Published March 01, 2013
| Sports Network
Portland, OR – The first league match at Jeld-Wen Field in 2013 will mark the MLS coaching debuts of two men.
The Portland Timbers and New York Red Bulls made hosts of changes over the offseason, most-notably at the head-coaching position. Mike Petke replaced the reasonably successful Hans Backe, whose contract was not renewed despite leading the Red Bulls to three straight playoff appearances, while Caleb Porter assumed control of the Timbers coaching duties following John Spencer's dismissal mid-season in 2012 and Gavin Wilkinson's stint as interim boss.
While the two coaches boast some similarities, it is their differences that make it so intriguing as to which one will enjoy the better outcome when the two clubs begin their respective seasons in the Rose City on Sunday.
Petke and Porter both have managed to gain valuable experience, albeit in two entirely different forms, that should serve them well in their coaching endeavors.
The 37-year-old Petke enjoyed a 13-year playing career in MLS, seven of which were spent in New York. The Long Island native began his professional soccer journey with the MetroStars in 1998 before being dealt to D.C. United ahead of the 2003 season. He won an MLS Cup title with United in 2004 but was traded in May of 2005 to the Colorado Rapids, where he competed for three-and-a-half more seasons before re-joining New York. Petke retired at the conclusion of the 2010 season and promptly signed on with the Red Bulls front office before eventually joining the coaching staff as an assistant.
Porter, meanwhile, rose to prominence in a much different fashion. A graduate of Indiana University, he saw his playing career cut severely short by injuries, but the 38-year-old has managed to develop a superb coaching resume thus far. After a stint as an assistant coach at this alma mater, Porter helped turn the University of Akron's men's soccer program into a powerhouse upon his arrival in 2006. In seven seasons with the Zips, he produced a final record of 119-18-17 and never lost a match in regular-season conference play. His reputation took a bit of a hit when he failed to guide the United States U-23 team to the Olympics last summer, but Porter is regarded as one of the brightest coaching prospects in the country.
A coach's ability is not all it takes for a team to be successful, though. There is still a matter of deploying talent on the pitch, something the Red Bulls have not been short on in recent years.
Led by Designated Player and international superstar Thierry Henry, New York will be hoping to not only make a fourth straight postseason appearance, but also make a deeper run in the playoffs and secure its first piece of major silverware.
To accomplish that, the club as made some big moves during the offseason. While Kenny Cooper, the club's leading scorer from 2012, departed due to cap issues, the Red Bulls brought in Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave from Real Salt Lake. New York also picked up Brazilian midfielder Juninho to provide some more creativity going forward while adding depth with the acquisitions of Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele. And to top it all off, Tim Cahill, who joined the Red Bulls last summer as a DP, returns to the fold with the benefit of a full preseason to jell with his teammates.
Man-for-man, the Red Bulls enjoy a much stronger squad than the Timbers, but that's not to say that Portland doesn't have quality of its own.
Porter has done well to acquire fringe players from other MLS teams and offer them a greater chance at regular playing time. It will be interesting to see the level at which Michael Harrington, Will Johnson, Michael Nanchoff and Ben Zemanski can contribute.
Portland also added a couple of key players who could be primed for major strides in MLS. Ryan Johnson was brought in from Toronto FC to bolster the Timbers attack, and he could be a major beneficiary of some creative service by Diego Valeri, who signed with Portland as a DP this offseason.
With both sides undergoing so many changes, Sunday's final result could just be an indication of which team was able to jell quickest.