The Devil’s Advocate

It would be fair to say that there has been a fair amount of anti-Gavin Wilkinson material on this site. I’ve stated in the past that I felt the sacking of John Spencer was the correct decision, but only half the job as I felt, and still feel, that Wilkinson bears a large culpability for the club’s woes.

However, a couple of tweets I received got me thinking a bit.

Playing Devil’s Advocate can be a useful intellectual exercise, or so I find. Most Timbers blogs, and the overwhelming majority of the #RCTID feed on twitter tend towards anti-Wilkinson sentiment, but I think it’s good to explore the other side of the argument as “herd mentality” can sometimes take over, making it easy to get swept along. By arguing against yourself you can explore why you feel the way you feel and it can make your arguments stronger. Besides which, debate is always good.

So, while I may not be a fan of Wilkinson, what is the case for his defence? That’s what I’ll (hopefully) explore here.

Consistency

Since Merritt Paulson took over the Timbers franchise back in May 2007, much has changed at the club right down to the very ground itself, which was redeveloped for the step up to MLS in 2011.

One of the biggest constants held over from Paulson’s first day is Gavin Wilkinson. Wilkinson, a former player and team captain, was made head coach at the end of the 2006 season following a disastrous year that saw the club toiling under the management of Chris Agnello.

For all of Paulson’s reign, Wilkinson has been right there with him. When the Timbers won the MLS franchise, Wilkinson stepped aside as head coach, yet retained his position as general manager.

Wilkinson clearly has the respect of the team owner, and has had a lot of influence in the preparation for Major League Soccer. The hiring of John Spencer would’ve been Paulson’s first head coach appointment and I’ve no doubt that Wilkinson’s coaching expertise was of crucial importance.

Though John Spencer never worked out in the end, he came into the job with a great reputation as one of the league’s finest up-and-coming coaches. He’d worked closely with Dominic Kinnear at Houston Dynamo and had great knowledge of the intricacies of working in MLS. The lack of top flight experience was a problem for the timbers in moving up, but in Spencer they seemed to have the best of both worlds – someone with MLS experience, but who would yet bring a fresh look to the expansion club.

With the search for the Timbers second permanent head coach presumably in it’s final stages, Wilkinson has undoubtedly been influential once more. Paulson has defended his general manager on twitter, stating, “If I thought it was [Wilkinson] who was the issue than [sic] it would have been different presser at midseason”.

Hindsight has a habit of making past decisions look foolish, and it’s easy to sit back now and say that the Timbers should’ve appointed someone with experience to ease the club into the top flight. Going with Spencer was a brave choice even though it seems to have been a mistake now.

Not even Wilkinson’s staunchest supporters would claim he had made no mistakes in his tenure. “He has made some mistakes but he’s done a ton of good and a lot has gone on that nobody sees”, said Paulson.

The club’s trade record can also make for painful, retrospective, reading.

Kenny Cooper scored against the Timbers at the weekend, and his form this season for New York has been a source of rancour for some. His time in Portland was professionally frustrating for all involved, but it wasn’t Wilkinson who failed to get the best out of Kenny Cooper.

Indeed, there were mixed feelings regarding the trade at the time.

Source: bigsoccer.com

Another trade that looks poor in retrospect was that of Moffat for Chabala and Palmer. This looks especially bad as Adam Moffat went on to play in the MLS Cup that year while the Timbers failed to reach the play-offs, but in the context of the times when the move was made, I don’t think it stacks up so badly.

It’s easy to forget that Adam Moffat could hardly get a game for the Timbers. Four appearances, all of them as sub, for a grand total of 100 minutes of playing time. Again, it wasn’t Gavin Wilkinson’s fault that Moffat couldn’t dislodge either Jewsbury and Chara as John Spencer’s favoured midfield.

With the club lacking cover at full-back, a move that saw a bench warmer shipped out in return for two full-backs seemed like a great piece of business. Lovel Palmer had been a regular for Houston since his move from his native Jamaica.

Looking back, the move can leave you smacking your head as Moffat continues to feature in the Dynamo’s midfield, while Chabala has been moved on and Palmer is as popular with a section of fans as Todd Akin in a rape crisis center. But beating Wilkinson with that stick seems like petty revisionism.

