caleb porter

Roster versus Roster... How Caleb Porter's Crew may mimic the Timbers of Old

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When Caleb Porter took over the Portland Timbers in 2013, he implemented a high-press, possession-oriented system of play. The playing style and he became so synonymous with one another, it was dubbed "Porterball". The system created turnovers by utilizing a staunch pressing defense to minimize the oppositions time and space. The Timbers offense would then meticulously maintain possession using quick combination passing, and pacey transitions. Positive results followed.

Prior to manning the sidelines for Portland, Porter built an NCAA powerhouse at Akron University using the Porterball system. Given his success and accomplishments in the NCAA ranks, it only seemed natural that such a style could seamlessly transition to MLS. Though, Porter’s early success with the Timbers waned over time. Opposing clubs learned how to disrupt Porterball, and the high-risk / high-reward style wore on the Timbers players, so Porter had to adjust. His offensive oriented system slowly but surely started to lean more on defending his own goal and utilize a quick counterattack to tally goals. His willingness and ability to change and adapt was a good sign of growth for Porter. Many coaches will live and later die by their own stubbornness to change.

Fast forward to Porter’s MLS Cup championship winning team in 2015, the two most critical acquisitions for the Timbers were not attacking players, but surprisingly two centerbacks. Longtime MLS veteran, Nat Borchers, and England product, Liam Ridgewell were acquired post-Porterball, solidifying the team with their defensive prowess and remarkable leadership. The re-tooled backline was nearly impossible to penetrate.

A question that only time will be able to answer is, whether or not Porter has aspirations to play a similar system and style with the Crew? If yes, how congruent is the current Crew roster to that of the 2015 Timbers? Obviously, this current Crew roster is a work-in-progress, as the offseason is in full swing, and Porter only today was officially announced as head coach. Regardless, let's compare and contrast some of the key cogs from Porter’s MLS titlists to today’s Columbus Crew.

Goalkeepers
Adam Kwarasey v Zack Steffen & Joe Bendik
Steffen is far and away the creme de la creme of this group. Forget his 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award win, forget his pending transfer to the Manchester City group. As a goalkeeper, Steffen is just heads and shoulders above the others listed. He is a superior athlete, he is composed beyond his years, and as much as he says he despises penalty kick shootouts, Steffen is extremely effective in making the much-needed key save. Zack is also very capable at starting the Crew’s attack from the back via his distribution.

Kwarasey was athletic and a sound shot-stopper, as is very underrated recent acquisition, Joe Bendik. However, when Steffen leaves Columbus this summer, I honestly do not believe the Crew will be taking as much of a step back as overzealous fans would have you believe. Bendik is a phenomenal shot-stopper and above average with his distribution. He performed incredibly well on an atrocious Orlando City team over the last couple of seasons. So Crew fans, don’t sleep on Joe. The guy can hold it down between the posts. Porter is set in goal with Steffen today and Bendik tomorrow.
Advantage: Crew

Right Back
Alvas Powell v Harrison Afful
Afful is a vastly more experienced player than Powell was at this point in his career, though the two are similar in their roles. Powell has always relied on his pure athleticism to get by, which led to a myriad of mistakes his first few seasons in Portland. Afful is astute and sound in his game and more dangerous to provide service in the attacking third. He is also one of only two players to have played and started in every Crew game in 2018. Afful is most certainly a weapon Coach Porter can rely on, without the unnerving fear that Powell brought to the table.
Advantage: Crew.

Centerbacks
Nat Borchers & Liam Ridgewell v Jonathan Mensah / Lalas Abubakar / Gaston Sauro
The centerback duo is where we will see the biggest discrepancy. Mensah and Abubakar are both stout and capable centerbacks, but the resounding decrease in pedigree and experience is massive. Borchers was the consummate pro, the grizzled MLS vet who knew the league inside and out. And his beard was miraculous, which carried along with it a slogan… “Fear the Beard”. Ridgy brought the international derivation from soccer’s motherland. The two together were a damn near impenetrable wall.

