PORTLAND, Ore. – The last time the Portland Timbers failed to make the MLS Cup playoffs, coach Caleb Porter spent the offseason in a state of introspection. Porter questioned everything – from team building to the style of play previously so central to his identity.
That 2015 campaign ended with the club’s first-ever league championship.
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And so, after a 2016 season in which his Timbers missed the playoffs for the second time in three years, Porter was asked how he spent this particular winter. Scouring the globe for a new stylistic philosophy? Studying meditation with monks in Tibet while growing out his beard?
Nothing so dramatic, as it turns out.
Portland fell two points shy of the postseason last year, falling 4-1 at Vancouver on the final day of the regular season when a victory would have lifted the Timbers over the cutoff line. Despite the last-day letdown, Porter feels more secure in his methods than he felt two years ago.
There will be another shift in philosophy, but it’ll be nowhere near as dramatic. Portland’s offseason has been defined by roster turnover more than anything else, with a filling in around the edges.
“We have a way of working that won us MLS Cup,” Porter said earlier this month during the team’s training camp. “Let’s not completely change it.”
Porter bristles at the notion of playoff qualification as a baseline for success in MLS. It’s a stance that will come across as either astute or self-serving, depending on your predisposition of the 42-year-old coach.
“I look at some teams that have made the playoffs the last three, four years and haven’t won a game in the playoffs,” Porter said. “I don’t think that’s success. Is a team that had one more point than us … that makes the playoffs and loses in the knockout round more successful than us? No.”
Porter was once known as MLS’s resident ideologue. The brash young upstart who arrived in Portland following a successful stint at the University of Akron stuck to a singular style of play modeled after Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona teams. Like Barça, Porter’s squads kept the ball and controlled games, making opponents adapt to them rather than the other way around. For a while, it worked. In 2013, Porter’s first season, the Timbers finished atop the West and reached the conference finals.
But after missing the postseason a year later, Porter decided to go in a significantly different direction. He spent part of the offseason studying the methods of Jose Mourinho – then at Chelsea and in many ways Guardiola’s antithesis with steep, defensive-first principles – and, as a result, pragmatism and adaptability became the buzzwords of Portland’s championship season.
In 2016, especially away from home, the Timbers tended to lean too far into that opposite direction. They packed numbers behind the ball and attempted to attack on the counter, but midfielders sprinting up the wing were left with no passing options to be found.
“The big thing I learned at the pro level is that you do have to be adaptable,” Porter said. “But you can’t lose sight of your beliefs, in the ideas and the vision that you have.
“I’ve always believed in playing a dominant style of soccer, always, where we decide the game with the ball. We decide the game with pressure. But over the four years, maybe it’s part personnel, maybe you realize some of these other teams are more talented, I think there were times when I lost sight of that and adapted too much.”
Portland won 12 games at Providence Park last year, tied with Supporters’ Shield winner Dallas for most home wins in the Western Conference. On the road, however, the Timbers finished 0-11-6 – the only team in MLS to go winless away. That included the rout in Vancouver, plus additional losses at Houston and Colorado in the closing weeks of the season when a victory could have made all the difference.
“There were times, even going into the game, when I knew that the balance just wasn’t there,” Porter said. “As coaches, we like to think we help the team and organize them. Maybe we can change 10 to 20 percent of the performance just based on organization and how we manage guys, but ultimately it comes down to the talent you have on the field most of the time.
“We just didn’t have as much talent and depth last year in the road games.”
Portland added a Designated Player in Sebastian Blanco, a playmaker who can slot into a number of roles and increase the flexibility of the attack. Costa Rican defensive midfielder David Guzman will provide a similar benefit deeper in the formation. And veteran defender Roy Miller, the Timbers brass hopes, will provide depth to a back line that appears on paper to be this team’s most glaring weakness.
Taken together, Porter claims, these and other additions will hearken a return to something closer to his bright-eyed early days in Portland. Having swung wildly from one end of the stylistic spectrum to the other, the coach appears to have landed somewhere in between.
“I’m still a young coach, so I’m still learning the exact perfect way,” Porter said. “You could see through the four years: You know what I want in ’13, and then you say the evolution of being more pragmatic and adapting, and what you’re going to see this year is a combination of the two.
“You’re going to see what I believe in, in the approach, in terms of the group we put out, in terms of how we play. You’ll still see, at times, that adaptation from game to game depending on the opponent. But not so much that we look like we’ve lost our identity.”
Matt Pentz covers Major League Soccer for FC Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.
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