Caleb Porter

Portland Timbers thriving after unexpected death of ‘Porterball’

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Part of the lore around Portland’s rise is the concept of Porterball, a term the Timbers’ head coach will never own. NBC’s Kyle Martino brought the moniker to national attention this summer, but it’d been whispered for some time, even if Caleb Porter’s always bristled at any implication such a term could transcend the team itself.

But with a focus on style evident from early on — when the coach himself would focus on shots, passes and possession as indicators of the team’s progress — it’s no wonder a style that’s so different than John Spencer’s became a focal point. It’s not only that Porter likes an approach emphasizing possession, pressing and movement, it’s that the difference in philosophy brought such a drastic change in the standings.

So as Portland enters Thursday’s second leg on a nine-game unbeaten run, it’s worth asking what’s happened to Porterball. Most people may not have noticed it’s wane, but it was evident on Saturday. While beating Seattle 2-1, the Timbers ceded 60 percent of the possession and 20 shots, seemingly by choice. It just doesn’t fit the Porterball narrative.

[MORE: Johnson, Nagbe goals allow Portland to take edge out of Seattle]

“[Seattle] had a little bit more of the ball, but that was a part of the game plan,” Porter said on Saturday, clearly happy with the result. “We wanted them to have a bit of the ball so we could roast them on counter-attacks, and I thought we were very dangerous on the counter all day long and I thought we were organized.”

The roasting may have been confined to a handful of moments, but it’s hard to argue with the results. The one goal conceded? It was off a long throw. Beyond Seattle’s goal, their best chance was a late corner that Clint Dempsey put of the crossbar from just over six yards out. Everything else was pretty well-controlled, including a Dempsey shot in the fist half which, though it grazed the crossbar, would have nailed Donovan Ricketts’ hand had it not led to a goal kick. Though Seattle racked up low percentage shots, the game’s next-best chance was probably Ryan Johnson’s, who was unable to convert a late second half breakaway that would have left Portland up three.

“They had some shots from distance. They didn’t have a ton of great looks where they got in behind us,” Porter said. “I thought we were very organized and played a very pragmatic game plan, and it’s a win on the road.”

source: AP
Portland’s fans were introduced to Caleb Porters’ style by a team that played a different game that John Spencer’s. Come the end of the season, however, “pragmatism” is something for which Porter has strived. (Photo: AP)

The premature death of ‘Porterball’

Pragmatic? Conceding possession? Willing to lose the shots battle? When the heck did this happen? This isn’t Caleb ‘Porterball’ Porter, guardian of the next era of American soccer’s approach. These are the words of Bruce Arena or Dominic Kinnear after they’ve lulled their opponents into mistakes.

The change isn’t about Seattle, necessarily. It’s been happening since early September, with the results apparent after Portland returned from Carson after a disappointing 1-1 draw with Chivas USA (Sept. 14). They’d go on to win their next two games 1-0 (Colorado and Los Angeles), finishing second in possession, shots and total passes each time. Over their next five games, Portland would only score more than two goals once (a 5-0 at Chivas to close the season) while conceding multiple goals on only one occasion:

Date Opponent Final Possession Shots Shots
on Goal
Passes
Sept. 20 Colorado 1-0 49-51 9-13 2-1 397-412
Sept. 29 LA Galaxy 1-0 47-54 5-9 3-2 413-465
Oct. 6 at Vancouver 2-2 51-49 14-16 3-8 435-410
Oct. 13 Seattle 1-0 49-51 15-11 3-3 409-418
Oct. 19 Real Salt Lake 0-0 44-56 9-8 4-0 371-476
Oct. 26 at Chivas USA 5-0 53-47 17-12 9-4 462-405
Nov. 2 at Seattle 2-1 40-60 10-20 5-5 325-483

These are the last seven games of Portland’s unbeaten run (first Chivas result left out). If you toss out the two games against the non-playoff teams, you see some consistent outcomes – a complete change from the early season’s possession-based approach.

Portland losses the possession battle every time. They almost always get outshot and out-passed, but they’re never giving up more shots on goal. For all of Sigi Schmid’s hopes that Seattle’s quantity of chances will come good in Seattle, his team’s performance on Saturday just fits the bigger picture. They’re playing Portland’s game; not the other way around.