Mensah is the more seasoned of the two current Columbus centerbacks. Abubakar has the emotion and youthful exuberance of a young player, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Ridgewell was very technically sound with the ball at his feet, and he provided a higher capability of build up play from the back. While Abubakar has improved in this area since being selected 5th overall by the Crew in the 2017 MLS Draft, he and Mensah are lightyears behind Ridgewell in that category. Is that a downfall Porter is willing to manage and seek to coach up? Or might he rate higher the likes of former Boca Juniors product, Gaston Sauro, and slot him in that role? Might he look elsewhere? I would bet so.
Advantage: Timbers

Left Back
Jorge Villafaña v Milton Valenzuela
Young Designated Player, Milton Valenzuela is a player I believe Porter will cherish. The pacey outside back is the exact type of player Porter sought out in Villafana when he was acquired in 2014. While Villafana had his up and down moments, he blossomed into a steady and accountable left back for the Timbers. He eventually earned time with the U.S. Men’s National Team as well. Valenzuela is projecting a higher ceiling than Villafana ever did at the ripe young age of 20. Milton is someone I believe Porter will lean on and push to another level.
Advantage: Crew

Central Midfield
Darlington Nagbe / Diego Chará / Diego Valeri v Federico Higuain / Wil Trapp / Artur
Ah yes, the central midfield is/was the bread and butter of Porter’s most successful team. Valeri and Higuain are near mirror replicas of one another in a variety of ways. Both are Argentinian, both won MLS Newcomer of the Year awards during their first years in the league (Valeri in 2013 & Higuain in 2012), both are dynamic and visionary, with the ability to create and score. Both are the prototypical # 10’s. While Higuain may not have the stamina and motor that Valeri did, the strengths and abilities are indistinguishable.

Not unlike Darlington Nagbe, Crew captain Wil Trapp also played for Porter at University of Akron. While Trapp is more of a connector on the field, as his job is to link the backline to the midfield, Nagbe was more of a swiss army knife. It took several seasons under Porter before he found his niche within the center mid. Porter tried him at winger, in the attack, and all throughout the center midfield. He seemed to roam, while Trapp holds steady in front of his defense.

Diego Chara was the engine for the Timbers. He had bite in his tackles, bulldozed his way through opposing players, and earned a record number of fouls and cards. On the other hand, Artur, is steadier and even keeled. He is undoubtedly an unsung hero for the Crew. Where Chara may be the loud diesel engine that roars in a Dodge Ram pickup truck, Artur is the quieter and more efficient electric motor of a Tesla.

The current crop of center mids of this Crew roster are perfectly suited for Porter style soccer (and I don’t necessarily mean Porterball). The aforementioned three are a fantastic blend of skill and determination. More finesses than power, but not particularly lacking in either department. Coach Porter can easily plug and play with this current group from day one, though I do think the Timbers had the better overall core.
Advantage: Timbers

Wingers
Lucas Melano & Rodney Wallace v Justin Meram & Pedro Santos
Melano was a massive disappointment under Porter in Portland. He was such an unmitigated disaster, he was loaned off for a year and a half, in hopes that he would play his way out of town. Melano didn’t perform at a high enough level while on loan, and he was reluctantly brought back to the Timbers last summer.

This is more or less the polar opposite of Justin Meram’s time with Columbus. From 2011 to 2017, Meram was one of the Crew’s most prolific scorers. He ended his 2017 season with 13 goals, finishing second on the team. However, in the offseason he requested a trade from central Ohio and was shipped away to a dreadful Orlando City team. While playing in the purple kits, Meram managed a measly one goal and one assist. He eventually found his way back to Columbus with the hope now he will be comfortable again and able to play to his previous standards.

Rodney Wallace was an integral member of the Timbers title team. His left-foot provided goals and pinpoint crosses. His pace and grit up-and-down the wing was unmatched. I was astonished the Timbers allowed him to walk after that season. He outplayed his contract and rightfully demanded more money, but the Timbers balked, and off Wallace went to Europe. He eventually found his way back to MLS with NYC FC. Too bad he didn’t join Coach Porter in the black and gold.

Remember that grit and pace I babbled on about Wallace earlier? Well, that is not quite the same vernacular I would use to describe Crew winger, Pedro Santos. While talented and crafty on paper, he spends far too much of his actual game minutes flopping and/or being knocked off the ball too easily. He is averaging exactly one-half (.5) of a goal per season, during his stint in Columbus. Porter should look to upgrade here, pronto.
Advantage: None

Center Forward
Fanendo Adi v Gyasi Zardes
Like many strikers, Fanendo Adi is a very streaky goalscorer. I swear it seemed as if he scored either two goals per game or none. If you look up “brace” in the soccer dictionary, I am certain you will see Adi’s picture. The 6’4 long and rangy #9 was the proverbial bull in a china shop while roaming the 18-yard box. Adi netted 54 goals over five MLS seasons with the Timbers.

