Before taking over Columbus Crew SC in January and opening the 2019 regular season against the New York Red Bulls in March, Caleb Porter had only stepped on the MAPFRE Stadium field as a Major League Soccer coach four times. All of those came as the leader of the Portland Timbers.
Porter was named head coach of the Timber in 2013, two years after the team began play in MLS. Over his five seasons in Portland, Porter led the Timbers to two top finishes in the Western Conference and an MLS Cup title. He parted ways with the franchise following the 2017 season before taking a year away from the game and recharging his batteries.
The Crew named Porter the club’s seventh head coach ahead of the 2019 season. After a good start to the year, the Black & Gold will welcome Portland to MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday evening in the first meeting between Porter and his former club.
“Obviously I’m aware of the opponent and who I’m playing,” the head coach said. “I’ve been fortunate to be, over my career, at good places with good people and good players. And Portland, in the five years I was there with their club, was certainly a good place to be and fond memories of my time there and we accomplished a lot there.”
The success on the field while with the Timbers was important for Porter but his main focus when reflecting on his time in Portland was the relationship he developed with the players. Working with guys day in and day out throughout the course of five seasons develops significant bonds and those are important to Porter. Saturday could provide a reunion of sorts, as many of those same players will be on the opposing side at MAPFRE Stadium.
Of the 28-man Timbers roster that Porter last coached in November of 2017 in the Western Conference semifinals, 13 of the players remain with the club. Another of Porter’s players, Jorge Villafana, has since rejoined the Timbers after three seasons away. Of the 11 players who started for new head coach Giovanni Savarese in the MLS Cup Final against Atlanta United last year, 10 were Porter-coached players.
While Porter admits it will be nice to see those old faces again after more than a year apart, the head coach’s focus is with his new club in Columbus.
“I’m really focused on this team now and developing relationships here with my players here,” Porter said. “This is my horse in the race now and I love this team that I have now. So, of course, I always think back fondly on all the players I’ve worked with and been able to spend time with and accomplish things with. So I don’t take those things lightly. Those relationships are still there. Those memories are still there. But what that means for this game is not much.”
In what is shaping up to once again be a tight race in the Eastern Conference, getting points matters, even at this early stage of the season. The Crew are currently unbeaten at home and look to take advantage of a struggling Portland side that has just one point through the team’s opening six matches. Getting a win over his former team will be a focus on Saturday but Porter’s familiarity with the players the Black & Gold will face is an advantage the head coach’s new team can use.
“The familiarity, his knowledge of just individual qualities of players and how they tend to play in moments that are game-breaking moments is really important for us to know,” Columbus captain Wil Trapp told Massive Report this week. “A tendency of a guy like (Sebastian) Blanco or (Diego) Valeri, in particular, will be very helpful for us.”
For the Crew players, it’s business as usual this week. While Trapp and others acknowledged that the group knows they are playing Porter’s former team and want to win this game for their new head coach, it was clear in training that the approach is no different than it was last week against the Montreal Impact or any other week of the season.
While the Timbers currently sit at the bottom of the Western Conference standings as one of the league’s worst offensive and defensive teams, the rhetoric this week around the Black & Gold’s training facility is that this is not a club to be taken lightly. Rather, Portland is a team hungry for a win that — as seen by their run to the MLS Cup Final four-plus months ago — can hurt its opponent.
“They have good players that can score goals,” Trapp said. “Guys like Valeri, Blanco... those type of players that can make things out of nothing. And a big part of that is them winning the ball with their central midfielders, guys like (Diego) Chara, outlet to Valeri and then springing things forward, Blanco as well. So they’re dangerous, truly. For them, they just haven’t put it together this year so far.”
For Caleb Porter, the situation may be different if he were returning to Providence Park. If the Crew were in Portland this weekend, the head coach admittedly might have to “dominate my emotions a little bit more.” But Saturday for Porter will be like the eight other matches he’s coached at MAPFRE Stadium, with the main difference being which technical area he will stand in during the contest and which locker room he enters pre- and post-game. Porter will come in, get his team prepared and go out on the field expecting a victory.
There will certainly be pleasantries with his former players before and after the game, but Porter has been coaching for a long time and has dealt with similar situations. He will have his emotions in check and go about the game as if it were any other opponent.
“Obviously I know their players very well, better than any other team, but it seems like every week I’m facing someone that I’ve coached or know pretty well through my time,” Porter said. “So I don’t really think too much about it. Maybe after the game it will hit me but for me, I focus on the job I have to do and not be too nostalgic or think too much about it.”