“I’ve prepared [my team] for Plan A or Plan B,” Porter said after the Oct. 13 win over Seattle, his team having used their “Plan B” to even the season series with their rivals. “When you’re playing good teams, you have to prepare for that …”

“The reality is when you have two teams playing each other who both want to do the same thing, they’re going to have moments when they’ll have us deeper,” Porter explained. “I’ve tried to prepare these guys to be composed and mature when we’re playing with a lower block …”

source: AP
Porter concedes that Portland’s early approach needed to adapt, observing his team was either controlling games or “getting run through.” (Photo:AP)

Learning from early season mistakes

It’s a change that’s about more than versatility. Interspersed with Portland’s five losses and 15 draws were moments were being too aggressive had cost the Timbers points, often from winning positions. They wanted to press. They wanted to play in the opponent’s half. But they were also giving up key goals.

“Earlier in the year we were up the field, pushing and playing well, or we were just getting run through,” Porter conceded, after the 1-0 win over Seattle. “We’ve kind of down shifted just a little bit to balance our team. Just a little bit.

“We’re a little bit more setup to win games this time of year. This time of year, [they’re] going to be tight games.”

Now when the Timbers gain a lead (another point of emphasis within the team), they have a way to hold on, and when they claim an early lead, the numbers look very non-Porterball. Before earning their second goal on Saturday, Portland had held 48 percent of the possession, while the Galaxy were also able to pad their statistical edges after the Timbers went up 1-0.

As his playoff debut showed, Porter made the right decision, siding with pragmatism over idealism. But what does this mean for Porterball? Does all the talk about possession soccer, pressing and playing in the other team’s half take a back seat to a more conventional approach?

Not entirely. Like Porter says, it’s about having a Plan A and an alternative, and if he has to step back from some of the high-minded talk from earlier in the season, so be it.

“When I fail, I look at it and correct it,” Porter said. “Same with [my team]. I think that’s a big reason why we’re winning these games now.”

Lewandowski hat-trick caps impressive Bayern win in Bundesliga return

MUNICH, GERMANY - OCTOBER 04: Robert Lewandowski of Muenchen celebrates after scoring his team's fourth goal during the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Borussia Dortmund at Allianz Arena on October 4, 2015 in Munich, Germany.  (Photo by Micha Will/Getty Images for MAN)
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Robert Lewandowski continues to rack up goals in a Bayern Munich jersey, and the Bundesliga side reaps the rewards for their star striker’s production.

The Polish international began the new Bundesliga campaign on Friday with a hat-trick, as Bayern capped off a dominating 6-0 win against Werder Bremen.

Xabi Alonso opened the scoring for the home side after just nine minutes, but all eyes were on Lewandowski on the night as he netted his first three goals of the 2016/17 season.

The 28-year-old added Bayern’s second goal in the 13th minute, before finishing off his hat-trick performance with tallies in the 46th and 77th minutes, respectively. While his final finish came from the penalty spot, Lewandowski already looks more than ready to help Bayern retain its Bundesliga crown.

Veteran defender Phillip Lahm and Franck Ribery also converted their chances past Bremen goalkeeper Felix Wiedwald on an afternoon that saw Bayern tally an overwhelming 27 shots, 14 of which landed on target.

Werder Bremen’s chances were limited, with Viktor Skrypnyk’s group recording a mere two shots on net throughout the night.

Meanwhile, U.S. attacker Julian Green was on the bench for Bayern, however, the young American wasn’t introduced into the match.

Why Dortmund shouldn’t sell Christian Pulisic

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29:  Christian Pulisic #11 of the United States Men's National Team controls the ball against Guatemala during the FIFA 2018  World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Guatemala 4-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Frustration has set in with the young American, but is a move away from Borussia Dortmund really the best move for Christian Pulisic’s growth?

With the additions of Mario Gotze, Andre Schurrle, Emre Mor and Ousmane Dembele this summer, Dortmund has not only retooled its already dangerous attack, but also created a tricky scenario for one of its most promising youth talents.

For Pulisic, it’s a simple dilemma with two possible outcomes; remain at the club and try to earn his way into the side over the next few seasons or move on his way to a destination that presents more promise towards his development as a budding star within the club and international levels.

The 17-year-old from Hershey, Pennsylvania bursted onto the Bundesliga scene a season ago, making 12 appearances for the German runners’ up while also notching two goals.

While it was only a small sample size, there was no question that Pulisic has already earned the respect of his teammates due to his impressive control on the ball and high work rate on both ends of the field.

Now, several clubs have already shown interest in the young American, which is certainly promising for the attacker as he looks to make a name for himself.

It just seems too early though for Pulisic to try to maneuver his way out of the Borussia Dortmund set up. In only one season with the club — a major one at that — Pulisic has already made himself relevant within U.S. and foreign circles as a young talent that will be seen for many years to come.