Zardes reemerged as one of the leagues premier goal producers in 2018, his first season with the Crew. After lighting the league on fire in 2014 with LA Galaxy when he accumulated 16 goals, he crashed back down to earth from 2015 to 2017, where he combined for a sparse 14 goals over three seasons. He was dealt to Columbus prior to last year and found the back of the net a staggering 19 times. Barring a Crew sophomore slump, Zardes is the type of player Porter can count on in the right system. While I am not so certain Caleb will garner another 19-goal output from Zardes or any one player for that matter, as Porter teams generally tend to score by committee (minus Valeri’s 21 goal spree in 2017), I do foresee Zardes being a consistent goal manufacturer again.
Advantage: Timbers

Depth
Will Johnson / Jack Jewsbury / Maximiliano Urruti v Josh Williams & Nico Hansen
One area in which the current Crew roster is lacking in comparison to the Timbers of old, is depth and veteran leadership. The Timbers had the likes of Will Johnson and Jack Jewsbury. Both of which were MLS stalwarts and who had long-lasting fruitful careers within the league.

Even Maxi Urruti was a forward who could be counted on to score in a pinch. At one point, he and Adi seemed to be juggling between the starting lineup, as Porter only played with one striker. The depth was critical to the team’s championship run.

I am quite certain the lack of veteran depth today will refrain from being an issue once Porter and new general manager, Tim Bezbatchenko start moving and shaking. Do not be surprised to see battle tested Jewsbury / Johnson type players into the fold sooner rather than later.
Advantage: Timbers

The Future is Bright
All and all, I think this Porter led Crew team is setup for immediate success. Furthermore, the squad has enough young building blocks to sustain that success for a lengthy run. A young roster, two young guns in charge (Porter and Bez), a new energized ownership group, a reinvigorated fan base, and soon enough a brand spanking new stadium, Columbus will be a formidable foe in MLS for years to come.
Advantage: Crew

Timbers versus Crew at Crew Stadium from my vantage point during the 2015 MLS Cup.

Timbers versus Crew at Crew Stadium from my vantage point during the 2015 MLS Cup.

Where oh where is Caleb Porter?

 

It has been seven months since the shocking and perplexing resignation of Caleb Porter from the Portland Timbers. And in that amount of time, outside of the banal platitudes from Caleb thanking the city of Portland and Timbers management for the time, we have yet to hear anything of substance from the man. Timbers owner, Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinson have also been fairly mum on the situation. My assumption was that they were as caught off guard by the move as the rest of us.

Even more surprising, we have yet to hear any rumblings from people behind the scenes. My assumption was that one of the various soccer news breakers would have a story in the following months about what led to the departure. Taylor Twellman, Grant Wahl, Brian Straus, Alexi Lalas, none of these guys have said one iota about it.

Plenty of thoughts and conspiracies were kicked around at the time. One hypothesis was Caleb wanted to have more player personnel involvement and was rebuffed by management. If true, it would be a fair request given his success at the club. Another was that Porter was unhappy with not being able to bring on his own handpicked assistants. The majority of the staff under him were holdovers from previous coach, John Spencer. One would presume that after five years of working in tandem with this group, a rapport was established and a working relationship was in full order.

A third rumor floating around was that Porter had his eyes on the FC Cincinnati gig, given their move from the USL to MLS was all but assured. Presumably, Porter and his family had the urge to be back in Ohio, where he had a successful collegiate career. Undoubtedly, he would have the red carpet rolled out for him in Cincinnati, being able to build his own staff and essentially build the roster from scratch. While the prospect is enticing, I am not so sure that is the case either.

Perhaps Porter would have interest, but who is to say FC Cincy would be so quick to cut ties with current head coach, Alan Koch? FCC had a remarkably successful U.S. Open Cup run last year with Koch leading the way, advancing to the semi-finals and only narrowly losing 3-2 to the New York Red Bulls. Would FCC be so inclined to ditch their up and coming coach for Porter? Maybe. Would Porter have any interest in such a move? Who knows? That is the quandary here, none of us have heard a peep from him to know one way or the other.   

I would gladly welcome Caleb Porter manning a sideline in Major League Soccer again. Yes, he has plenty of supporters and detractors, but love him or hate him the man knows X’s and O’s and his subtle candor is an aspect of Porter I embrace. An MLS with Caleb Porter is a better MLS for all. So Caleb, where are you? What is next for you? Come on out and say hello! You are sorely missed!