Skip to content

Portland Timbers thriving after unexpected death of ‘Porterball’

Nov 4, 2013, 9:43 PM EST

Caleb Porter

Part of the lore around Portland’s rise is the concept of Porterball, a term the Timbers’ head coach will never own. NBC’s Kyle Martino brought the moniker to national attention this summer, but it’d been whispered for some time, even if Caleb Porter’s always bristled at any implication such a term could transcend the team itself.

But with a focus on style evident from early on — when the coach himself would focus on shots, passes and possession as indicators of the team’s progress — it’s no wonder a style that’s so different than John Spencer’s became a focal point. It’s not only that Porter likes an approach emphasizing possession, pressing and movement, it’s that the difference in philosophy brought such a drastic change in the standings.

So as Portland enters Thursday’s second leg on a nine-game unbeaten run, it’s worth asking what’s happened to Porterball. Most people may not have noticed it’s wane, but it was evident on Saturday. While beating Seattle 2-1, the Timbers ceded 60 percent of the possession and 20 shots, seemingly by choice. It just doesn’t fit the Porterball narrative.

[MORE: Johnson, Nagbe goals allow Portland to take edge out of Seattle]

“[Seattle] had a little bit more of the ball, but that was a part of the game plan,” Porter said on Saturday, clearly happy with the result. “We wanted them to have a bit of the ball so we could roast them on counter-attacks, and I thought we were very dangerous on the counter all day long and I thought we were organized.”

The roasting may have been confined to a handful of moments, but it’s hard to argue with the results. The one goal conceded? It was off a long throw. Beyond Seattle’s goal, their best chance was a late corner that Clint Dempsey put of the crossbar from just over six yards out. Everything else was pretty well-controlled, including a Dempsey shot in the fist half which, though it grazed the crossbar, would have nailed Donovan Ricketts’ hand had it not led to a goal kick. Though Seattle racked up low percentage shots, the game’s next-best chance was probably Ryan Johnson’s, who was unable to convert a late second half breakaway that would have left Portland up three.

“They had some shots from distance. They didn’t have a ton of great looks where they got in behind us,” Porter said. “I thought we were very organized and played a very pragmatic game plan, and it’s a win on the road.”

source: AP

Portland’s fans were introduced to Caleb Porters’ style by a team that played a different game that John Spencer’s. Come the end of the season, however, “pragmatism” is something for which Porter has strived. (Photo: AP)

The premature death of ‘Porterball’

Pragmatic? Conceding possession? Willing to lose the shots battle? When the heck did this happen? This isn’t Caleb ‘Porterball’ Porter, guardian of the next era of American soccer’s approach. These are the words of Bruce Arena or Dominic Kinnear after they’ve lulled their opponents into mistakes.

The change isn’t about Seattle, necessarily. It’s been happening since early September, with the results apparent after Portland returned from Carson after a disappointing 1-1 draw with Chivas USA (Sept. 14). They’d go on to win their next two games 1-0 (Colorado and Los Angeles), finishing second in possession, shots and total passes each time. Over their next five games, Portland would only score more than two goals once (a 5-0 at Chivas to close the season) while conceding multiple goals on only one occasion:

Date Opponent Final Possession Shots Shots
on Goal
Passes
Sept. 20 Colorado 1-0 49-51 9-13 2-1 397-412
Sept. 29 LA Galaxy 1-0 47-54 5-9 3-2 413-465
Oct. 6 at Vancouver 2-2 51-49 14-16 3-8 435-410
Oct. 13 Seattle 1-0 49-51 15-11 3-3 409-418
Oct. 19 Real Salt Lake 0-0 44-56 9-8 4-0 371-476
Oct. 26 at Chivas USA 5-0 53-47 17-12 9-4 462-405
Nov. 2 at Seattle 2-1 40-60 10-20 5-5 325-483

These are the last seven games of Portland’s unbeaten run (first Chivas result left out). If you toss out the two games against the non-playoff teams, you see some consistent outcomes – a complete change from the early season’s possession-based approach.

Portland losses the possession battle every time. They almost always get outshot and out-passed, but they’re never giving up more shots on goal. For all of Sigi Schmid’s hopes that Seattle’s quantity of chances will come good in Seattle, his team’s performance on Saturday just fits the bigger picture. They’re playing Portland’s game; not the other way around.

“I’ve prepared [my team] for Plan A or Plan B,” Porter said after the Oct. 13 win over Seattle, his team having used their “Plan B” to even the season series with their rivals. “When you’re playing good teams, you have to prepare for that …”

“The reality is when you have two teams playing each other who both want to do the same thing, they’re going to have moments when they’ll have us deeper,” Porter explained. “I’ve tried to prepare these guys to be composed and mature when we’re playing with a lower block …”

source: AP

Porter concedes that Portland’s early approach needed to adapt, observing his team was either controlling games or “getting run through.” (Photo:AP)

Learning from early season mistakes

It’s a change that’s about more than versatility. Interspersed with Portland’s five losses and 15 draws were moments were being too aggressive had cost the Timbers points, often from winning positions. They wanted to press. They wanted to play in the opponent’s half. But they were also giving up key goals.

“Earlier in the year we were up the field, pushing and playing well, or we were just getting run through,” Porter conceded, after the 1-0 win over Seattle. “We’ve kind of down shifted just a little bit to balance our team. Just a little bit.

“We’re a little bit more setup to win games this time of year. This time of year, [they’re] going to be tight games.”

Now when the Timbers gain a lead (another point of emphasis within the team), they have a way to hold on, and when they claim an early lead, the numbers look very non-Porterball. Before earning their second goal on Saturday, Portland had held 48 percent of the possession, while the Galaxy were also able to pad their statistical edges after the Timbers went up 1-0.

