Portland, OR – It is the dawn of a new era in the Rose City.
The Portland Timbers made a promising start to life in Major League Soccer in 2011. The expansion club was one spot off of the final postseason berth in the Western Conference, finishing seven points back of the fifth-place Colorado Rapids.
But Portland was unable to build upon its solid foundation in 2012, and head coach John Spencer paid the price as the former Scotland international was sacked in July following a 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake.
Timbers General Manager Gavin Wilkinson assumed control of the coaching duties on an interim basis, keeping the seat warm for Caleb Porter, who agreed to become the head coach ahead of the 2013 season.
Wilkinson failed to drastically change the course of Portland's season as the Timbers toiled in obscurity, finishing eighth in the West on 34 points.
The only silver lining in an otherwise dismal season was the club's triumph in the Cascadia Cup. Portland finished two points clear at the top of the Cascadia table following its 2-1 defeat of Vancouver Whitecaps FC at BC Place in October, its only league win away from home all season.
Porter's arrival in the Rose City signals a fresh approach by a club that is desperate to reward the loyal supporters who have turned Jeld-Wen Field into a fortress.
Expansion clubs in MLS typically go in two directions. Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders FC have come into the league and achieved a great deal of success, on and off the pitch. Their respective stadiums are packed week-in and week-out, but that can be tied to their ability to contend for titles. On the flip side, Toronto FC has struggled to remain competitive and has seen its once-strong faction of supporters diminish as a result.
Portland will be hoping for the former, but can this collection of players and coaches do justice for its tremendous level of support?
Handing the reins to a man like Porter is a calculated risk from Timbers management. At just 38 years of age, Porter certainly does not have a lengthy coaching resume, but he has managed to be relatively successful wherever has gone.
After getting his start as an assistant coach with the University of Indiana, Porter moved on to the University of Akron in 2006 where he established one of the premier Division I college soccer programs in the country. He produced a final record of 119-18-17 during his seven-year tenure with the Zips and was never ousted from the NCAA tournament before the third round.
Porter was hired as head coach of the United States U-23 squad in 2011 with the responsibility of guiding the American youngsters to the Olympics, but failed to do so following a 2-0 loss to Canada and a 3-3 draw with El Salvador in the dying stages of qualification.
The Tacoma, Washington native has begun to reshape the Timbers squad with an injection of youth - the club boasts only three players over the age of 28. Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, 35, will be the backbone of the team, but Portland will be hoping he can find the kind of form that made him such a stalwart with the Los Angeles Galaxy, and midfielder Jack Jewsbury, 31, will command the proceedings from the center of the pitch, assuming he retains his captainship under Porter.
With the acquisitions of Michael Harrington from Sporting Kansas City and Will Johnson from Real Salt Lake, Porter has managed to hijack a few role players from successful MLS clubs and give them a chance to compete in a featured capacity.
Portland will be hoping that defenders Hayner Mosquera, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Futty Danso and Rodney Wallace can fulfill their massive potential, but Harrington and youngster Dylan Tucker-Gangnes will be there to step in if they cannot.
Add Ryan Johnson, who has a great deal of MLS experience, and Diego Valeri, who signed with Portland as a Designated Player, and the Timbers have the talent necessary to qualify for the postseason.
The key will be how well Porter can tie everything together. Portland has seen clubs like Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United make great strides with managers who made up for their lack of first-team coaching experience with working knowledge of the American soccer landscape. Porter has that in spades, but he is simply untested at this level.
The Timbers are approaching a pivotal point in the franchise's history. The organization will be hoping that Porter can produce regular season success and deliver championships that the Timbers Army so desperately want. But the experiment could fall flat on its face, setting the organization back multiple years.
This season will set the tone for future campaigns, and it likely comes down to one man. But no pressure, Caleb.
2012 IN REVIEW: Portland struggled for much of the season, finishing the regular season second from bottom in the Western Conference with just 34 points from as many games. The only silver lining came in the form of a Cascadia Cup triumph, giving the Timbers bragging rights in the Pacific Northwest.
ACQUISITIONS: Michael Harrington (D), Will Johnson (M), Ryan Johnson (F), Diego Valeri (M), Ben Zemanski (M).
LOSSES: Kris Boyd (F), Lovel Palmer (D/F), Steve Purdy (D).
OUTLOOK: It is clear that Porter will be tied to the success or failure of the Timbers this season. He is the prototype of the next wave of American soccer coaches, but has he made the move to MLS too soon? Portland will soon find out as it has put the hopes of a first-ever MLS postseason berth in the hands of a 38-year-old.