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. Recap: LA Galaxy grab 1-0 lead over Seattle Sounders in Western Conference Championship

    Nov 23, 2014, 7:14 PM EST

    Seattle Sounders v Los Angeles Galaxy - Western Conference Final - Leg 1 Getty Images

    The Galaxy find themselves just 90 minutes from the third MLS Cup final in four years after a narrow victory over the Sounders.

  2. Halftime, MLS Cup Playoffs: LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders in 0-0 Western Conference Championship stalemate

    Nov 23, 2014, 6:05 PM EST

    Seattle Sounders v Los Angeles Galaxy - Western Conference Final - Leg 1 Getty Images

    Zeroes on the scoresheet, but plenty of action in the first half. Sounders very patient, but Galaxy getting close.

  3. Despite artificial turf, New York Red Bulls’ Thierry Henry says he’ll play next week at New England

    Nov 23, 2014, 5:32 PM EST

    New England Revolution v New York Red Bulls - Eastern Conference Final - Leg 1 Getty Images

    He’s only ever done it twice in his MLS career, but with the season — and maybe his career — on the line, Thierry Henry will play on artificial turf next week.

  4. Video: Mauricio Pochettino keeps even keel after Hull win

    Nov 23, 2014, 4:50 PM EST

    Pochettino Getty Images

    The Spurs manager wouldn’t be drawn into talk about the winner from Christian Eriksen or the red card to Gaston Ramirez, instead discussing how he was just delighted to get three points any way he can.

  5. Lineups, MLS Cup Playoffs: LA Galaxy host Seattle Sounders in Western Conference Championship, leg 1

    Nov 23, 2014, 4:25 PM EST

    Juninho, Landon Donovan, Dan Gargan, Robbie Keane Juninho, Landon Donovan, Dan Gargan, Robbie Keane

    Lineups are in for the Galaxy and Sounders’ Western Conference Championship first leg matchup. Two massive omissions leave Seattle shorthanded.

  6. Recap: New England Revolution snatch 2-1 lead, two away goals from New York Red Bulls

    Nov 23, 2014, 4:07 PM EST

    Jermaine Jones, Luis Robles AP

    The Eastern Conference Championship first leg finished Red Bulls 1-2 Revolution, putting Jay Heaps’ side in full control of the series.

  7. Video: Bruce rues Ramirez red card which “ruined the spectacle”

    Nov 23, 2014, 3:10 PM EST

    Bruce Getty Images

    Steve Bruce challenged the decision to give Gaston Ramirez a straight red card, and criticized Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen for going down too easily.

  8. Halftime, MLS Cup Playoffs: New York Red Bulls 1-1 New England Revolution after thrilling first half

    Nov 23, 2014, 2:52 PM EST

    Bradley Wright-Phillips, Bill Hamid Bradley Wright-Phillips, Bill Hamid

    The first 45 at Red Bull Arena was wild. Take a deep breath and relive the thrilling actions, goals and all.

  9. Watch Live: New York Red Bulls vs New England Revolution (Lineups)

    Nov 23, 2014, 2:00 PM EST

    Jones AP

    New England is undefeated in 11 straight matches with Jermaine Jones in the lineup.

  10. Video: Brendan Rodgers says Liverpool needs to “become a team”

    Nov 23, 2014, 1:29 PM EST

    Rodgers AP

    Brendan Rodgers was quite downtrodden following Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat at Crystal Palace, the club’s third defeat in a row.

  11. Hull City 1-2 Tottenham: Ramirez red ruins early lead as Eriksen wins it

    Nov 23, 2014, 12:55 PM EST

    Spurs Getty Images

    Hull led inside 10 minutes and looked solid on both ends, but a straight red to Gaston Ramirez for a kick at Jan Vertonghen, and Christian Eriksen completes the Spurs comeback a minute before full time.

  12. WATCH: Perth Glory substitute gets sent off after 17 seconds

    Nov 23, 2014, 11:50 AM EST

    Zadkovich Getty Images

    Fastest ever red card? It certainly has a shout after Australian completes an ugly tackle straight after coming on.

  13. Watch Live: Hull City vs Tottenham Hotspur (Lineups)

    Nov 23, 2014, 10:48 AM EST

    Pochettino AP

    Mauricio Pochettino has called on Ben Davies and five others to fix things for Spurs, as both sides make a whopping six changes to their lineups from last weekend.

  14. Crystal Palace 3-1 Liverpool: Bolasie carves up Liverpool defense

    Nov 23, 2014, 10:26 AM EST

    Palace Getty Images

    Yannick Bolasie was a force down both flanks as Neil Warnock’s Crystal Palace pulls out of the relegation zone.

  15. David Moyes details plane troubles ahead of Real Sociedad debut

    Nov 23, 2014, 10:01 AM EST

    Moyes Getty Images

    David Moyes began his tenure in Spain with a 0-0 draw, but there was more to it than that.

  16. Report: Marco Reus is out for rest of 2014 with torn ankle ligament

    Nov 23, 2014, 8:19 AM EST

    Reus AP

    After missing the World Cup while rehabbing a serious ankle injury, Marco Reus is faced with yet another long road back.

  17. Watch Live: Crystal Palace vs Liverpool (Lineups)

    Nov 23, 2014, 7:48 AM EST

    Lambert Getty Images

    With Daniel Sturridge shelved for weeks and Mario Balotelli unable to get past a groin knock, Liverpool turns to Rickie Lambert to produce goals at Selhurst Park.

  18. Milan derby: Return of Roberto Mancini sets the stage for classic Serie A rivalry

    Nov 22, 2014, 11:59 PM EST

    esteban_cambiasso Getty Images

    On Sunday, AC Milan will play host to rivals Inter Milan in “derby della Madonnina”, and Roberto Mancini is back.

  19. Tim Cahill thinks Red Bulls are plainly ‘better’ than New England Revolution

    Nov 22, 2014, 9:47 PM EST

    Tim Cahill 2

    New York Red Bulls’ Designated Player Tim Cahill is far from doubting his team’s capabilities against the New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference Championship on Sunday.

Featured video

Week 12: PL Saturday recap