “elation.”
The Crew had been saved.
“Once we heard some concrete news that the club was going to stay and the Haslam and Edwards families were going to purchase the team, truly it was elation for me, if I can put it bluntly,” Trapp said.
One major change was averted, but another proved inevitable as head coach Gregg Berhalter departed lead the United States’ men’s national team.
The club lost the man who guided it to the postseason in four of his five years at the helm, along with a trip to the MLS Cup final in 2015. But the work to keep the Crew in Columbus would play a major role in landing the man who defeated Berhalter’s side in that final - Porter.
The Washington-born Porter had developed deep ties with Ohio thanks to his years spent leading the University of Akron, where he coached a number of future MLS stars, including Trapp. Those ties made the Crew a team he was long-interested in leading.
But it was the #SaveTheCrew movement that sealed the deal.
“One of the biggest factors in me wanting the job was seeing the passion of the supporters and seeing them fight for the club,” Porter said. “That’s obviously the type of club I want to be a part of – where there’s a real pride.
“I felt compelled to not just jump in to save it but take it to the next step and there’s a lot of exciting things ahead.”
It all begins March 2 against the New York Red Bulls, who ousted the Crew in the 2018 playoffs, in front of a home crowd that knows the club is in for the long haul.
“We know the reaction will be wonderful,” Trapp said.
“But for us really it’s about just getting everyone on the same page, prepared, fit and ready to execute in front of our fans.”
Trapp expects the MLS season will have its “ups and downs” but is adamant the fans will be ready to support the team through thick and thin.
Steffen sees a new opportunity with supporters as well. The goalkeeper hopes, with the decision for the club to stay put made, more effort will be put in to engrain the club in the local community.
“We should bring Columbus into the team more, kind of make it as one,” Steffen said. “Advertise the team around Columbus so people know when our games are and know where our games are and can keep track of them throughout the year.
“If we can do that, that will give us a lot of confidence and support to make the playoffs.”
Trapp believes actions like that will only pay dividends in the long run saying: “I think the more you build into your fans, the more they keep coming back.”
The captain thinks the new ownership has an eye toward creating a “long-term fanbase” that will build on the die-hards who helped to keep the team in Columbus and land their new manager.
That manager now stands ready to reward those fans by completing this tumultuous chapter in the club’s history and, with any luck, bringing an MLS Cup to a team that was nearly no more.
“I think this group is good enough to put another trophy in that trophy case,” Porter said. “So that’s how I can hopefully help push this group over the edge and cement their legacy as a very prominent era in the Crew’s rich history.”