By THOMAS FLOYD
Two moments stick out to Caleb Porter regarding Rodney Wallace’s rapid ascent from useful utility player to emerging MLS standout.
The first was in late January, at Estadio Nacional in San Jose, Costa Rica. With the host nation locked in a scoreless Copa Centroamericana semifinal against Honduras, Wallace not only secured passage to the title game by converting a late back-post header — he also gave Porter a glimpse of his underestimated class in the final third.
The second was in mid-March, under the bright lights of a Cascadia Cup clash between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders. Given 10 minutes off the bench by Porter, Wallace again showcased that uncanny awareness close to goal, looping a 90th-minute header into the back of the net to give the Timbers a hard-earned road point.
At that point, Porter was sold.
“You want the players on the field that you trust, players you can count on,” Porter said. “When he pulled that header out to give us a result in the final minutes against Seattle on the road, I thought to myself, ‘This guy’s got it. He’s got game-changing ability. He’s got mental toughness.’ When you want more out of a player and you get more with the game on the line, you feel like you can trust him.”
Two matches later, Wallace was given his first start of the year. Deployed on the left as a wing forward in Porter’s 4-3-3 formation, Wallace has enjoyed a firm grip on the position ever since.
Having already scored a career-high three goals while adding two assists, the 24-year-old plagued by inconsistency during his first four MLS campaigns has emerged as perhaps the league’s most improved player this season.
And as Porter is quick to point out, the surging Timbers are 4-0-2 with the University of Maryland product in the first 11.
“I came into this season not starting, and I feel like I’m just playing with a chip on my shoulder,” Wallace said. “In the past, I’ve dealt with some different cards, but I’m not looking back on things. I’m just happy with the position the team is in, the position that I am in. I’m looking forward.”
Although Porter, who arrived during the offseason from the University of Akron, watched tape of all 34 Timbers games from last year, he wanted to approach his tenure with an open mind. After using Wallace at left back and defensive midfield during preseason, Porter recalled Wallace’s goal against Honduras and decided to put the player’s attacking qualities to better use.
“If you put a guy in the right spot, he comes to life because he feels good about it. And with him, I think it’s highlighting his strengths,” Porter said. “He’ll press, he’ll work, he can whip in crosses, he will crash the box. He’s technical enough to play under pressure and keep possession for us, but he also brings athleticism and a bit of directness to the team that we need.”
In Porter’s possession-oriented system, which relies on intelligent passes and fluid movement off the ball, Wallace has developed into an ideal fit.
With the ball-winning midfield trio of Will Johnson, Diego Chara and Diego Valeri controlling the middle of the park, there is plenty of room to work with out wide for Wallace and right winger Darlington Nagbe, as well as overlapping fullbacks Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury.
As Wallace noted, “Our team takes pride in possession, and not just keeping the ball — we like to attack with the ball. We’re the type of guys that if we lose the ball, we try to get it right back.”
That means lots of touches, and lots of opportunities to run at tired defenders prone to lapses.
“With the system that we have, it gives you a little more space to attack,” Wallace added. “On that left side of the field, it feels more personal, you have more space. You’re playing against their right back most of the time and you’re trying to find the gaps.”
With 14 caps for Costa Rice, Wallace is hoping his fine form will secure him a spot on upcoming World Cup qualifying rosters for the Ticos. Wallace acknowledges being fueled by the possibility of playing on the sport’s grandest stage, and he already credits his limited national team experience with speeding his growth as a player and person.
“It’s given me a lot more experience going into different stadiums, going into different environments,” Wallace said. “It’s made me a well-rounded player, not just on the field but off the field. It makes you grow up a little more with the travel, taking care of your body, things like that.”
As Wallace broadens his ambition, it’s already hard to believe just two months ago he was coming off the bench for the first four games this season, logging 48 minutes total.
To the Portland players, it’s an encouraging example of what can happen when a reserve keeps his head up, maintains his work ethic and seizes his chance — a key facet of the Timbers’ retooled philosophy.
“What it does is it really reinforces your culture of your club,” Porter said. “You preach a process that performance in training gives you an opportunity in a game. For me, it was nice that we could reward him for his work coming off the bench initially. And it sends a message to the rest of the team as well that if they earn their right, they’ll get their chance too.”