The Designated Player: Damn You, Caleb Porter

Caleb PorterOwing to my current age, when I do my Wayne Rooney visualization exercises these days, I no longer envision scoring goals, or lifting cups, as if I were the grizzled veteran captain, but instead I imagine telling journalists that “the player in question has played his last game for the club,” invent doggerel to bellow from the sidelines (“IS THERE JELLING? FINITE, ANDY! FINITE!”), perfect the motion of hiding file folders labeled with the phrase “Strictly internal club disciplinary matter,” and practice keeping a deadpan expression while slumped on the bench, for when the very thing my job is actually supposed to achieve happens to occur.

In other words, my dimly active fantasy life has made the transition from world’s greatest player to promising young manager. At least it had till last week, when the 37-year-old Caleb Porter was announced as the next coach of the Portland Timbers. Overnight, my fantasy doppelgänger was underachieving.

Owing to the sense of helplessness that comes from entrusting our happiness to 11 strangers, a lot of fans have a very successful parallel fantasy sporting life, which provides an illusory feeling of control amid the slings and arrows of outrageous Baldomero Toledo penalties and random MLS rule changes. I’m not talking fantasy leagues either. I’m talking full-on Walter Mitty alternative universes inhabited by impossibly hospitable and faceless German defenders.

It is a life that is invoked in public at first, via our childish commentary in schoolyard scrimmages, and then, as social norms dictate that it’s no longer appropriate to pull your shirt over your face and sprint down the street in celebration of a goal scored with a can (rule of thumb for the cut-off point: the last time you wore “medium”), our doppelgänger drifts off into an unspoken but vivid corner of our minds, only to reappear in brief, taunting flashes, like George Best after the age of 28.

Over time, this fantasy figure is adjusted to reflect the crushing pressure of external temporal realities. While this process is gradual and thus slightly less hellish than the moment when you customize your avatar in FIFA ’12 and pause over hair color, it is nonetheless a quiet indicator of mortality. Your “other” starts as the bright-eyed, youngest player to ever score a hat trick in a World Cup Final in the last five minutes, with a soundtrack of Aphex Twin vs. Black Sabbath (Young Gods remix) pumped over the stadium PA. After a while, this imagined version of oneself develops into a familiar and accomplished companion, achieving great things on the field, and possessed of a certain ineffable cool, like Dennis Bergkamp played by Rutger Hauer — and, in all things very much unlike their real-life counterpart, who is basically like George Best after the age of 28, minus the skill.

Finally comes the indignity of it being too great a struggle to actually imagine the set of circumstances where even a projected version of yourself could somehow be playing in the World Cup, let alone dominating it with awesome play and pre-game speeches from Braveheart. At the last tournament, I had to work backward from the realization that the only player older than me was England’s David James to imagining a complicated scenario of being spotted in a local pickup game by Bob Bradley, who always picnics in Brooklyn municipal dust bowls, and selected as a surprise “impact” (overweight) player. Never mind that the real-life version of that pickup game now features our neighbor’s 6-foot teenage son, who I used to be able to keep at bay with a firm hand to the forehead and a series of gleeful drag-backs, the sheer effort of keeping the stretched fantasy narrative afloat was too much and I reluctantly consigned my double, his multiple medals and humanitarian awards, to the pretend record books.

Having done so, I instantly felt relief and began to enjoy watching young players develop again. When Sebastián Velasquez fizzed onto the scene for Real Salt Lake at the beginning of this season, nunchucking defenders with that little ponytail made of a fiber that hasn’t actually been invented yet, I smiled indulgently. Ditto Connor Lade, who buzz-saws around the New York midfield chased by an imaginary angry mother wanting to know who on the coaching team gave him Gatorade. And Darren Mattocks has such a nice time out there, indulging every whim, from golazos to tantrums, that far be it from me to hurry him through the mirror stage. No, the kids are alright.

So generally, until last week, I was settling quite happily into my new alternate managerial reality, with visions of many decades of imaginary designer overcoats and easy charisma to offset my intimidating genius. But the revelation of Porter as the new Timbers coach did away with all that. Suddenly my fantasy record looked distinctly shabby.

It’s not all his fault. Porter will actually become the sixth MLS coach under 40 years old (three more are 45 or under). But in my reckoning thus far I’d let Jason Kreis (39) slide — Real Salt Lake plays attractive soccer, and anyway he looks like he’d chin me; ditto Ben Olsen — who is only 35, but has been injured enough for a man twice his age; Martin Rennie is a Scot, who spent his college years in Glasgow, so on average life expectancy he’s doing well to still be alive at 37; Jay Heaps is a fresh-faced 36, but time coaching the current New England counts double. I wavered over Montreal’s Jesse Marsch, but as an MLS original, he’s technically an ageless part of the furniture — though the sight of him in a suit does occasionally make me think of the scene in Big in which Tom Hanks walks away from Elizabeth Perkins and back towards childhood, trailing sleeves.

On a marginally more serious note, this is a fascinating moment in MLS history, as the league approaches its 18th season. Watching players who were born after the league was founded routinely entering it as competitors will be a significant generational milestone. Yet, for now, there are still MLS originals dotted around the league too, such as Ramiro Corrales (a commissioner’s pick for this year’s All-Star game), who must soon, inevitably, cycle off the playing field. It’s perhaps inevitable that some should have then cycled into key coaching positions already. Kreis, Olsen, Heaps, and Marsch have all lived through the development of the league’s culture and perhaps have a unique perspective on the particular personnel demands of managing a salary-capped locker room of post-college kids and aging superstars, having occupied those rooms themselves.

