Reunion of ex-Zips adds spice to Sounders-Timbers rivalry

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SEATTLE — Two Decembers ago, Sounders FC’s Steve Zakuani and some former University of Akron teammates visited their college coach, Caleb Porter, in Ohio. An exhaustive soccer talk ensued, mainly on Porter’s philosophy and possession-oriented style. It lasted about three hours.

“He just wouldn’t stop,” Zakuani said with a smile.

Fast-forward 15 months, and the Seattle midfielder knows exactly what to expect from the Portland Timbers, now led by Porter, a first-year coach in MLS. The teams play Saturday at CenturyLink Field.

“I’ve seen them, but I could’ve told you that that’s how they’re going to play,” Zakuani said. “He will never, ever change his style. Never ever. He believes in it so much.”

The Timbers, a third-year franchise, are already undergoing a transformation after two underwhelming seasons. That starts with Porter.

Changes under the new coach are already visible in formation and playing style, a more possession-oriented attack, and also personnel, with six new starters this year. While there have been growing pains in a 0-1-1 start, there is a greater goal in mind.

“We’re a new team in a lot of ways,” Porter said in a conference call Thursday. “We’re a new franchise again, building a new whole philosophy, a new whole culture, so that gives me peace of mind.”

Despite having only one point after two MLS games, Porter has stressed “patience” and “understanding the process” as keys to a turnaround.

Porter replaced John Spencer, a fiery Scotsman who went 16-22-13 before being fired midway through the 2012 season. General manager Gavin Wilkinson took over on an interim basis before Porter joined in January after the college season at Akron.

How do the Sounders’ former Zips players remember their old coach?

“He’s super, super intense,” said Zakuani, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft.

“Definitely a yeller,” added rookie defender DeAndre Yedlin, Seattle’s other Akron product.

Porter, who relied on Sounders coach Sigi Schmid for advice on the college-to-pros leap, said he has toned down a bit in MLS.

“I’m not going to change who I am, but I think with the pros you have to be a bit more calculated when you show that passion, that intensity, that competitiveness,” he said. “You can maybe be a little less careful with college kids.”

The Porter-Zakuani-Yedlin reunion Saturday will be a mix of emotions.

Yedlin hopes to show his former coach how much he’s improved. Seattle’s homegrown 19-year-old said Porter took him in “like a son” at Akron.

Zakuani’s relationship with Porter goes back further. Porter helped bring the dynamic Sounder to America from England in the uncertain aftermath of an injury Zakuani suffered as a 15-year-old.

At some point, competitiveness will kick in for all three Saturday.

“These are players that I coached, that I care for, and I will be rooting for — except for when we’re playing them,” Porter said.

“After the game, I’m sure we’ll share a moment and a chat. But prior to the game, I don’t think there will be much discussion.”

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