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Portland Timbers MLS Cup win illustrates evolution of Caleb Porter

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As Caleb Porter stood in the Portland Timbers postgame locker room, chaos ensued. Mass quantities of champagne were being consumed. Players drowned out Justin Bieber's "Sorry" with not-so-dulcet tones. Defender Nat Borchers decided now was the time to trim his lumberjack beard. Such are the spoils when you win an MLS Cup.

The Timbers' manager stood a little apart, however, a beer in one hand, a few pieces of pizza in the other. There was a look of quiet satisfaction, but he also let his mind drift back.

Three years ago, Porter hit rock bottom as a manager when his U.S. U-23s failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. It hurt him down to his core. At the time, Porter was a college coach at the University of Akron but was derided as a manager who couldn't hack coaching professional players.

Columbus Crew SCColumbus Crew SC
Portland TimbersPortland Timbers
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"Probably one of the worst things I heard after the Olympics was 'This guy is naive,'" he said. "At first I didn't want to believe it, but I probably was naive. You only know what you know. At Akron, you win every game, you dominate possession, you have talent and you think you can do it everywhere. The reality is you can't do it everywhere. You have to have a certain type of team to do that. I had to swallow my pride and get better."

Porter admits it took three to four months to break free of that experience. He later wrote a 150-page report on the Olympic failure. It proved cathartic and life changing. When Porter took the Timbers job later that year, friends told him he was crazy to leave the security of the college game. But he was ready.

Caleb Porter
Caleb Porter implemented a more pragmatic game plan in MLS Cup than usual, and it paid off for the Portland Timbers.

"I think [Olympic qualifying] really changed me," he said. "It changed my outlook. It made me humble."

That adjective may come as a surprise to some. Porter admits he comes off as arrogant sometimes, and can rub people the wrong way. But with his team, he leaves a different impression.

"I admit my mistakes to them all the time," he said. "And yet, I'm confident too, you know what I mean? And I put my faith and belief in them."

Porter's evolution was on display on Sunday. Putting together a soccer team is often like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are constantly changing shape. Pieces that fit together last month, all of a sudden don't. Yet over the past two months, the pieces synced up and stayed that way, even in the face of injury or suspension. And the confidence that Porter instills was evident once again on Sunday.

Defender Jorge Villafana, stung by comments that Columbus liked the match-up of him against Ethan Finlay, completely shut down the Crew winger and took away a prime conduit to Crew striker Kei Kamara. The central defensive duo of Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell repelled everything thrown their way. And Diego Chara was the prototypical midfield destroyer. For all the talk of how Porter's switch to a 4-3-3 sparked the team's attack, none of it works without Chara's range, tackling and passing out of pressure.

"Chara, he's a machine," Porter said at his postgame news conference. "I can't count how many plays he made, little plays to stop counters, to win balls. He's a very, very good midfielder."

It was not a great day for Portland's attack. Had the Timbers been a bit more clinical they could have easily won by multiple goals. But they did enough, capitalizing on two Columbus mistakes to take an early two-goal lead through Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace. The likes of Valeri and Darlington Nagbe have both had days when they were sharper in attack, but they found ways to contribute on both sides of the ball.

And with Portland leading 2-1, but weathering some heavy pressure from Columbus, the Timbers settled into their low-block defending and were content to strike on the counter. It's an approach that not too long ago would have filled Porter with loathing. Not now.

"I could never have put out a team to defend like that, nor did I want to," he said. "But at this level, that's good tactical football. You have to be capable of doing that because the game goes in a way you don't want it to go, or the game calls for something that requires you to do that."

And so a team devoid of big-name players, but full of big-time players, claimed MLS Cup. Porter insisted this was by design.

"These guys are humble guys," he said. "But they're not weak, they're confident. Those are the type of guys I want in my locker room."

Portland Timbers Nat Borchers celebrates with the MLS Cup trophy after defeating the Columbus Crew.
Portland Timbers defender Nat Borchers lifts the MLS Cup following the 2-1 win over Columbus Crew SC.

Borchers was one of those, and has been around long enough to know the magnitude of what Portland had just accomplished. And also the key role his coach played in the Timbers' triumph.

"I think a lot of it came down to good coaching," Borchers said. "Caleb kept us focused this run. He gave us confidence. You need a coach with an edge. Caleb has got that edge."

Indeed. Ever the competitor, Porter already has his sights set on next season.

"Once this wears off we want to get back to work," he said. "We're not going to be just satisfied with one. We'll be humble again coming into the year. They'll be higher expectations. You bring it on, so we can't rest on our laurels. We've done the first championship so we'll try to do it again."

He added, "It's a nice moment, but we've got to keep winning, because I don't want that next failure, that next disappointment."

Perhaps the Olympic experience is still with Porter. But now, so is the MLS Cup trophy.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.


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