ALTACH, AUSTRIA - AUGUST 05: Christian Pulisic of Dortmund (c) challenges Patrick Van Aanmolt of Sunderland (l) and Lee Cattermole of Sunderland (r) during the friendly match between AFC Sunderland v Borussia Dortmund at Cashpoint Arena on August 5, 2016 in Altach, Austria.  (Photo by Deniz Calagan/Getty Images)
Photo by Deniz Calagan/Getty Images

The situation isn’t optimal for a player seeking first-team minutes this season, but his age certainly plays into the equation. At 17 years old, very few players are starting on elite squads. That’s not a knock on Pulisic or any other aspiring player, but a mere fact when looking at how top teams are built.

On Friday, Bundesliga club RB Leipzig emerged as a suitor for Pulisic, reportedly offering over $16 million for the young USMNT attacker, before further reports linked Liverpool with a bid of $14 million to the Dortmund product.

While a move to Leipzig doesn’t seem so far-fetched, particularly at this stage of his career, picking up and heading to Anfield doesn’t seem like the ideal scenario for a player looking to further his young career and find consistent playing time.

Liverpool’s defensive issues remain a concern for Jurgen Klopp, but the former Dortmund boss has a plethora of options with the Reds in the attack, which would make it nearly as difficult for Pulisic to break into the squad on a regular basis if he were to complete a move to England.

Ideally, as a 17-year-old player it’s all about how much playing time you get. That essentially applies to every player, but especially to someone like Pulisic who is looking to establish himself at Dortmund and break into Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT lineup.

A loan move for Pulisic seems like the best scenario for the youngster, and with the reported interest in him it appears quite likely that Dortmund can find a suitable team to house the U.S. midfield as he continues his development.

Leipzig appears to have legitimate interest in Pulisic, and with the Bundesliga newcomers looking to make an impact in their first season in Germany’s top flight. With other clubs expressing interest in Pulisic as well, it seems unlikely that Dortmund would have a tough time offloading him for a season or two, but selling the American would be a bit of an oddity.

Report: Liverpool offering $14 million for USMNT’s Pulisic

Hamburg's Gotoku Sakai, left, and Dortmund's Christian Pulisic challenge for the ball during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and Hamburger SV in Dortmund, Germany, Sunday, April 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
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Even if Christian Pulisic does remain at Borussia Dortmund this summer, at least the young American knows that there’s interest in him.

[ MORE: RB Leipzig expressing interest in U.S. attacker Pulisic ]

On Friday, fellow Bundesliga outfit RB Leipzig emerged as a potential suitor for the U.S. Men’s National Team winger with a reported offer of $16 million on the table for Pulisic.

However, the Times is reporting that Liverpool has made an offer of roughly $14 million for the budding USMNT star, as he potentially seeks a move away from Dortmund after their summer spending spree.

[ MORE: Dempsey out vs. Timbers with irregular heartbeat ]

Stoke City was rumored to have expressed interest in Pulisic as well, but the Premier League side has since denied reports of making a sizable offer to Dortmund.

The Bundesliga side remains firm with its stance that they don’t want to part ways with Pulisic, who has three years remaining on his contract.

Report: RB Leipzig expressing interest in USMNT attacker Pulisic

ALTACH, AUSTRIA - AUGUST 05: Christian Pulisic of Dortmund (c) challenges Patrick Van Aanmolt of Sunderland (l) and Lee Cattermole of Sunderland (r) during the friendly match between AFC Sunderland v Borussia Dortmund at Cashpoint Arena on August 5, 2016 in Altach, Austria.  (Photo by Deniz Calagan/Getty Images)
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Summer signings for Borussia Dortmund have put Christian Pulisic’s future with the German club in doubt, but now at least one new team has emerged as a potential destination for the U.S. attacker.

[ MORE: Dempsey to miss Timbers match with health issues ]

According to Sports Illustrated, there’s a “50-50 chance” that Pulisic will leave Dortmund before the transfer deadline as he seeks first-team playing time.

The 17-year-old American is reportedly receiving interest from Bundesliga side RB Leipzig with his status at Dortmund unknown for the upcoming season. Leipzig has reportedly offered over $16 million for Pulisic, after reports surfaced on Wednesday linking the winger with a big-money move to Stoke City.

While Stoke has since denied claims of such an offer, Pulisic is said to be frustrated by the club’s moves this summer, which includes the signings of Mario Gotze and Andre Schurrle. With the two experienced Germans in the fold, as well as Ousmane Dembele and Emre Mor, Pulisic’s opportunity to see the field has certainly taken a massive hit.

Pulisic is under contract for another three years at the Bundesliga giants, though, so a move away from Westfalenstadion may not be on the team’s radar this summer, particularly given his age.

Dortmund opens the new Bundesliga season on Saturday against Mainz, however, it remains to be seen if Pulisic will be including in the gameday roster given the team’s additions this summer.