Skip to content

Portland Timbers thriving after unexpected death of ‘Porterball’

Nov 4, 2013, 9:43 PM EDT

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. WATCH: NBC Sports’ Premier League TV schedule – Week 4

    Aug 28, 2015, 1:20 PM EDT

    PremierLeagueNBC

    Where and how to watch every single PL game this weekend.

  2. Premier League Preview: Newcastle United vs. Arsenal

    Aug 28, 2015, 12:40 PM EDT

    Arsenal v Liverpool - Premier League Getty Images

    Can the Gunners kick-start their season at St James? Watch live, NBCSN, Saturday 7:45 a.m. ET.

  3. MLS preview: Earthquakes vs. Galaxy, Sounders vs. Timbers headline Rivalry Week

    Aug 28, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT

    Steven Gerrard, LA Galaxy Steven Gerrard, LA Galaxy

    Rivalry Week is upon us once again, and if it lives up to the last edition, we’re going to be in for a mighty good time.

  4. VIDEO: LA Galaxy superstar Steven Gerrard is a huge Taylor Swift fan

    Aug 28, 2015, 11:12 AM EDT

    New York City FC v Los Angeles Galaxy Getty Images

    Liverpool and England legend seems to be enjoying life in LA. Check out his video of Swifty.

  5. Europa League draw: Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur get tough test in group stage

    Aug 28, 2015, 10:42 AM EDT

    Premier League teams will rack up plenty of air miles this season in Europa League action.

  6. Kevin de Bruyne deal moves closer after “astonishing” offer to join Manchester City

    Aug 28, 2015, 9:45 AM EDT

    In this Nov. 27, 2014 photo Wolfsburg's Kevin De Bruyne plays the ball during the Europa League Group H soccer match between VfL Wolfsburg and Everton FC at the Volkswagen Arena stadium in Wolfsburg, Germany. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn) AP

    Wolfsburg admit to talks over KDB, as City’s offer of wages blow Bundesliga side out of the water.

  7. CONCACAF aims for 50-50 crowd split for USA vs. Mexico clash at Rose Bowl

    Aug 28, 2015, 9:04 AM EDT

    Carlos Salcedo, Jordan Morris AP

    Segregation of U.S. and Mexico fans key for CONCACAF for huge showdown in Pasadena.

  8. Help for Harry: Tottenham Hotspur sign $30 million forward Heung-Min Son

    Aug 28, 2015, 8:20 AM EDT

    Bayer 04 Leverkusen v SC Freiburg - Bundesliga Getty Images

    South Korean international becomes Spurs’ third most-expensive signing in club history.

  9. Arsene Wenger concedes Arsenal “maybe not firing on all cylinders” yet

    Aug 27, 2015, 10:01 PM EDT

    Arsene Wenger, Arsenal FC Getty Images

    Why yes, Mr. Wenger, one would have to agree with that assessment. In particular, it’s the finishing that’s killing them, he says.

  10. 2016 Copa America Centenario will be played, but CONCACAF might not be involved

    Aug 27, 2015, 9:13 PM EDT

    Copa America trophy — 2015 Copa America Copa America trophy — 2015 Copa America

    Next summers tournament will go on, but CONCACAF might not participate, which means the Copa needs a new host nation.

  11. Men in Blazers podcast: An afternoon spent inside the mind of Jose Mourinho

    Aug 27, 2015, 7:37 PM EDT

    meninblazers

    Rog talks with Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho about his coaching philosophy, post-match press conferences and football in America.

  12. Done Deals: Liverpool’s Markovic goes on loan, Llorente heads back to La Liga

    Aug 27, 2015, 7:09 PM EDT

    Lazar Markovic, Liverpool FC Lazar Markovic, Liverpool FC

    With the transfer deadline now just four days away, some of these deals are (finally) getting done.

  13. Europa League roundup: Southampton crash out in Europe; Dortmund hang 7, advance

    Aug 27, 2015, 5:41 PM EDT

    FC Midtjylland vs. Southampton FC — UEFA Europa League FC Midtjylland vs. Southampton FC — UEFA Europa League

    Southampton can now fully focus on the Premier League, because they’re officially out of Europe.

  14. Top 5 Premier League storylines ahead of Week 4: Transfer deadline day looms

    Aug 27, 2015, 4:38 PM EDT

    Aston Villa v Manchester United - Premier League Getty Images

    The transfer deadline looms large as the Premier Leagues 20 teams head into Week 4. Who will be the panic buyers of 2015?

  15. College soccer begins its season with an offense-loaded PAC_12; Huskies on the rise

    Aug 27, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT

    gohuskies.com gohuskies.com

    Yeah, you know Stanford’s Jordan Morris, but Washington’s Mason Robertson and Oregon State’s Timmy Mueller outscored him last year and will look to do the same this season.

  16. PHOTO: Check out the incredible 16-year-old Irish Neymar doppelganger

    Aug 27, 2015, 2:20 PM EDT

    Source: Limerick FC Source: Limerick FC

    Neymar could be a stunt double for Limerick’s Barry Cotter.

  17. Analyzing UEFA Champions League group stage draw for four Premier League teams

    Aug 27, 2015, 1:41 PM EDT

    chelseaman Getty Images

    UCL draw hands two PL teams favorable groups. As for the other two… woof.

  18. Lionel Messi wins UEFA’s Best Player in Europe award for 2014-15 season

    Aug 27, 2015, 1:16 PM EDT

    Lionel Messi, FC Barcelona Lionel Messi, FC Barcelona

    Argentine superstar picks up second UEFA Best Player award after stunning treble-winning season.

  19. Arsene Wenger gives injury update on Arsenal duo Koscielny, Mertesacker

    Aug 27, 2015, 11:30 AM EDT

    Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League

    Experienced center backs both missed Liverpool game through injury. Will they return this weekend?

Featured video

Premier League, Week 3 review