Caleb Porter

Portland Timbers thriving after unexpected death of ‘Porterball’


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
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.”

Europa League: Manchester United thumps Fenerbahce, Zenit avoids upset

Manchester United's Paul Pogba, left, celebrates scoring his sides third goal with Manchester United's Wayne Rooney, during the Europa League Group A soccer match between Manchester United and Fenerbahce at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, England, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Dave Thompson)
AP Photo/Dave Thompson
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Goals, goals, goals and several red cards dotted the landscape of Europa League football on Thursday.

Premier League teams saw mixed results despite controlling performances, while the day avoided a single 0-0 result.

Manchester United 4-1 Fenerbahce

United moved atop Group A, level on points with Feyenoord, after a fairly comprehensive home win.

Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils got a pair of deserved penalty kicks in the first 34 minutes, as Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial converted chances to make it 2-0.

Pogba scored a really nice goal from distance off a Jesse Lingard feed before halftime to put it out of reach, and then Lingard struck just after the break to make it entirely academic at Old Trafford.

Robin Van Persie did score upon this return to Manchester, and the fans gave his announced goal a warm cheer.

Inter Milan 1-0 SouthamptonRECAP

Saints were the better team on the day, but Antonio Candreva scored the lone goal as the hosts gave Southampton its first setback of this Europa League season in front of 7,000-plus traveling fans.

Dundalk 1-2 Zenit Saint Petersburg

The Lilywhites looked ready to leap atop the Group D table for a while, an achievement that would feel a bit like Leicester on PEDs.

The opening goal came from Robbie Benson in the 52nd minute, but Robert Mak equalized for Zenit in the 71st before Giuliano put the Russians ahead six minutes later.

The Irish semi-pro side is now 1-1-1 in group play and remains the first club from the republic to score a goal in a group stage or higher European when they drew at AZ Alkmaar.

Dundalk then became the first Irish side to win a European group stage match when it toppled Maccabi Tel-Aviv 1-0 at the Tallaght Stadium in Dublin. Take this moment to salute their performances, even with a loss on Thursday.

Celta Vigo 2-2 Ajax
Standard Liege 2-2 Panathinaikos
Konyaspor 1-1 Sporting Braga
Shakhtar Donetsk 5-0 KAA Gent
RB Salzburg 0-1 Nice
Krasnodar 0-1 Schalke
Steaua Bucuresti 1-1 Zurich
Osmanlispor 2-2 Villarreal
Hapoel Be’er Sheva 0-1 Sparta Prague
Slovan Liberec 1-3 Fiorentina
Qarabag 2-0 PAOK Salonika

Feyenoord 1-0 Zorya Luhansk
Young Boys 3-1 Apoel Nicosia
Olympiakos 4-1 Astana
Mainz 1-1 Anderlecht
Saint-Etienne 1-0 Qabala
AZ Alkmaar 1-2 Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Roma 3-3 Austria Wien
Viktoria Plzen 1-2 Astra Giurgiu
Genk 2-0 Athletic Bilbao
Rapid Wien 1-1 Sassuolo


Premier League and NBC Sports Group hosted at U.S. Embassy event in London

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The Premier League and NBC Sports Group were recognized today at a U.S. Embassy event in London.

The event, held at Winfield House, the residence of Ambassador Matthew Barzun, celebrated the growth of the Premier League in the United States, highlighted by NBC Sports Group’s innovative coverage and promotion of the league.

Attendees included Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, and NBC Sports Group’s U.K.-based Premier League announce team of Arlo White, Lee Dixon and Graeme LeSaux.

Ambassador Barzun introduced Scudamore and Jon Miller (President of Programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN) at the top of the program.

“We are honoured to represent NBC Sports inside the hallowed halls of Winfield House,” said White, who moderated a Q&A at the event. “We thoroughly enjoy bringing the excitement of the Premier League to fans in the United States, and are thrilled that we are playing a prominent role in growing the game stateside.”

As the exclusive U.S. home of the Premier League since August 2013, NBC Sports Group’s presentation of the Premier League has reached nearly 30 million American viewers in each of its three full seasons as the league’s exclusive U.S. home – more than double the U.S. audience in any year prior.

WATCH: Pogba puts Europa League match to bed for Manchester United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 20:  Anthony Martial #11 of Manchester United is cogratulated by teammate Paul Pogba after scoring his team's second goal from the penalty spot during the UEFA Europa League Group A match between Manchester United FC and Fenerbahce SK at Old Trafford on October 20, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Manchester United’s first two goals of Thursday’s easy win over Fenerbahce came off penalty kicks, but the third was far more pleasing to the eye.

Paul Pogba nabbed his second of the night by tearing into a Jesse Lingard lay-off from 20 yards away, ensuring that halftime might as well have been full-time.

[ MORE: Saints fall in Milan ]

Anthony Martial joined Pogba in converting a penalty, while Lingard made it 4-0 just after halftime.

More than 7,000 Saints fans see Southampton fall in Milan (video)

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 20:  (R) Antonio Candreva of FC Internazionale celebrates his first goalduring the UEFA Europa League match between FC Internazionale Milano and Southampton FC at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Milan, .  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
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Antonio Candreva’s 67th minute goal gave Inter Milan a lead against the run of play, and dominant Southampton failed to take advantage of an Inter red card in a 1-0 loss at the San Siro on Thursday. (video)

The setback was Southampton’s first in Europa League play this season, and costs them the top spot in Group K at the group stage’s midpoint.

[ MORE: Atleti accepts January transfer ban ]

Saints had the edge in shots and attempts on target, but couldn’t get the better of their historic Italian opponents.

Sparta Prague beat Hapoel Be’er Sheva 1-0 to move ahead of Saints on six points. Southampton has four, as does Hapoel. Inter sits fourth with three points.

The winner was a classy goal, by the way, for the 43-times capped Italian winger:

Our own Joe Prince-Wright was on the scene as Saints were very well-represented in Italy.