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New Timbers coach Caleb Porter kicks around ideas

by: COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF AKRON - CALEB PORTERA few minutes before the Portland Timbers introduced Caleb Porter as their new head coach on Tuesday, owner Merritt Paulson walked into the press conference room and sat down in a chair facing the podium.

“This is a quiet room,” Paulson said. “No one is talking. It’s like a funeral. … This isn’t the one where we’re firing the coach.”

No, that press conference happened last July, when the Timbers sent former coach John Spencer packing. During that presser, Paulson sat before the media with technical director Gavin Wilkinson. Paulson’s eyes glistened with tears as he broke the news to the city while at the same time dodging questions about why his club had parted ways with Spencer.

On Tuesday morning, however, Paulson was all smiles.

Porter could not have come across more different from his predecessor. Spencer was boisterous; Porter was soft-spoken. Spencer preferred to offer one-liners; Porter took several minutes to answer each question he was asked. Spencer always seemed very comfortable before the media; Porter seemed nervous, and his voice cracked often.

The Timbers are hoping that the only differences between Spencer and Porter are not confined to dealing with the media.

“In August, we made a decision that will affect this club’s future,” Wilkinson said. “We made a decision on who we felt would be the best person for this club and the best person to take this club forward. He’s young, he’s hungry, he’s intelligent, he has a great soccer mind. He’s someone that we believe in and someone that we’re very, very enthusiastic about working with.”

•Â Porter was hired as the Timbers' second head coach on Aug. 29. He elected to finish the 2012 season with the University of Akron, which he had coached since 2006. The Zips finished the 2012 season 18-1-3 and reached the round of 16 in the NCAA playoffs; they were ranked No. 1 in NCAA Division I before being upset.

Porter said it was “annoying” to have one foot in the door with the Timbers and one foot out the door with the Zips. He felt that he owed it to the players at Akron to finish the season with them, though.

“I felt like I had an obligation to follow through with,” he said. “That says -- hopefully -- a lot about my loyalty to my former players. I knew this was what I wanted to do. I knew this was the right situation for me, but I also didn’t feel that it was right for me to leave my players when the season had just started.”

Porter believes that sticking with the Zips showed the players in Portland that he is a man of character.

“I’ve spoken to the players here, and they respected that,” Porter said. “They appreciated that. In order to have a good relationship, they need to know that I’m a good guy and that I’m going to be loyal and look out for their best interests. That started my relationship with the players here in a positive way in a lot of ways.”

•Â In 1998, Porter was the 27th overall pick by the San Jose Clash in the MLS College Draft. He spent time with San Jose and the Tampa Bay Mutiny before a knee injury ended his career in 2000. Since then, he has been thinking about coming back to MLS.

“Back in 2000 when I was leaving Major League Soccer to start my coaching career -- prematurely because of a rash of knee injuries -- in the back of my mind I had the goal of getting back here to be a coach,” he said. “I didn’t know if it would happen. I didn’t know when it would happen or how it would happen. But that was always a goal that I had in mind.”

Porter spent the last 13 years learning how to be the kind of coach who someday would get an opportunity to coach a MLS club.

“For 13 years, I learned the trade,” he said. “I learned to coach. I was in the trenches spending 12 hours a day figuring out how to put the pieces together.”

•Â While MLS does not have the kinds of egos and personalities that one might find in the NBA or in the NFL, the players are still professional athletes and, as a general rule, professional athletes tend to be Type-A personalities. Porter said he understands that he will not be able to treat the players on the Timbers the same way that he treated college players.

“I’m not naive to think that I can coach college guys like I coach professional players,” he said. “There will be a transition there.”

That said, Porter also said he believes he gained valuable experiences by coaching 17 players who went on to play pro soccer as well as being the head coach of the U.S. U-23 men’s national team for the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic qualifying.

“The experience with the U-23s was an experience that will help me,” he said. “The last seven years, I’ve had 17 players who have moved on to Major League Soccer. Even though they weren’t pros at the time, they were eventually professional players. They were the best of the best in our country.

“Those experiences will help me. It was very comfortable for me being around the professional players with the U-23s. I had no problem getting them on board, no problem managing their personalities. And we had some personalities in that group. For me, that was a reinforcement that I was ready.”

•Â As of Tuesday, it does not appear that Porter has too many plans for Timbers striker Kris Boyd. With a $1.25 million contract, Boyd was considered by many a disappointment last season, after scoring just seven goals. Boyd lacks speed or an ability to create his own shot, and Porter said that the Timbers' highest paid player would have difficulty fitting into his offensive system.

“Kris Boyd is obviously contracted to be a member of the Portland Timbers,” Porter said. “But with that said, I’ve watched this team play quite a bit and Kris Boyd is a player who I think will have a hard time playing in the manner that we want to play in.

“That’s no knock on Kris. He would fit in a lot of different systems. But, with what I want out of my strikers, it’s going to be very difficult for him to offer what I’m looking for in that position. At the same time, if he comes back and proves that he can offer those things then certainly he’ll be given the chance to play like everyone else. Based on what I’ve seen, based certainly as what he’s shown as a player, it’s going to be difficult for him to fit in as a player.”

Wilkinson declined to comment on whether he was trying to trade Boyd.

“For me, I’m not ready to talk about that, sorry,” Wilkinson said.

•Â In taking over the Timbers, Porter will be reunited with Portland striker/midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who played under Porter for the Zips in 2010 when Akron won the national championship.

“It was a bonus,” Porter said, of coaching Nagbe again. “It was a nice bonus. I know very well Darlington’s talent and what he’s capable of. I won’t say that Darlington is my favorite player that I’ve coached … publicly. He’s certainly been one of the players that I’ve enjoyed working with. He’s a special talent. He still has a lot to learn. And I hope that I can bring the best out of him.”

•Â Porter has often been said to be dogmatic about playing with a 4-3-3 formation. Porter disputes that notion, though.

“In Akron, in seven seasons, I only played a 4-3-3 in two seasons,” Porter said. “Five of the seven seasons, we played a 4-4-2. Because of the U-23s and the articles that came out after that, I’ve been said to be married to a 4-3-3. I’m in no way married to a 4-3-3.”

Porter said that he is willing to adjust the formations that he wants based on the personnel he has and the match-up that the Timbers are facing.

“I look at my teams and the individuals on a case-by-case basis, and I come up with a structure and a formation that fits the group of players that I’m going to be fitting together,” Porter said. “They’re like pieces of a puzzle. There’s a lot of different formations that I can use. And yet the philosophy and style of play should remain consistent because that’s a coach’s vision of how they want their teams to play the game. In terms of the overall system there should be some adaptation from year to year and even from game to game.”

•Â One of the biggest problems for the Timbers since the club moved to MLS two years ago has been the inability to win on the road. Porter preferred not to dwell on the past, but he had a few ideas regarding what has gone wrong for Portland away from Jeld-Wen Field and how to fix things.

“It’s the past,” he said. “But I think a lot of it has to do with almost too much of a change in philosophy home and away. I believe that you have to consider home versus away when making decisions on how you’re going to set up the game plan. But, when you’re adopting a completely different philosophy home and away, I personally don’t think that’s the right thing to do. You’re sending mixed message to your players. At home, you’re confident, and on the road, you’re nervous and tentative. Maybe some of that played into the lack of road success. Perhaps.”