Respect

Wilkinson’s interim appointment as head coach was met with derision and concern from some quarters but he has the respect of the coaching staff, many of whom he has worked with in the past.

Amos Magee was an assistant under Wilkinson during the Timbers USL days, and Cameron Knowles, a fellow Kiwi to boot, was one of Wilkinson’s first signings as head coach, back in 2007. Knowles joined the coaching staff at the start of 2012.

Sean McAuley also joined the coaching staff this year, following the departure of Spencer, and the ex-Sheffield Wednesday coach played alongside Wilkinson in the Timbers defence during the 2002 season. His appointment was hailed be Paulson as “a great add” and Wilkinson has also spoken about the fresh voice that McAuley has brought to the locker room.

Merritt Paulson has also asserted that Wilkinson has the respect of the players, saying that the “state of locker room is extremely happy” and that Wilkinson “has been popular w players season [sic]. we create anonymous feedback outlets. obviously w 30 guys, always outliers.”

There may be speculation about how those “outliers” are, or were. Certainly, reading between the lines, there doesn’t seem to have been a great deal of love lost from Troy Perkins following his recent trade to Montreal, and some fans speculate that Kris Boyd’s relegation the bench against New York (where he was subsequently unused as a sub) are a sign of tension between the club’s high-earning top scorer and Wilkinson.

It’s all speculation though and unless Paulson is flat-out lying there’s no reason to doubt that most of the locker room is fully behind Wilkinson and his short-term appointment.

The sense of continuity provided by having Wilkinson step in while a search is carried out for a new head coach has given the locker room a sense of stability that can easily be lost when a manager is sacked and big changes are made.

Ambition

Paulson’s rather crude assertion that “the same morons starting this [#GWOut] movement [would] line up to kiss gavin’s ass”, while somewhat lacking in diplomacy, does speak to the continued ambition of Paulson and Wilkinson.

The team owner had previously set goals for the club’s second year that have clearly not been met, but the road map remains the same. Together they are building a squad that is capable of delivering success commensurate with the level of support they receive. Should they start to deliver the results they seek in the 3rd and 4th years, then this season will be looked back as little more than an unfortunate detour off course.

The hiring of an experienced, and respected coach such as McAuley is a part of the rebuilding process, and the club continue to change things on the field. Kosuke Kimura was signed shortly before Spencer’s sacking, and since Spencer has gone the changes have continued apace.

The trade of Perkins was a controversial one, the merits of which continue to be debated by fans and pundits alike, but Wilkinson and Paulson have been steadfast in asserting that bringing in Ricketts was an “upgrade”. Paulson tweeted that the “team was broken and system needed to be torn down and rebuilt” and this what we’re seeing now.

Mike Chabala was moved on to DC United – a move that makes sense for both parties in my opinion, as Chabala never really impressed upon me that he was a guy to command a place in the match day 18, never mind the starting 11 – while New Zealand international Ian Hogg has been brought in on what is effectively an extended trial. Bright Dike, one of the star players in the Timbers final USL season, was promptly recalled from loan at LA Blues upon Spencer’s departure to bolster the attack, something he did to fine effect against New York. It’s unlikely that the club are finished reshaping the team this year as, with Paulson on the “verge of hiring a terrific coach“, it seems that some of the moves are being guided with this new appointment in mind.

Performance

“I’ve been responsible for bringing all those players here. Now it’s up to me to get a little bit more out of them.” The words of Gavin Wilkinson on his appointment as interim head coach are very telling to me as they indicated the front office’s belief that Spencer’s great failing was in not finding a way to get a good return out of the squad at his disposal.

A record of 5 defeats and 2 draws in his 7 matches, with 8 goals scored and a whopping 18 conceded, makes it easy to dismiss Wilkinson’s record as interim head coach. However, since it’s a role he’s made clear he doesn’t want on a permanent basis, so it’s hard to see how his record as a coach can be used to beat him if he’s no interest in being coach. Rather his remit seems to me to have been to address how the team is playing, and this is perhaps a better way to measure Wilkinson’s time in the hot seat during this difficult transitional period.

The biggest change since Spencer’s sacking has been the adoption of a 4-3-3 system. Spencer seemed unwilling or unable to change from his tried-and-tested 4-4-2, his greatest tinkering reserved to adopting a flawed “diamond” system, so it’s perhaps understandable that there would be an “adjustment” period for players as they got used to the new system.

