You get the sense Caleb Porter would’ve been at home walking the marbled, austere halls of Roman-era philosophy. Like his toga’ed predecessors, Porter is a stern pontificator. He is neither joyless nor joy-filled, merely a matter-of-fact thinker who clearly has spent time in the dark crafting, modifying, rewriting his own personal coaching ethos. Whatever you would say about Porter, he is on the practical side of the philosophical continuum.
This, too, is the way Roman men of letters thought. It was Cicero who first said brevity is the great charm of eloquence, Plutarch who observed that nothing is more unwieldy than a man in prosperity, Pliny the Elder who posited that life would be sweeter if we desired nothing but what could be wrought with our own hands. Rome was a meat-and-potatoes society nonetheless given over to higher thought, and in this I think Porter would’ve found a comfortable home.
There are no fantastical illusions to Socratic shadows on cave walls in Porter’s reckoning, as you might find in a conversation with, say, Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann.
The reason Porter’s fall from stylistic anomaly is so disheartening isn’t because he went back on possession for possession’s sake. It’s because he went back on anything discernible. He was something, and then in the face of adversity he became something neither understandable nor palatable. Portland is far from the worst team in the league, but it is hard to stand by Episode I when Episode IV is sitting haughtily in the dusty shelves of your filmography.
So perhaps it was no great surprise, then, that the 2012 Olympic Qualifying disaster transmogrified Porter, changed his ousia, turned him inside out. To that end, Porter recently spoke at length with FourFourTwo’s Scott French, an interview I heartily suggest you read. This, for me, was the pivot point and the singular focus of Porter’s shift.
Or at least the beginning of it, when Porter went from an idealized Greek philosopher to a hardened, pragmatic and defiantly Roman one.
This is hard. It is hard to read. For me, at least.
In the aftermath of this foundering, a scuppered ship hulled and broken apart, Klinsmann called this group a lost generation. There is absurd hyperbole in that, of course, because generations are not made up of 20 men, even in soccer parlance. But it felt like something lifted off this team in the aftermath of that El Salvador loss, both disappearing from the field and the sideline with equal speed.
Here is the roster from that low moment in time.
The amount of unfulfillment in this is staggering, like a weight that grew heavier over time.
The keepers, Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid, were both on USMNT fast tracks until they weren’t. Hamid’s opportunities have been run through by the gleaming sword of inconsistency and injury, while Johnson’s development arc flat-lined. Of this group of defenders, Villafana is the only player who even approached his potential ceiling, and even then it took five years to approach the senior team. Opara’s apparent quality has been offset in turns by injury. Kitchen’s career has detoured into the deep woods in Denmark. Sarkodie hasn’t put in a full pro season in three years. Valentin struggled with injuries and has turned into a serviceable pro who nonetheless is far from the national team lens. Williams turned into an MLS journeyman and has had a nefariously difficult summer.
The midfielders are a graveyard of broken promise. Diskerud was a ghost wandering aimlessly between positions before losing his place both in the USMNT and at NYCFC. Adu needs no preamble, even if this tournament did provide him a glimmer of hope at a return. Corona is now on his second (or is it third?) chance with the USMNT. Stephens and Jeffrey quickly fell off the national team map and likely won’t ever return to it. After a promising few years in Philly, Okugo inexplicably turned into a nomad, both positionally and geographically, and was soon beset by injuries.
The forward line is riddled with similar stories. Agudelo and Bunbury, always tentatively linked in play-style and ability after splashing into the USMNT pool at the same time, have been non-factors and seemed to have missed their prodigious ceilings by some distance. Gyau’s time at BVB was wracked by injury and disappointment, and he now plays for an obscure club in the German third division. Taylor, who just signed for the NASL’s Jacksonville Armada, his seventh club in eight years, isn’t even in the USMNT corral anymore after committing to Panama in 2016. Boyd lost an entire year of his career to injury (are you sensing a pattern yet) and has played all of 23 professional games in the last three years. And Shea, now on his fourth club in four years, remains a jouster galloping into the tilt at full speed without a lance.
All of the sadness encompassed here is almost unbearable.
There are no curses in soccer, no grizzled fortune tellers named Maggie the Frog interpreting The Fates and in all their lasciviousness and wielding their decrees like a hammer. But looking at the twisted routes taken by each of the men named to that 2012 Olympic team, it’s easier to understand how at least one slice of this generation was laid low.
There is a moment in the above quote where Porter pauses, hovering delicately over an idea before passing it by without finishing the thought. “Because I swear, if that ball doesn’t go in, we go to the Olympics, and I’m probably still… who knows?”
Who knows indeed. But unlike Porter, I’m not convinced that game and the wreckage that came after happened for any reason at all.