When Caleb Porter first came to Major League Soccer and took over the Portland Timbers in 2013, he implemented a high-press, possession-oriented system of play. The playing style and he became so synonymous with one another, it was dubbed “Porterball.” The system created turnovers by utilizing a staunch pressing defense to minimize the oppositions time and space. The Timbers offense would then meticulously maintain possession using quick combination passing, and pacey transitions. Positive results followed.
Prior to manning the sidelines for Portland, Porter built an NCAA powerhouse at Akron University using the Porterball system. Given his success and accomplishments in the NCAA ranks, it only seemed natural that such a style could seamlessly transition to MLS. Though, Porter’s early success with the Timbers waned over time. Opposing clubs learned how to disrupt Porterball, and the high-risk, high-reward style wore on the Timbers players, so Porter had to adjust. His offensive-oriented system slowly but surely started to lean more on defending his own goal and utilize a quick counterattack to tally goals. His willingness and ability to change and adapt was a good sign of growth for Porter. Many coaches will live and later die by their own stubbornness to change.
Fast forward to Porter’s MLS Cup championship winning team in 2015, the two most critical acquisitions for the Timbers were not attacking players, but surprisingly two center backs. Longtime MLS veteran, Nat Borchers, and England product, Liam Ridgewell were acquired post-Porterball, solidifying the team with their defensive prowess and remarkable leadership. The re-tooled backline was nearly impossible to penetrate.
It appears, based on his recent comments and preseason matches that Porter has aspirations to play a similar system and style with the Crew. How congruent the current Crew roster to that of the 2015 Timbers is something only time will tell. Obviously, this current Crew roster is a work-in-progress, given that Porter and new team president, Tim Bezbatchanko had a short offseason to make any changes. Regardless, let’s compare and contrast some of the key cogs from Porter’s MLS title-winning team to today’s Columbus Crew.
Adam Kwarasey v Zack Steffen & Joe Bendik
Steffen is far and away the creme de la creme of this group. Forget his 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award win, forget his pending transfer to Manchester City. As a goalkeeper, Steffen is just heads and shoulders above the others listed. He is a superior athlete, he is composed beyond his years and, as much as he says he despises penalty kick shootouts, Steffen is extremely effective in making the much-needed key save. Zack is also very capable at starting the Crew’s attack from the back via his distribution.
Kwarasey was athletic and a sound shot-stopper, as is very underrated recent acquisition, Joe Bendik. However, when Steffen leaves Columbus this summer, the Crew will have an above average shot-stopper and solid distributor of the ball. He performed well on an atrocious Orlando City team over the last couple of seasons. Bendik can hold his own between the posts.
And we certainly can’t sleep on Jon Kempin. The former Sporting Kansas City Homegrown talent may be the heir to the Crew’s goalkeeping throne. While he lacks the game minutes Bendik has, Kempin has been on a professional roster since the age of 17, when he was the youngest player to ever sign on the dotted line for Sporting.
Alvas Powell v Harrison Afful
Afful is a vastly more experienced player than Powell was at that point in his career, though the two are similar in their roles. Powell has always relied on his pure athleticism to get by, which led to a myriad of mistakes his first few seasons in Portland. Afful is astute and sound in his game and more dangerous to provide service in the attacking third. He was also one of only two players to play and start in every Crew game in 2018. Afful is most certainly a weapon Porter can rely on, without the unnerving fear that Powell brought to the table.
Nat Borchers & Liam Ridgewell v Jonathan Mensah/Lalas Abubakar/Gaston Sauro
The center back duo is where we will see the biggest discrepancy. Mensah, Abubakar and Sauro are all stout and capable center backs, but the resounding decrease in pedigree and experience is massive. Borchers was the consummate pro, the grizzled MLS vet who knew the league inside and out. And his beard was miraculous, which carried along with it a slogan of “Fear the Beard.” Ridgewell brought the international derivation from soccer’s motherland. The two together were a damn near an impenetrable wall.
Mensah is the more seasoned of the current Columbus center backs. Abubakar has the emotion and youthful exuberance of a young player, which can be both a blessing and a curse. And Sauro is very capable but has shown to be inconsistent.
Ridgewell was very technically sound with the ball at his feet, and he provided a higher capability of buildup play from the back. While Abubakar has improved in this area since being selected fifth overall by the Crew in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, he, Mensah and Sauro are lightyears behind Ridgewell in that category. Is that a downfall Porter is willing to manage and seek to coach up? Or might he look elsewhere? I would bet the latter.
Jorge Villafaña v Waylon Francis
Young Designated Player, Milton Valenzuela was the player originally slotted for this role. However, an unfortunate ACL tear in training prematurely ended his season before it even started. In his place is former Crew favorite, Waylon Francis. If (and that is a big if) Francis can stay healthy, he will bring solid crossing ability from the left side and a strong work rate. He is familiar in his surroundings, having played for Columbus just two seasons ago. Whether or not he can maintain the necessary high level of play throughout the long and arduous season remains to be seen.
Darlington Nagbe /Diego Chara/Diego Valeri v Federico Higuain/Wil Trapp/Artur
Ah yes, the central midfield is/was the bread and butter of Porter’s most successful team. Valeri and Higuain are near mirror replicas of one another in a variety of ways. Both are Argentinian, both won MLS Newcomer of the Year during their first season in the league (Valeri in 2013 & Higuain in 2012), both are dynamic and visionary, with the ability to create and score. Both are the prototypical No. 10’s. While Higuain may not have the stamina and motor that Valeri did, the strengths and abilities are indistinguishable.