Early results were poor – the first three matches under Wilkinson saw the Timbers ship 5 goals twice and score only 3, but recent performances have been much improved, even if it hasn’t brought a great improvement in results.

There have been two draws in the last four matches, with a strong case to be made that a bit of luck or more composure in front of goal could’ve resulted in at least a couple of wins. The team have scored 5, and lost 7 – a record that would (measured across a whole season) result in the team being a single goal worse off than under the record under Spencer by scoring 10 more, and conceding 11.

For a team under reconstruction, and undergoing a change in footballing philosophy, that’s not such a bad return. Paulson seems to agree that performances are encouraging, tweeting that the “players [are] being used as they should and we actually have a system now.”

That system has brought about an improvement from a number of players. Darlington Nagbe has been a source for debate for much of the season as the youngster suffered from a mid-season slump in his form. Recently though there seems to have been the return of some of his old spark, and he had probably his best game in a long time against New York. The 4-3-3 seems to free up Nagbe from much of the defensive responsibility that Spencer’s use of the 4-4-2 placed upon him, and he’s benefiting.

Another player benefiting from less defensive onus is Diego Chara. The Colombian midfielder is now being used as more of a box-to-box midfielder under Wilkinson, and he’s been a revelation in the role. Essentially, he’s now playing more in the opponents first half, and putting his quick passing and intelligent play to use in creating for the Timbers, rather than solely destroying the work of the opposition. It seems much more suited to his abilities, though it does come at the cost of lessening the Timbers presence in defensive midfield, and perhaps contributes in some way to the leakier-than-usual back line of recent weeks.

With Chara renewed in midfield, Jack Jewsbury has also seen his game improve as the anchor man in midfield. There was a good post about how the clearly delineated roles for Jewsbury and Chara had helped them both, and it certainly seems that Captain Jack seems more assured and confident in the role now that he and Diego Chara aren’t getting in each others way at the base of the midfield.


In conclusion it’s clearly not been plain sailing. Results have been poor, and that is ultimately what matters. You don’t get points for style, or moral victories. Nor, unbelievably, for shots on goal and possession. The defence remains a big problem, and I suspect that the work to set it right – started with the signing of Kimura – has only just begun. I have my own doubts about David Horst’s abilities at this level, and I think at 29 we’re unlikely to see great improvement from Futty. Eric Brunner’s fitness remains an engima. Finding a partner for Mosquera must surely be a priority for Wilkinson and The New Head Coach Who Shall Not Be Named, though with the return to the club of Andrew Jean-Baptiste perhaps the youngster can stack his claim in the few weeks that remain of the 2012 season.

The fact of the matter is that Wilkinson is here for the long haul. Paulson is adamant that Wilkinson is “not going anywhere”. Consistency is the watchword, and “making [Wilkinson] a scapegoat and calls for heads in our 2nd year in league is bush-league“.

That’s not to say Wilkinson’s position is one for life. “If its like this next year than go ahead and call for his head,“ Paulson tweeted, though this won’t stop some fans making their feeling perfectly clear against Vancouver at the weekend. The next year, starting with the formal appointment of a new head coach, could make or break Wilkinson’s tenure with the Timbers.

Paulson views the #GWOut movement as a “witch hunt”, while a vocal section of fans see it as necessary to save their club. A new head coach make take some of the heat off the front office for a while, but it’s unlikely to dampen the fires entirely as both sides continue to entrench their positions. Even delivering a MLS Cup next year is unlikely to have fans lining up to kiss Kiwi ass as, I suspect, such success would be viewed as being in spite of Gavin Wilkinson rather than thanks to him.

Who is right will ultimately be another one of those things that will only become clear with hindsight. For now fans better just buckle up cos there’s no sign that the ride is going to get any less bumpy any time soon.

The defence rests.

#RCTID


As any twitter-literate Timbers fan will know, Merritt is rather fond of deleting tweets so you’re not going to find many of the quotes used here in his current feed. But trust me, they were all there at one point.

