Caleb Porter suggested it could have been the seven-year itch that prompted him to leave the nation’s No. 1-ranked University of Akron men’s soccer program.
He spent the same amount of time as UA’s coach as he had in a subordinate role at his alma mater, Indiana University, although he was a student assistant in 1998 before departing to play Major League Soccer for two years, then returning.
But as he moves on from UA next month, what Porter really seeks is the rush.
He said he needs the buzz, the excitement that borders on fear when he gets up every day, to keep him focused. That’s why he agreed on Aug. 29 to become coach of the Portland Timbers of MLS after the Zips finished their season.
That season ended two weeks earlier than he’d planned, with UA (18-1-3) eliminated by Creighton on Sunday on penalty kicks in the NCAA round of 16. That spoiled the dream of a second national championship in three years and a third College Cup appearance in the past four seasons.
On Dec. 17, Porter, his wife, Andrea, and their three young children will fly to Portland, where they plan to live in a furnished apartment as they house-hunt. The Timbers will hold his introductory press conference in January.
Porter, 37, had inquiries from MLS teams before, most notably D.C. United three years ago. He said there was also interest from other universities. He said he found himself becoming grumpy and restless during the past two years.
But it was his experience as coach of the Under-23 men’s national team this spring that convinced him he was ready for the pros, even though the Americans failed to earn an Olympic berth.
“It gave me a taste of that rush and it’s unlike anything else,” Porter said Wednesday during a half-hour interview in his UA office. “There’s more pressure, but there’s more reward, too. I like that. I like a challenge. I’m not afraid of pressure.
“Even the rush of having to finesse the players, the management. I need that. I need to wake up every day feeling nervous, almost like I’ve got to be at my best, otherwise I get bored. It was very different the way I was feeling; it was like when I came here seven years ago.”
Of course the skill of the athletes, the way the ball moves and the tactics of the game also enticed him. But he needed something to push his inner buttons.
“I try to be the best I can be. I try not to give a day away. I try not to slip,” he said. “In some ways it’s a madness, but that’s the way that I live. I don’t want to look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day and think, ‘I wasn’t good today.’ I try to instill that in my players.
“I’m very uncomfortable being comfortable. I want to grow, I want to get better, I want to push myself, I want to be challenged, I want to feel pressure, I want to wake up every day knowing I have to be at my best. That’s what makes me tick.”
Porter said when he signed a 10-year contract extension that ran through the 2020 season, he had “every intention to be here for a very long time.”
“I believe Akron is one of the best cities in the country,” he said. “I had my three kids here and got married here. Who knows, maybe I’ll come back here one day. You never know, I like it here.”
But there was a draw to the Pacific Northwest, too. Porter lived in Tacoma, Wash., until he was 5. He finds it ironic that Portland got its first team in the old North American Soccer League in 1975, the year he was born.
“They wanted me to come immediately, but I was adamant about staying,” Porter said of leaving UA after the Zips had played just one game. “There was no way I was going to leave the players. I felt like I owed the university and the people here one last season. I really gave as much to this season and these players as I ever have.”
Porter said he had always dreamed of being a professional coach and was confident he’d get the chance.
“I didn’t think it would be this soon,” he said. “It’s a credit to how much I love this program and the community that I stayed as long as I did. What kept me here was the people, the players, my loyalty. It would have taken a really good situation like Portland. There’s probably no other MLS team I would have left for.”
The Timbers are an expansion team starting their third season with a passionate fan base that sells out every home game. He’ll also have one of his best UA players, Darlington Nagbe, to help sell his plan.
“It was a very unique opportunity,” Porter said. “They have the best supporters in the league. They have an owner who is very passionate about growing the sport. He wants me to build my philosophy there. They’ve never accomplished anything, which is exciting because I have the opportunity to make it my own and build my legacy and hopefully continue to grow the sport. When I saw all those things, it was too good to pass up.”
Timbers owner Merritt Paulson called Porter “a bright star” in a recent interview with MLSsoccer.com posted on the team’s web site.
“I’m leery of putting too much pressure on him too soon,” Paulson said. “We have to make sure that he’s got plenty of runway to build this thing right. I think we’ve been working to make sure it’s not one step forward and two steps back.”
That bright star might have bigger dreams, like one day coaching the U.S. in the World Cup. But Porter realizes that he’s already an anomaly in the 19-team MLS, which has hired only five coaches directly from college, including Porter, in its history. The two biggest names who took that route are college hall of famers Bruce Arena of the LA Galaxy and Sigi Schmid of the Seattle Sounders. With a career record of 123-18-17, Porter boasted the highest winning percentage among active NCAA Division I coaches this season.
Porter said he will attack the Timbers job the same way he did when he arrived at UA. He will focus on building a champion with no thought to his future.
“I hope I’m there a long time. If it leads to something bigger, then it does,” Porter said. “In the back of my mind, would I love to be the full national team coach? Would that be a dream, to coach in the World Cup? Yeah, that would. This does put me in a position where if I do have success that I could have that opportunity. If I stayed in college, I would never have that opportunity.”
But one thing will stay the same. Porter said he will continue to strive to help his players win, accomplish their dreams and “build memories forever.”
So when asked which moment he would cherish most from his time at UA, Porter picked one from the on-field celebration after the Zips captured the 2010 national title in Santa Barbara, Calif. Senior Anthony Ampaipitakwong, his first blue-chip recruit, sat on the field crying, cradling the trophy.
As he described the photo, now framed at his house and about to be packed, Porter teared up. His voice lowered almost to a whisper.
“I love that picture because I do this for the players,” Porter said. “I love the players. I work every day for the players and I do it to help them feel like that.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.