Caleb Porter: Problematic Pragmatism

Caleb Porter isn’t going to get fired. Nor should that even be a consideration in Portland. But, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for criticism only 8 months removed from hoisting an unexpected MLS Cup. A coach that was once touted for his tactical idealism is now shackled by his pragmatism. If this doesn’t change soon, Caleb Porter and the Portland Timbers could see themselves become the first MLS Cup Champion in over 10 years to not make the playoffs the following season. 

On Sunday, Porter’s Timbers side entered the match without winning a game on the road since December of last season. Yes, Portland’s last road win was their MLS Cup. Not only that, but they had to face a revitalized Sounders team who was on a 3 game unbeaten streak — their longest of the season. Just a few weeks ago, it looked like this may be one of the more meaningless Cascadia Cup matches in sometime. Porter and the Timbers were on a nine game unbeaten streak, and Sigi Schmid was still the coach of the Sounders. But this is MLS, and things can change in an instance. And changed they have. After their 3-1 defeat to the Sounders it’s the Timbers whose season appears to be on the ropes. And Caleb Porter’s pragmatism is the one to blame for that. That same pragmatism that won the Timbers their last road match.

Over the course of his 3 and a half seasons at the helm of the Timbers, Porter’s been at his best when he’s been able to respond to problems. He’s always been an idealist (See: Porterball in a league of kick and run), but he’s known when to be pragmatic and adapt (See: Will Johnson’s injury, moving Nagbe inside, winning MLS Cup). It’s that very pragmatism that has him and the Timbers in a bit of a pickle. Granted, every coach has injuries, suspensions, transfers, and changes to deal with. This Portland team is obviously without exception in that regard. But, the Timbers are a team stuck between two worlds. They’re a team without identity or a system to rely on. Darlington Nagbe is back on the wing. Jack Jewsbury is playing a significant amount minutes. Midseason signings are making their first starts in derby matches. Oh, and has anyone seen Diego Valeri? When they were at their best this season (and last), this team was scoring goals left, right and center. Sunday night, a 93rd minute garbage time goal by late scratch Fanendo Adi was, well, this:

As it stands with 8 MLS games remaining, the Timbers are just above the red line, with 3 teams within 2 points of them. In the final 12 weeks of the season Portland has a lot of traveling left to do. In addition to two long journeys for CCL duties, there are four away matches against Western Conference opponents. If Porter wants to silence the doubters (which we all know he loves to do), he needs to find a way to win those 4 games… At least. This Timbers team should be good enough to do that. The way that he does that is by committing to one philosophy or the other. In a league that has so many variables, teams need to be able to rely on something when time gets tough. A player. A style. A coach. The Timbers have all three. If he continues to keep his team in this inbetween place, he may just be sitting out of the playoffs asking himself, “What could have been different?”

(Photo Cred: Matthew Visinsky)