[post_ender]

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13 thoughts on “The Devil’s Advocate

  1. Great read. This bit:

    “it’s hard to see how his record as a coach can be used to beat him if he’s no interest in being coach. Rather his remit seems to me to have been to address how the team is playing”

    is something I think a lot of folks haven’t considered, and is likely what Merritt is talking about when he says the “stats are up”. You did a much better job of making the point. I also saw Ian Paul Joy tweet: “Results matter but the way the game is played is what’s important. Show heart, desire and passion and results will follow.” I think a lot of us may have lost sight of that. Yes, it hasn’t translated to wins, yet. But a shift like this in mid-season is going to take time. I figured, going into the Toronto and NY games that we’d win vs. TOR and get blown out by NY, but I didn’t think we’d get 2 goals in either match, much less both of them.

    This is not to say there aren’t still glaring issues to be addressed. Seems to me that the recent lineup changes are evidence that GW and company are willing to address the issues, or at least tinker with things enough to see what’s what.

  2. Thanks for the perspective. We’ll never really know what goes on in the locker room or at practice, and so much of the GW hating can seem like conjecture. The man’s terrible PR skills haven’t helped his case.

    I’ve been encouraged by GW’s willingness to experiment with different formations. It was refreshing to see a break from the 4-4-2, though I’m still not convinced that the sole striker role is the best choice for our 1.5mil dollar DP..

    1. I’m not sure Boyd will be a Timber for much longer. He misses the point-blank goal versus Toronto, then sits the entire NY game. That doesn’t bode well for Kris. Anyone have thoughts on this?

      1. I am not convinced Kris is happy or fits the style of play that MP clearly wants. I like Kris, but think he’d be happier elsewhere, and the Timbers could move on. The bitter irony is that I think KFC could be used now. Spencer didn’t have an ounce of imagination and continually stuffed players in awkward roles. I think Cooper was a big loser because of that.

      2. There is another possibility. Much of Cooper’s success this year can be attributed to a change in his playing style. Before he would always try to run/play around players, almost as if he were afraid to use his size to gain and keep position.

        This year he is standing his ground, showing he can hold the ball while the rest of the offense mobilizes. Hence his assists.

        I believe that an experiencedd coach saw what Cooper needed, and was able to persuade him–and coach him through the transition in playing styles.

        I do agree that Cooper would fit well now, and it is conceivable that NY might part with him, given their recent acquisitions. I am not sure you can really use Cooper, Cahill, Henry and Le Toux and still make room for developing new talent.

        Unless you are Barcelona or Real Madrid, that is. . .

        At any rate, I believe we need to fix the back and the middle before doing any more tinkering with the front.

        Priorities.

        And we have Boyd’s DP and International slot and $ to work with. Only problem is that we might have seriously degraded his value to other teams this year.

  3. I guess my cynical perspective is that we’ve seen this before from Gavin the Coach, back in USL; his teams would go on a tear (I’m thinking specially of the first half of the 2009 season) but it never seemed to last.

    As a coach he seemed typically no better at outmanaging his opponents on matchday than Spencer was, and he tended to find a system and stick with it long after the guy on the other side of the halfway line had sussed him out, made adjustments, and stuck two or three past us. If I had to call him out on the basis of “consistency” I’d consider his USL coaching record consistently mediocre; not awful, but not particularly good, either. We were kicked out of both the USL playoffs and the USOC early every season with metronomic regularity.

    But, as Kevin points out, this really isn’t about Gavin the Gaffer.

    So what about Gavin the GM?

    I wish I could find it, but there was a hell of a good post on one of the Timbers blogs discussing Gavin’s record as an assessor of players, and the verdict was pretty similar; not awful, but not particularly good. Just subjectively, I can think of several reasons why I’d downcheck him for both “ambition” and “performance”;

    1. His signings from the USL Timbers seem to have worked out about 50/50; Cronin (for Perkins) and Dike seem successful but Pore was a bust and Eddie Johnson retired having played in only seven games, most of those as a late-game sub). We all know the now-infamous Marcelin Protocol.

    2. In the USL – with as good a financial backing as most USL teams had – his signings were fairly iffy; for every Dike there was a Goldthwaite. I don’t remember a Wilkinson team every playing completely solid from front to back through a full season.

    3. His trades seem to be similarly hit-or-miss. Much as I’d like to I can’t fault him for the Moffat trade – it seemed like a good deal at the time – Palmer and Chabala seemed like solutions for the RB problem. But he’s made another couple of moves that seem questionable at best; the McCarty trade, the Perkins trade.