When I ask Matt Doyle, author of MLSsoccer.com’s Armchair Analyst column, about the phenomenon, he points out that Heaps “played for pennies — this guy went to Duke and probably could have made half a million dollars a year as a 24-year-old, being a banker, and instead he played for $25,000 — and then he played alongside guys like Carlos Valderrama, who was making a million a year at that point. And Jason Kreis, who was a very late pick in the ‘96 draft, knows what it’s like to be an afterthought, as well as a star, knows what it’s like to be an afterthought, as well as a star. You know that guys like that get it. At the same time, I don’t think any current MLS manager other than Arena, or maybe Sigi Schmid, could handle a guy like Beckham.” Doyle also says that, of this generation of young coaches trying to break through and establish themselves as the first league-grown coaching stars, Kreis may be the best equipped, but that we’re still in a very early moment for this generation.

So just as the “MLS babies” entering the league as players represent an important developmental moment, so the parallel entry of these young coaches marks a potentially significant marker for the potential rites of passage within the league system — even aside from the implications for domestic technical development. In what Doyle calls the “bad old days”, fans begged for former players to get the chance to coach in the league, and now it seems, the time has come for youth to have its day on both sides of the touchline.

But even as my fantasy coaching career stutters into obsolete irrelevance, my newfound inner-Mourinho has been broken by the very latest development. Porter is straight out of college, damn it.

Admittedly, I have a very soft spot for the college side Porter has built — the fantastically monicker-ed Akron Zips. After a playing career ended by knee injuries, and a five-year stint as an assistant coach with Indiana Hoosiers, Porter took over at Akron in 2006 and turned them into a veritable production line of young talent. When he started, Akron was hardly a recruitment hot spot (“Hey Kid, you like rubber? How about the music of Devo?”), but he began strongly and never let up.

An early hint of Porter’s ability to recognize and mold talent would come in the 2009 draft, when he would send Steve Zakuani to Seattle, completing the resurrection of the talented young Arsenal youth’s career. Zakuani would be among the first of many. But MLS circles really began to take notice in the 2009 NCAA season that followed. While Porter had previously won consecutive Mid-American Conference titles, their 2009 record of 23-1-1, which only ended in the College Cup final with a loss on penalties, really caught the eye.

(At the same stage of my fantasy career, I was learning Baccarat with the guy from the Dos Equis commercials.)

The crucial missed penalty in that 2009 final was taken by Blair Gavin, but he had some consolation when he joined Teal Bunbury and Ben Zemanski in being drafted in 2010 — with Gavin and Bunbury going in the first round. But the Porter story really took off in the following season, when his team went one better in winning the college’s first-ever national championship in any sport, followed by a wholesale domination of the 2011 draft. Seven players from Akron were drafted that year, including an extraordinary and record-breaking five players in the first eight picked. If Porter was daunted at entering 2011 with a gutted side, he didn’t show it — the Zips opened their campaign against the only side to have beaten them in over 50 regular-season games, Cleveland State, blowing them away with five goals, including a brace by one Darren Mattocks. They would go on to be eliminated in the third round of the College Cup that year, but not before Mattocks had confirmed the Porter production line was still churning out talent.

Every player Porter has coached seems to have nothing but praise for him, and of course at Portland he will be reunited with the mercurial Darlington Nagbe, who headed that draft class of 2011. One hope for Porter’s Timbers tenure is that he can coax some consistency out of Nagbe, which may be a marginally less daunting task than addressing the Timbers’ terrible road record.

If there are caveats to Porter’s appointment, they’re partly to do with the transition from the college game to MLS at such a young age (as compared to say Bruce Arena, or Schellas Hyndman, who also crossed over, but at later stages in their careers), but more significantly there was THAT Olympic campaign. After a steady upward trajectory, Porter suffered the first real setback to his coaching reputation just five months ago, when having been appointed U.S. U-23 coach in addition to his Akron duties, he oversaw a side that imploded on home soil, in a reasonably straightforward qualifying group. Ironically, for a system that depends on fluidity, the U.S. seemed to stick too rigidly to the 4-3-3 system that Jurgen Klinsmann and youth technical director Claudio Reyna want all levels of the national team to play. In particular, playing El Salvador in their final group game, they struggled for width, despite having the personnel to provide it, and were infamously caught by a last-minute equalizer, failing to qualify.

(At this point I should point out, in fairness, that I generally skipped the qualifying tournament in my head, and cut straight to the Olympic final, where Nancy Kerrigan put the cap on a 4-3 comeback, with a looping header from a Brian McBride cross — I took a lot of plaudits for my unorthodox subs in the last 15 minutes, though more conventionally, I had picked Boyd and Shea.)

There were two takes on the Olympic fiasco. The first had Porter as rather helplessly hidebound by the system imposed from above; the second had him unable to adapt when it was clear plan A wasn’t working. Certainly the U-23 position was a big step up for Porter at that stage, and any young American coach thus promoted would conceivably wrestle with contradicting the supposedly express instructions of Klinsmann and, to an extent, Reyna. But all formations are to a degree contingent on opposition, available personnel, and the individual quirks and circumstances of any given game, and Porter’s critics believed he hadn’t done enough to seize the initiative. Klinsmann was lukewarm in his endorsement afterward — presumably mindful of the bigger picture of protecting his own mandate. And there were definitely some commentators who heard the news of Porter’s MLS appointment and thought that, given that recent high profile failure, the chance at redemption had come “too soon.”

I, too, think it’s too soon, but only because Porter’s tangible achievements at such an early age actually make my imaginary ones look bad. And having seen the age of the man who appointed him, I can’t even contemplate fantasy ownership safely. In fact, if it weren’t for A.J. Liebling writing the blog in my head, I think I’d give up now. Damn you Porter (and good luck).

Graham Parker leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for the Guardian. He also writes for The Howler.

Filed Under: Graham Parker, MLS

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