TUCSON, Ariz. — This preseason, Sounders fans likely are picturing Caleb Porter as smugness personified. In their mind’s eye, he stands with legs slightly bowlegged and a smirk curling at the corners of his mouth, “I told you so” bursting out of every pore.
The Portland Timbers’ coach has been derided as Major League Soccer’s most cocksure know it all. Porter was called out by Sounders coach Sigi Schmid for seeing himself as “pretty hot crap” last year during the latter’s Hall of Fame speech and was criticized by purists when he traded his attack-first ideology for a more pragmatic and defensive approach before last season.
Yet December brought vindication. The Timbers overcame a slow start and midseason questions about his leadership to become the first Cascadian Club to lift MLS Cup, edging the Columbus Crew 2-1 at Mapfre Stadium to win the championship.
So surely Porter must be lugging around a puffier chest than ever ahead of his team’s title defense, right? Passive-aggressive barbs mixed with presumptuous predictions about a dynasty to come?
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Not … exactly. Asked ahead of Saturday’s preseason match against Seattle here whether public perception had unfairly cast him as a villain, Porter started to mount a defense.
“What does that mean?” he’d asked earlier in the interview of those critics of Portland’s midseason form. “Is it 15 guys on a blog? I think you can cloud yourself wondering and thinking, because of a small minority on a Twitter or on a blog, that the sky’s falling. I really don’t focus on that.”
But later when it came to the portrait of Porter as arrogant antagonist, the coach paused after an initial “I don’t …” and caught his breath.
“You know what? I’m human,” Porter said. “I think there’s been some times when I felt like, ‘Man, I’m being painted in a way that I really don’t think is me.’ But what do you do about it? Part of it is that I did bring it on myself.
“I surely look back on those things and have not liked some things I’ve done. That’s learning for me. Some of the things I’ve said in the media — I’ve made mistakes and maybe led people to believe that I’m a certain way.”
Say what you will, there is legitimate evidence backing Porter’s confidence in his coaching ability. Still just 40 years of age, Porter has won a national title with the previously unheralded University of Akron and brought Portland its first championship in 40 years across a mishmash of minor and major leagues.
There have been hiccups, sure. The failure of his U.S. U-23 national team to qualify for the 2012 Olympics was a serious blow to any long-term ambitions for the head U.S. national-team gig. Missing the MLS Cup playoffs in 2014 tossed cold water onto Porter’s rousing first season with the Timbers.
But for the most part, Porter’s career path has charted consistently upward. And either due to the success or the coach’s brash reaction to it, he’s rubbed multiple peers like razor-burn on his way to the MLS summit.
A video clip of Porter’s jumping fist-pump in Bruce Arena’s direction following a late goal in a 2013 match against the Galaxy went viral. Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola refused to shake Porter’s hand following the 2014 All-Star Game at Providence Park – though Ozzie Alonso’s unfriendly tackle on Xherdan Shaqiri probably had something to do with that. When FC Dallas manager Oscar Pareja offered Porter a tissue for crying to referees during a match early last season, the latter pointed at the scoreboard and tossed the handkerchief back over Pareja’s shoulder.
On the incident he most regrets, Porter recalled the news conference following his team’s 2014 U.S. Open Cup loss to Seattle, which he referred then to as “one of the worst officiating performances that I’ve ever seen.”
Says Porter now: “I could go on and on. I didn’t like the couple dust-ups, but I also thought, ‘Man, I didn’t start any.’ But maybe there’s a reason that they happened. I look at myself in the mirror more than people think. I could waste a lot of energy every day trying to change people’s minds, but ultimately all I care about is what my guys think. They’re the only ones that know.”
And with the caveat that the Timbers still are in the honeymoon afterglow of a championship, his players do back that up.
Said defender Nat Borchers: “He’s a players’ coach. I think a lot of people don’t realize that. He’s a very confident guy, but that’s for a reason. He’s had a lot of success. He bleeds that confidence into the group, and that gives us a little bit of an edge as a group.”
Adds veteran Jack Jewsbury: “I don’t know how it comes across to other people, but he’s a coach we want to fight for, day in and day out.”
Porter’s relationship with Schmid is more complex. It traces back to Porter’s college playing career at Indiana, which was ended by Schmid’s UCLA Bruins in the 1997 College Cup. Schmid was one of the initial coaches who were able to carry over college success to MLS, so Porter reached out for advice when he was considering leaving Akron for D.C. United a few years before he landed the Timbers gig.
The pressures of the league’s highest-profile rivalry have changed the dynamic.
“I don’t think the Portland fans or Seattle fans want to see me and Caleb having a beer together,” Schmid said.
But there remains enough of an underlying respect that Porter sent Schmid a congratulatory text on his Hall of Fame nod, and Schmid did the same following Portland’s MLS Cup win.
Which brings us back to the Hall of Fame speech. Schmid was referring to a younger version of himself, back when he was the 23-year-old coach of a U-19 team.
“I thought I was pretty hot crap,” Schmid said last October at MOHAI, “maybe like a coach a little bit south of here who we refuse to mention at this time.”
Schmid let the laughter hang in the air for a few seconds before he softened the blow.
“It’s only a little joke, Caleb,” he added. “Take it that way.”
Sense of humor isn’t often referred to as one of Porter’s leading character traits, not even by those players with nothing but good things to say. He’s intense, strong-willed, gifted, confident to admirers and arrogant to detractors — “confidence is a state of mind, and arrogance is a trait,” Porter says of the difference.
But upon hearing of Schmid’s comments and taking a few breaths, Porter eventually did take it that way.
“At first I was like, ‘He’s jamming me in his Hall of Fame speech,’ ” Porter said. “Then I calmed down and looked at it a bit differently. I said, ‘You know what? He’s actually complimenting me, because he’s talking about me in his Hall of Fame speech.’ I think probably he looks back and sees a lot of himself in me.
“As a young coach, I have learned to be humble. Maybe a couple years back I wasn’t as humble as I should be. … I listened to him. And I took it to heart.”