D.C. United liked what it was seeing from Kyle Porter, but as the Canadian midfielder gained comfort as a starter in his first MLS season, Coach Ben Olsen pushed him to take the next step.
Olsen’s message: “Don’t be okay with just being a starter now.”
Porter, 23, was quietly filling the void left by injuries to Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius. United, though, needed more from him. Porter has made steady gains in recent matches and, with family visiting from Toronto last weekend, scored his first career goal against Sporting Kansas City at RFK Stadium.
“It’s a confidence booster that they are looking to me,” said Porter, who is likely to make a sixth consecutive start Saturday night against the visiting Portland Timbers. “It means a lot to me that I have a big responsibility.”
Acquired late in the preseason, Porter has been one of the few bright spots on a team saddled with an MLS-worst 1-8-2 record and a nine-game winless streak – one shy of the club record set 11 years ago.
United acquired 10 players before the season, most to complement a returning corps that had posted the third-best record in MLS last year. But as the losses and injuries mounted, Porter took a larger role. Among the newcomers, he has made the most appearances (nine) and is tied with Panamanian midfielder Marcos Sanchez for the most starts (five).
Porter has served on both wings and shown an ability to both beat defenders and serve a decent through ball or cross. During the 1-1 draw with Kansas City, he scored the equalizer in the 65th minute on a sliding volley.
In praising Porter’s progress, Olsen said, “Up to this point, we haven’t had a lot of threats – guys that can put defenders on their heels and create things.”
United invited Porter to training camp after seeing him make his debut with the Canadian national team in January – second-half appearances against Denmark and the United States. Before then, he followed a circuitous route, starting in the Vancouver Whitecaps’ youth system. He moved to Germany, where he played for second-tier Energie Cottbus’s junior and reserve squads.
Toronto FC offered a tryout but chose not to sign him, and the Montreal Impact took interest before the club joined MLS last year. For the past two seasons, he excelled with FC Edmonton in the second-tier North American Soccer League, scoring six goals in each campaign.
This past winter, the sides failed to reach terms. A planned tryout with a second-division German club fell through. Then came the national team call-up and United’s invitation.
“I knew my role and knew I would be second” on United’s depth chart, Porter said. “I respected that. When I was called upon, I slowly got into it. Every game has been better and better.”
Porter’s rise might earn him a Canadian recall for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the biennial regional championship that runs July 7-28 at several U.S. venues. United’s other Canadians, captain Dwayne De Rosario and defender Dejan Jakovic, are national team regulars.
“With his pace and ability, [Canada] would be [foolish] to not use a player at that level, especially a player who is playing consistently right now and a player who is gradually growing in confidence,” De Rosario said. “He was put right into the fire. He didn’t have time to adjust as a pro in this league. It’s good to see him blossoming.”
United notes: Jakovic (10 starts) is questionable with a groin strain. If he is unable to start, Brandon McDonald would likely pair with Ethan White in central defense. . . .
Midfielder Lewis Neal (one appearance) underwent groin and abdominal surgery and will miss six to eight weeks. . . . The club finalized a July 12 home friendly against Chivas Guadalajara. . . .
Three players on tryout, including Dutch legend Johan Cruyff’s grandson Jesjua, were not offered contracts. However, the club will continue to evaluate Gambian wing Sainey Nyassi, 24, who was waived by New England last week after 5 ½ seasons.