Not unlike Nagbe, Trapp also played for Porter at Akron. While Trapp is more of a connector on the field, as his job is to link the backline to the midfield, Nagbe was more of a Swiss army knife. It took several seasons under Porter before he found his niche within the center midfield. Porter tried him at winger, in the attack and all throughout the center midfield. He seemed to roam, while Trapp holds steady in front of his defense.
Chara was the engine for the Timbers. He had bite in his tackles, bulldozed his way through opposing players and earned a record number of fouls and cards. On the other hand, Artur, is steadier and even-keeled. He is undoubtedly an unsung hero for the Crew. Where Chara may be the loud diesel engine that roars in a Dodge Ram pickup truck, Artur is the quieter and more efficient electric motor of a Tesla. Artur may very well be the teams most under-appreciated member.
The current crop of center midfielders of this Crew roster are perfectly suited for Porter-style soccer (and I don’t necessarily mean Porterball). The aforementioned three are a fantastic blend of skill and determination. More finesses than power, but not particularly lacking in either department. Porter can easily plug and play with this current group from day one, though I do think the Timbers had the better overall core.
Lucas Melano & Rodney Wallace v Justin Meram/Pedro Santos/Robinho
Melano was a massive disappointment under Porter in Portland. He was such an unmitigated disaster, he was loaned off for a year and a half, in hopes that he would play his way out of town. Melano didn’t perform at a high enough level while on loan, and he was reluctantly brought back to the Timbers last summer.
This is the polar opposite of Meram’s time with Columbus. From 2011 to 2017, Meram was one of the Crew’s most prolific scorers. He ended his 2017 season with 13 goals, finishing second on the team. However, in the offseason, he requested a trade from central Ohio and was shipped away to a dreadful Orlando team. While playing in the purple kits, Meram managed a measly one goal and one assist. He eventually found his way back to Columbus with the hope now he will be comfortable again and able to play to his previous standards.
Wallace was an integral member of the Timbers’ title team. His left foot provided goals and pinpoint crosses. His pace and grit up and down the wing was unmatched. I was astonished the Timbers allowed him to walk after that season. He outplayed his contract and rightfully demanded more money, but the Timbers balked, and off Wallace went to Europe. He eventually found his way back to MLS with New York City FC. Too bad he didn’t join Porter in the black and gold.
Remember that grit and pace I babbled on about Wallace earlier? Well, that is not quite the same vernacular I would use to describe Santos. While talented and crafty on paper, he spends far too much of his actual game minutes flopping and/or being knocked off the ball too easily. He is averaging exactly one-half (.5) of a goal per season, during his stint in Columbus.
In as a possible replacement is the young Brazilian, Robinho. He is kind of a mystery right now. Scouting reports suggest he is pacey, crafty with the ball at his feet and willing to take players on. We shall see how his game transitions to Porter’s style of play.
Fanendo Adi v Gyasi Zardes
Like many strikers, Adi is a very streaky goalscorer. Often times it seemed as if he scored either two goals per game or none. If you look up “brace” in the soccer dictionary, I am certain you will see Adi’s picture. The 6-foot-4, long and rangy No. 9 was the proverbial bull in a china shop while roaming the 18-yard box. Adi netted 54 goals over five MLS seasons with the Timbers.
Zardes re-emerged as one of the league’s premier goal producers in 2018, his first season with the Crew. After lighting the league on fire in 2014 with LA Galaxy when he accumulated 16 goals, he crashed back down to Earth from 2015 to 2017, where he combined for a sparse 14 goals over three seasons. He was dealt to Columbus prior to last year and found the back of the net a staggering 19 times. Barring a Crew sophomore slump, Zardes is the type of player Porter can count on in the right system. While I am not so certain Caleb will garner another 19-goal output from Zardes or any one player for that matter, as Porter teams generally tend to score by committee (minus Valeri’s 21 goal spree in 2017), I do foresee Zardes being a consistent goal manufacturer again.
Will Johnson/Jack Jewsbury/Maximiliano Urruti v Josh Williams & Nico Hansen
One area in which the current Crew roster is lacking in comparison to the Timbers of old, is depth and veteran leadership. The Timbers had the likes of Johnson and Jewsbury, both of which were MLS stalwarts and who had long-lasting fruitful careers within the league.
Even Urruti was a forward who could be counted on to score in a pinch. At one point, he and Adi seemed to be juggling between the starting lineup, as Porter only played with one striker. The depth was critical to the team’s championship run.
I am quite certain the lack of veteran depth today will refrain from being an issue once Porter and Bezbatchenko start moving and shaking. Do not be surprised to see battle-tested Jewsbury/Johnson type players into the fold sooner rather than later.
The Future is Bright
All and all, I think this Porter-led Crew team is set up for immediate success. Furthermore, the squad has enough young building blocks to sustain that success for a lengthy run. A young roster, two young guns in charge (Porter and Bez), a new energized ownership group, a reinvigorated fan base, and soon enough a brand spanking new stadium, Columbus will be a formidable foe in MLS for years to come.