In the 65th minute of Sunday’s game at Columbus Crew Stadium, Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter waved toward the field in disgust and sat down.
For most of his heralded return to Ohio in his first season in Major League Soccer, Porter paced in front of the bench, his arms crossed. That was understandable, considering his team played a man down for 80 minutes.
Before he flew in Saturday, the former University of Akron coach had already eschewed sentimentality, insisting it was a business trip. He did remain loyal to his devoted followers, leaving tickets at will call for members of the AK-Rowdies.
In the crowd of 15,051, scattered fans wore University of Akron T-shirts and jerseys, many of them bearing the number of Porter’s first big-time recruit, Anthony Ampaipitakwong.
But on his way back to Oregon, Porter may have thought homecomings are overrated.
Seeing familiar faces on the field, with three of his former players with the Crew, and in the stands afterward had to be bittersweet. The Crew snapped the Timbers’ 15-game unbeaten streak, 1-0, the lone goal allowed in the fifth minute. It was the first road defeat for Portland, 7-2-9 and tied for third in the Western Conference.
One thing hasn’t changed since Porter traded in his blue warm-up suit for a game-day sport coat. He does not like to lose. Following the Timbers’ first defeat since March 9, it was 25 minutes before Porter came out of the locker room. The sign on the door stated the MLS policy of a 15-minute cooling off period.
In seven seasons at UA, Porter compiled the highest winning percentage among active Division I coaches (123-18-17). In the previous two seasons, the Timbers lost 17, nearly equaling Porter’s career total.
“He’s hasn’t lost a lot of games in college, he hasn’t lost a lot now,” said Darlington Nagbe, a midfielder who helped lead UA to the 2010 national title then was drafted by the Timbers second overall. “He’s the best coach I’ve had and one of the best coaches in the league, so he’ll bounce back from it, help us get back from it.”
When Porter emerged, he was composed.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a team go that long without a man and not give up a goal,” Porter said in reference to Pa Modou Kah’s red card. “Yet the next 80-plus minutes reinforced how strong and tough and driven this team is. It’s not a bad thing to taste defeat. Mid-season, it’s not all bad to get bloodied.
“For me there’s no failure, there’s just feedback. The feedback I got was very positive in a lot of ways. We got better today even though we lost. Sometimes it takes feeling defeat to really stay sharp and stay hungry. Eventually this streak was going to go. In some ways this may be a good thing.”
The outcome won’t shake Porter’s faith in what he’s doing. He’s determined to change the culture of an expansion Timbers franchise that has captured fans’ passion, but found little success since it began play in 2011.
Porter, 37, believed he was ready for the MLS. If that decision was in need of any validation, he’s found it in a hurry. Porter has proved he belongs.
The Timbers have advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup for the first time. After Sunday’s games, their 28 goals were the third-most in the league. They defeated then-first place Dallas 1-0 on June 15 on a Nagbe goal in the 52nd minute. With the regular-season finale on Oct. 26, they are on track for their first playoff berth. Porter could be chosen MLS coach of the year, having won its weekly award twice.
Porter no longer has any doubt he made the right choice.
“It helps when you see that there’s buy in. It helps when you get results,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “It reinforces that you can do it, that you’re capable of coaching at this level.
“The biggest thing that reinforces I made the right decision is that I’m really enjoying my job. I’m stimulated every day. It’s such a rush. I love coming to work. I can focus on the soccer and that’s what I love most. In college it was probably 50 percent soccer, 50 percent other stuff. Now I’m 90 percent soccer.”
Porter said the biggest challenge has been dealing with the media. He’s never had an issue in the eloquence department. But with a contingent at every home practice that could reach 10, including bloggers, he’s learned he must choose his words carefully.
“If you’re not spot-on with what you say, your message could be mixed, it could be taken out of context,” he said. “They like to sensationalize things to drive [Internet] traffic. They’re looking for a chink in your armor, after a win for you to slip and act overconfident or show weakness. For me that’s been the biggest adjustment.”
He didn’t show any chinks in the armor Sunday. But with the rare loss, a large scrum should be waiting in Portland. The focus likely won’t be on the emotions Porter felt during his Ohio return.
“You know me, I don’t get caught up in nostalgia,” Porter said last week. “I approach every game 100 percent full-throttle trying to win. It’s a big game in the state I lived in. Probably after the game it will hit me and there will be more meaning.
“If we win, it will be more satisfying. If we lose, I’ll probably be more ticked off.”
There was no probably about it. As much as he tried to hide it Sunday evening, Porter had to be seething inside. But for a franchise that lost more than it won before he arrived, that’s a welcome feeling.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read 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.