As his playoff debut showed, Porter made the right decision, siding with pragmatism over idealism. But what does this mean for Porterball? Does all the talk about possession soccer, pressing and playing in the other team’s half take a back seat to a more conventional approach?

Not entirely. Like Porter says, it’s about having a Plan A and an alternative, and if he has to step back from some of the high-minded talk from earlier in the season, so be it.

“When I fail, I look at it and correct it,” Porter said. “Same with [my team]. I think that’s a big reason why we’re winning these games now.”

Latest Posts
  1. DeAndre Yedlin granted work permit, heading to Tottenham Hotspur

    Dec 22, 2014, 8:30 AM EST

    Source: Tottenham Hotspur Source: Tottenham Hotspur

    No need for a Latvian passport, as Yedlin is granted UK work permit.

  2. Geoff Cameron: Eden Hazard is “best I’ve played against” in Premier League

    Dec 22, 2014, 7:55 AM EST

    Eden Hazard, Geoff Cameron Eden Hazard, Geoff Cameron

    Geoff on how to stop Chelsea, marking Hazard and the busy festive period in the Premier League.

  3. Antoine Griezmann bursts into the spotlight as Atletico downs Bilbao

    Dec 21, 2014, 11:59 PM EST

    Antoine+Griezmann+Getafe+CF+v+Club+Atletico+wVX6J_Xdokul

    Antoine Griezmann breaks out with three goals in Atletico’s 4-1 result over Athletic Bilbao.

  4. A day of Ronaldo: Real Madrid star erects statue of himself, thinks Real can win Champions League again

    Dec 21, 2014, 10:21 PM EST

    FBL-ESP-LIGA-REALMADRID-BARCELONA FBL-ESP-LIGA-REALMADRID-BARCELONA

    Cristiano Ronaldo has made headlines twice today, for erecting a statue of himself and claiming Real Madrid could repeat in the Champions League.

  5. WATCH: Tim Howard discusses autobiography ‘The Keeper’

    Dec 21, 2014, 8:17 PM EST

    tim_howard Getty Images

    Tim Howard converses about his recently released autobiography, “The Keeper.”

  6. Eyeing France national team call-up, AC Milan’s Jérémy Ménez keeps showing off his skills

    Dec 21, 2014, 7:40 PM EST

    Jeremy+Menez+qojlhLjziL0m Getty Images

    Jeremy Menez has done a fantastic job as AC Milan’s primary attacker, and he’s primarily aiming for the French national team call-up.

  7. Manager Ally McCoist exits Rangers, goes on gardening leave

    Dec 21, 2014, 6:20 PM EST

    Ally McCoist Getty Images

    Ally McCoist has left Scottish Championship team Rangers, as the club has recognized the former star striker is now on “gardening leave.”

  8. Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge to return from injury in January, according to manager

    Dec 21, 2014, 4:55 PM EST

    Manchester City Liverpool Soccer AP

    According to Brendan Rogers, Liverpool’s prime attacker, Daniel Sturridge, will make his return from a multi-month injury in early January.

  9. With his derby success, Adam Johnson thinks Newcastle United fans ‘must hate him’

    Dec 21, 2014, 4:05 PM EST

    adam_johnson AP

    Sunderland winger Adam Johnson on game-winner and Tyne-Wear derby triumphs: “Three years in a row, they must hate me here!”

  10. VIDEO: Poor finishing leaves Brendan Rodgers “deflated” despite late draw

    Dec 21, 2014, 3:39 PM EST

    Rodgers Getty Images

    Brendan Rodgers gives his thoughts after a 2-2 draw despite what he called “dominance” on the ball.

  11. VIDEO: Arsene Wenger regretfully admits draw with Liverpool fair

    Dec 21, 2014, 3:12 PM EST

    Wenger AP

    With polarizing halves separating the teams, Arsene Wenger said a draw was the correct result based on performance.

  12. Cristiano Ronaldo passes up Platini handshake after Ballon d’Or comments

    Dec 21, 2014, 2:29 PM EST

    Ronaldo Getty Images

    Cristiano Ronaldo appeared to bring a grudge with him to Morocco.

  13. VIDEO: Alan Pardew says he pushed Newcastle too hard late in derby loss

    Dec 21, 2014, 1:44 PM EST

    Pardew AP

    With Newcastle yielding late, Alan Pardew thinks he may have left his team a little too exposed as the clock ticked towards the final minute.

  14. Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal: Wounded Skrtel turns away Gunners at the death (video)

    Dec 21, 2014, 1:08 PM EST

    Skrtel Getty Images

    Martin Skrtel returned from a nasty injury and took full advantage of the resulting stopptage time.

  15. John Brooks, a week after scoring, has forgettable match in 5-0 thumping

    Dec 21, 2014, 11:58 AM EST

    Brooks Getty Images

    A day to forget for the American central defender in Germany’s top flight.

  16. Newcastle 0-1 Sunderland: Johnson sinks Newcastle again (video)

    Dec 21, 2014, 10:26 AM EST

    SunderlandNewcastle

    The boyhood Newcastle fan scored at St. James Park for the third year in a row as Sunderland stole the Tyne-Wear derby late.

  17. Watch Live: Liverpool vs Arsenal (Lineups and Live Stream)

    Dec 21, 2014, 10:16 AM EST

    Sterling Getty Images

    Raheem Sterling looks to be the lone attacking option for Liverpool as Brendan Rodgers has left both his available strikers on the bench.

  18. WATCH: Watch Lionel Messi’s silky first touch lead to a stellar goal

    Dec 21, 2014, 8:52 AM EST

    Messi Getty Images

    A magnetizing first touch leads to a meaningless but nonetheless beautiful goal by the man who gives us magic weekly.

Featured video

Week 17: PL Saturday recap