EDITOR'S NOTE: In honor of Major League Soccer and the Club's 25th season, Columbus Crew SC is revisiting important moments from the Club's path. Historic match streams can be found at ColumbusCrewSC.com/stream, and more can be seen on the Club's social media channels.
Who knew that attending Indiana University would lead Caleb Porter to the path of Crew fandom?
Growing up in Michigan, the prospects of playing professional soccer - though always a dream since he was a young boy - did not start to materialize until the age of 12, when Porter's family committed to driving him two hours each way to play for Vardar Soccer Club in Detroit, in addition to his Olympic Development training.
As he admitted, you never know how things will pan out, but the picture became much clearer after committing to play at IU starting in 1994.
"I think when I got to Indiana and I started seeing guys that were older than me make the jump [to professional soccer], then I started to think that I would have the chance because I was playing with those guys," he said.
Anyone familiar with college soccer knows the perennial prowess of IU's men's team, which has won eight national championships since 1973. So it's no surprise that the school would turn into a de facto mill of professional soccer players.
The problem was, of course, that the prospects of finding a first-division team were essentially nil, domestically speaking. However, part of the agreement to host the FIFA World Cup in the United States in 1994 was the promise to establish a domestic professional league the following year, though it was eventually delayed until 1996.
After the World Cup later that fall, Porter's team made it to the NCAA National Championship as the top-seeded team but fell 1-0 to third-seeded University of Virginia. A freshman at the time, Porter explained how he looked up to that senior class, which included Todd Yeagley, Mike Clark, Brian Maisonneuve and Brandon Ward.
"They were four of the best players in the country that year. They all knew that they needed to basically figure out ’95 to stay ready because the league was coming in at ’96," Porter recalled.
Enter Major League Soccer in 1996, and the Bloomington-to-Columbus route suddenly became all the more prominent as Yeagley, Clark, Maisonneuve, and Ward would all go to play for the Crew.
"I think that Indiana connection to MLS and specifically that Indiana connection to the Columbus Crew is very interesting," Porter noted. "Not only was that exciting to see because I played with those guys, it gave me hope for the future, but it also immediately made me a Crew fan."
Porter said he watched that team very closely, driving to Columbus whenever he could to watch games or finding them on TV whenever possible.
"I watched that team very closely in ’96 because they were four of my good friends... I watched most of the games that year. I watched the Crew and I was a fan. I actually dreamed of being a player for the Crew to be able to play with those four guys that I knew really well."
That relationship with his teammates gave him a sense of excitement about breaking into the newfound league, and funny enough, Porter's ties to the Black & Gold have come full-circle as the League celebrates its 25th season.
"It’s really ironic now that I’m back coaching the Crew because that was the first team I followed, supported, loved, watched, admired," he said. "It’s one of those things where you blink and it’s been 25 years. I remember being a junior in college when the ’96 draft happened. It doesn’t seem too long ago, but it is a long time ago. It’s been amazing to be a part of it at every rung."
A college soccer player turned professional turned American coach in MLS, Porter's been there every step of the way.
"I’ve really been a part of every rung as a player and coach as this league and country developed. I think it’s been a real positive progression," he said. "We have a league that’s not only surviving but thriving... It’s only getting bigger and better and it’s exciting to be a part of it. Especially as an American player who’s played at every rung and coached at every rung. It’s really exciting."
As a player who grew up with close ties to the league before being a part of it on multiple levels, Porter noted that as MLS - a domestic league of a global game - continues to develop from an infrastructure and profile standpoint, there will always be a place for the American player.
"I’m mindful and sensitive to that because I’m an American. There will always be a place for the American coach. I like the fact there’s competition with players from around the world coming in. At the end of the day, it’s important that our American player plays, but doesn’t just play because there’s no one else to play, he plays because he’s one of the best players around the world.
"The same thing with the coaches; the better coaches that come in, it makes me better. The better players that come in should make the American player and that environment better. The entire environment is what develops this sport to be better."