    4. He doesn’t seem to have a good grip on fitting players to the team. He’s stockpiled a pantsload of forwards and fiddled about with keepers while the problems besetting the backline and the question of a playmaking midfielder go on and on.

    So…

    In short, I don’t see this team making significant progress with a Wilkinson-led Front Office. I don’t see him as the ogre he is to the GWOut faction, but I also don’t see him as a particularly gifted or able technical director or a player-signing general manager. His apparent inability to work with John Spencer (or figure out prior to signing the man that he couldn’t work with him…) makes me dubious of his ability to perform these tasks for another…

    Bumpy?

    Like the crest of the Cascades bumpy.

    Let’s not become the Toronto of the West. Onward, Rose City!

    1. Are we so sure that it was Gavin Wilkinson that could not work with Spencer? Might it have been Paulson, speaking through his man Gavin?

  4. Chris Gluck has what I consider to be some good observations about MLS patterns of player acquisition versus team performance, the first over at Stumptown Footy (http://www.stumptownfooty.com/2012/8/20/3257211/an-analysis-of-what-budgetary-investments-ptfc-have-made-in-defenders) and the second at his Columbian blog (http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/portland-timbers/2012/aug/22/portland-timbers-budgetary-investments-part-2/)

    Clif’s notes version: clubs in MLS appear to benefit more from productive midfielders and tough defenders (there’s a surprise, right?) than high-profile/highly-paid strikers. The implication being that the Timbers’ FO – and by extension, Gavin, whose job is to run the portion of the FO dedicated to player acquisition – has and is going the wrong direction in going after forwards and relative neglect of the midfield and backline.

    But I recommend the articles. Even if you disagree with the conclusions, the discussion is worth reading.

  5. The offense is more dynamic. More guys are seeing the field. Foundation guys, like Nagbe and Chara, look better.

    There are some positives.

  6. I like Boyd. His form has been bad of late. His service has been questionable at best all year.

    I think we could benefit more from the DP slot and cash than having him on board. He would probably be better served by different teammates.

  7. There is another glaring possibility.

    In many organizations the second-in-command takes the heat for the decisions made (and not necessarily agreed with) by the head man. It is entirely plausible that Merritt Paulson is making the worst choices over the private objections of Gavin Wilkinson. It is not acceptable for a number 2 to publicly question the bosses’ calls, and extraordinarily unprofessional to do it on the sly.

    So this might well be “the training of a rookie MLS owner.” Paulson is very inexperienced for the responsibilities of top management in any field, let alone as owner of a professional sports team, especially given the god-like status and opportunity to hang oneself offered with the position. It takes extraordinary maturity–more than is evident in many supporters–to set aside your own gut instincts when you absolutely have no one to answer to.

    This scenario would result in what we see now from the outside; inconsistent decisions with some glaring errors an inability to hang onto/put up with #3, and particularly pointed criticism from those in the ranks, who must suffer the brute force consequences of bad decisions, but have no one to point at other than the loyal #2.

    Often this happens in an organizational form called “charismatic bureaucracy” in which the top guy tries to make the organization into an extension of his (usually male) personality. Dissent is not favored, and public dissent not tolerated. The top guy honestly sees the organization as “one big happy family” with himself as generous and wise patriarch. There is no effective board of directors to which to answer, and other outside factors (bad luck, weather, betrayal, disunion) can be blamed for any poor results.

    Until the organization collapses, and the top guy is ousted somehow.

    Or a particularly wise and capable #2 who recognizes the hazards of the “yes man” culture graciously and gradually educates (manipulates?) the top guy to divorce the organization from his own ego and personality.

    This is a particularly nasty and common phenomenon in professional sports team ownership, and especially if the owner really does not care whether the team is as profitable as is possible. Besides, fans can be both ignored and taken-for-granted, at least for awhile, and merchandise, corporate sales and media income can all easily make up for a mediocre fan base. Couple that with the personal ego attachment of owning your own professional sports team and you have a recipe for disaster.

    Note, for example, the history for the last few decades of the New York Yankees. . .

    Perhaps the biggest skill that Spencer and Wilkinson lack is the ability to protect the team from the owner.

    Thing is, as long as you have responsible, professional managers, the outsider will never be able to differentiate this situation from one of top/middle level mismanagement.

    If so, the anti-Wilkinson energy ought to be focused on finding another owner. . . not an easy task.

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