Away from the game for a year after leaving the Portland Timbers in November of 2017, Caleb Porter is returning to MLS as the new head coach of the Columbus Crew — the team his Timbers beat to win MLS Cup in 2015.
The 43-year-old Porter, whose appointment was announced Friday morning alongside that of new club president Tim Bezbatchenko, returns to the state where he made his coaching name with the University of Akron. He replaces Gregg Berhalter, who in December took the reins of the U.S. men's national team.
Porter's five-year tenure in Portland was, for the most part, a triumph. He won MLS's Coach of the Year award in 2013 as the Timbers finished first in the Western Conference, won MLS Cup two years later, and returned the Timbers to the top of the West in his final season at the club two years after that.
The Timbers did, however, miss the playoffs in the two intervening seasons, while the club's style of soccer regressed significantly — from high-pressing and possession-based in Porter's first season to a lower-block, more counter-attacking style in his final few years.
Porter's return to the league has been months in the making. He reportedly interviewed with Orlando City during the 2018 season, and the San Jose Earthquakes immediately following it.
He was then in advanced negotiations with the LA Galaxy in early to mid-December, appearing courtside at a Los Angeles Lakers game with Galaxy president Chris Klein and general manager Dennis te Kloese, but the two sides couldn't reach an agreement — with the club reportedly unwilling to give Porter a long-term deal.
The Columbus job is a fit. Porter won a national championship and produced scores of MLS players in six years at Akron, and the club he's taking over has been given new life in recent months after spending the majority of the 2018 season in peril as former owner Anthony Precourt tried to engineer a move to Austin, Texas.
But a movement to save the club was rewarded when a new ownership group, led by Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslem and former team doctor Pete Edwards, stepped in buy the club's operating rights — keeping it in Columbus with a promise to build a new stadium downtown and a new training facility to accompany it.
Columbus qualified for the MLS Cup playoffs in four of the last five years, but the hires of Porter and Bezbatchenko, the latter of whom is an Ohio native and was the architect of Toronto FC's 2017 MLS Cup-winning team, are further statements of intent from the club's new ownership group.
As the Crew's manager, Porter will lock horns in the Ohio Derby against MLS expansion side FC Cincinnati with a trio of his former players: Fanendo Adi, Alvas Powell, and Darren Mattocks. Another of his former players, Pa Modou Kah, is a Cincinnati assistant coach.
He'll also have the chance to reset somewhat as a coach, tactically and otherwise, with a club whose future is as bright as it ever has been — in a league that is far more competitive than when he first entered it with Portland.
It's a challenge Porter is worthy of. The Timbers will visit Columbus this year, before Porter makes his return to Providence Park, barring the unexpected, in 2020.