Portland Timbers fans have learned one thing for certain about the team's owner, Merritt Paulson: He's not afraid to gamble.
He launched the team's freshman season in Major League Soccer last year with a coach, John Spencer, who had never run a team before, and with a high-profile striker, Kenny Cooper, who was supposed to bag plenty of goals. This year, Paulson went all in on Scottish star Kris Boyd, a $1.5 million-a-year forward with great goal-scoring promise.
So far, they've been lousy bets. Paulson fired Spencer midseason this year after a terrible start and a 1-0 tournament loss to an amateur team. Cooper—whom the team dismissed as soft after a disappointing 2011 season—was traded to the New York Red Bulls, where he's now tied with L.A. Galaxy striker Robbie Keane as MLS's No. 3 scorer.
And Boyd? The forward was benched after Spencer's firing, having scored too few goals (seven) and played too many games in which he looked as if he were out for a jog.
The Timbers, with one of the league's worst records (8-16-9, 33 points), end this miserable season with a home game Saturday, Oct. 27, against the league's top team, the San Jose Earthquakes. Portland scraped together its only road win of the season in Vancouver, B.C., on Oct. 21 to bring home the Cascadia Cup, but it's a small consolation.
Next season, Paulson is rolling the dice again, on a charismatic young gun as head coach: 37-year-old Caleb Porter.
Porter is a considerable catch. His inspired career as head coach of the University of Akron men's soccer team gives Timbers fans reason for optimism.
Porter's winning percentage of .825 with the Zips is the highest of any current Division I college coach. Paulson called him "the best young coaching mind in the country."
"He treats every player like they're his sons," says Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who was a standout under Porter at the University of Akron. "He treats every player the same and tries to motivate them and get the best out of them."
Paulson's gamble comes in hoping a college coach (even a very good one) can make the switch to the pros.
ESPN commentator Jeff Carlisle says MLS and college soccer simply inhabit different worlds.
"The players are older, they're more experienced, they're going to give more pushback," he says. "The egos are bigger, and some of the players make more money than the coach does."
Through representatives at Akron, Porter declined to be interviewed for this story. But his hiring signals a shift to a faster game that fans have seen hints of under Gavin Wilkinson, the team's general manager, who's served as interim coach after Spencer's firing.
Porter was a star midfielder for Indiana University, but his MLS career was sidelined in 2000 by knee injuries after playing just 11 games with the Tampa Bay Mutiny and San Jose Clash; he returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach before signing on with Akron as head coach for the 2006 season. Within a year, Porter was named Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year, and he brought home a national championship in 2010.
But the transition from college directly to an MLS head coaching job is rare; only four coaches have done it, and all were considerably more seasoned than Porter. Only Schellas Hyndman of FC Dallas has made the switch in the past decade.
The Washington Post reported the Timbers had interviewed Colin Clarke and Preki Radosavljevic, who coached MLS teams that reached the playoffs in consecutive years.
Porter's one stint with professional players was not encouraging. As head coach of the U.S. under-23 national team hoping to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London, Porter drew criticism after his heavily favored squad didn't even make it out of the first round of competition.
"In that tournament, he showed some tactical inflexibility," says ESPN's Carlisle. "He was coaching the team that he wanted to have rather than the team he actually had.â
And that could very well be the problem in Portland, where even the best players have turned in inconsistent performances this season.
Wilkinson remains confident, however. "I think there's a big risk involved in hiring any coach," he tells WW, "but I think in talking to him, we knew he was the guy. He lives the sport, day in, day out. He's the real thing."
Spencer preferred a direct game in which players brought the ball up the sides of the field and quickly unloaded long crosses across the goal box.
Porter's style is almost diametrically opposed to this, favoring lots of quick passes. "Akron typically possesses the ball and is constantly on the attack," says Michael Beaven, a sportswriter for the Akron Beacon Journal. "It's usually in the opponents' end of the field."
"You look at Akron's soccer team," Beaven adds, "there's a lot of speed and a lot of guys who are shorter and quick. Elsewhere you see taller, slower, bigger players. Porter recruits faster, smaller, more technical [players]."
Wilkinson hinted the Timbers will be making adjustments to fit Porter's coaching style. "Last year, we were looking for the most talented players that we could get," Wilkinson says. "I think this year we're looking at certain positions, certain capacities, certain gaps that need filling in.â
But Wilkinson says the current player roster is "almost there" in terms of fitting Porter's style of play.
Kevin Alexander, of the soccer blog Slide Rule Pass, disagrees. "The groundwork is being laid, as you can see, by Gavin Wilkinson's adopting [Caleb Porter's] style during his interim stewardship," Alexander says, "but what is also clear are the deficiencies in the squad with regard to playing that way.â
That means the Oct. 27 game against San Jose could be the last look fans get at key players in Timbers jerseys. Wilkinson has already shown a willingness to trade popular players when he swapped goalkeepers with the Montreal Impact, sending away Troy Perkins in exchange for Donovan Ricketts.
According to Stumptown Footy's Ryan Gates, familiar faces don't fit very well with Porter's game—including defender Kosuke Kimura, forward Sal Zizzo and the team's captain, midfielder Jack Jewsbury. "I think Captain Jack will get left out," Gates says. "He's a good defensive midfielder, but too slow for that style."
As for the team's marquee player, Kris Boyd?
âIf theyâre going to play the way Porterâs playing,â Gates says, âI donât see Boyd staying at all.â