SOUNDS ECHO across the empty seats of Jeld-Wen Field like bats escaping a cave. It's January 26, the final day of training before the Portland Timbers embark to Arizona for preseason camp. And as the temperature dips and chatter builds around the action, the stadium at Goose Hollow feels especially, well, hollow.
A whistle screeches across the cone-dotted pitch and pinny-wearing players immediately stop their rather frenzied defensive drill. Each member of the team turns toward midfield while Portland coach Caleb Porter's voice emerges from the hush. Without the presence of 20,000-plus fans, chants, and cheers, it reverberates.
"What you'll begin to see," Porter projects across the pitch, "is teams that keep the ball are rewarded."
Such is the philosophy of this first-year coach, brought on after Portland's clear-cut disaster of a 2012 season and introduced this month as the serious, cerebral mastermind of a franchise in need of a reset. This time last year, things sounded a bit different around here. Under fiery former coach John Spencer, the cadence was often more intense. Porter's tone borders on professorial, and one week into training, it's clear he has his team's attention.
"The attitude and buy-in are very pleasing," Porter says following a particularly stringent drill that split the squad into ever-rotating (and ever-running) teams of four. "They worked their asses off—nobody's cutting corners."
With a measured, scientific approach (the team hired a video performance analyst and overhauled its fitness program under a new director of sports science), Porter has revamped the Timbers around experienced cogs like designated player Diego Valeri and Major League Soccer vets Michael Harrington, Will Johnson, and Ryan Johnson. They've also all but officially parted ways with talented, but slow-to-adapt players like Kris Boyd and Franck Songo'o, leaving a group Porter calls "very honest" and well on its way to forming a new identity—one that mirrors the 37-year-old coach.
"There are a lot of guys who've come in with chips on their shoulders, and that's what Caleb likes [because] he has that," says defender Ryan Miller, who returns to MLS after four years playing in Sweden. Danny Mwanga, a former Jefferson High School and Oregon State star added to the roster late last season, says it's clear things are moving in the right direction under Porter.
"He's very determined," Mwanga says.
Not to mention contemplative. When asked if anything had surprised him during his first week as a professional coach, Porter paused to ponder a full six seconds before answering.
"Not really," he exhaled. His Timbers are fit and eager to get going, he said, and as practice wound down, it was clear that Portland's fans are, too.
While the whole team ran cool-down laps, a fresh sound echoed across the stadium. From the side of the Multnomah Athletic Club, five youngsters huddled in winter coats against the barrier that overlooks the field and rained down a cheer of "Go, Timbers, Go!" on the players. If those tikes are to be the future of Timbers Army, their chants could use a little work.
Just like their favorite team.
"The guys that are back here are dissatisfied with the past and want to make amends for it," Porter says. "I think we're all hungry to build a winner here."
The Timbers host a preseason tournament at Jeld-Wen Field beginning February 17. Tickets go on sale Tuesday, February 5. For more information, visit portlandtimbers.com/tickets.