The Man, The Myth

When John Spencer was relieved of his duties in July of this year, club owner Merritt Paulson was at pains to point out that the Timbers were not “waving a white flag for 2012” as there were “still many games to play.” Indeed, Wilkinson inherited a team that weren’t far off the playoff spots and had, in their last four matches, beaten both Seattle Sounders and San Jose Earthquakes.

Gavin Wilkinson echoed that point, insisting that he was “responsible for bringing all those players here” and how it was “up to me to get a little bit more out of them.”

As we all know, Wilkinson promptly led the side on a four game losing streak, and before long the message had subtly shifted. “When I came into this position, it wasn’t a simple process of just going out and trying to win. We had to address some issues and there were some changes and there’s been a little bit of progress.”

In those first seven matches of Gavin’s interimship, the club picked up 2 points and the idea that Portland would reach the postseason became the notion of delusional fantasists as reality set in.

By the time the side took the field against the Sounders, looking to secure the Cascadia Cup, all focus was on laying the groundwork for the next season. Gavin’s decision to rest the “injured” Steven Smith and Kosuke Kimura in favour of the Katastrophe Kids, Rodney Wallace and Lovel Palmer, was dressed up as being “important to see a few players in different positions so we could go into the offseason making the right decisions.”

This notion that Gavin has been testing players for next year has taken such firm root that it’s become a generally accepted “fact” among a growing proportion of fans and pundits. It is, in my opinion, no more than a myth.

It’s easy to dress up a tactical fuck-up like sticking Wallace and Palmer into the line-up as some kind of experiment. Yeah, sure, it was just test to see how they would cope in the atmosphere, or pace of the game, or whatever. Of course. It rings every bit as hollow as those emergency rooms cases where the hapless individual explains that he accidentally fell backwards onto the beer bottle and it just got lodged up there.

What were we meant to learn about Wallace and Palmer that we didn’t already know for the numerous times they’ve already played at full-back, including a whole run of matches THIS SEASON already? If Wilkinson truly was assessing the squad and using it as some kind of tactical Petri dish, then why haven’t we see Ryan Kawulok in the team? Jean-Baptiste? Richards, after he got a whole two starts when Gavin made 6 changes to a team that lost 5-0 against Dallas? Where’s Rincon, or Taylor, or even Hogg (yes, I know there’ve been injuries, but they haven’t always been out), to mention but a few?

Instead, Wilkinson had picked a more settled team that his predecessor. 7 players have started at least 12 of the 15 matches (80%) that Wilkinson has been in control for. Seven. Kimura, Smith, Horst, Mosquera, Jewsbury, Songo’o and Nagbe.

That’s the entire back four. Now, I totally get that continuity is important in defence, probably more so than anywhere else of the pitch (when you think of great defences it’s generally a unit you think off, when you think of great attacks it might be one or two guys, on the whole) but does anyone out there actually think that this will be our back four next season? Cos if it is… well, that’s an early Halloween scare, right there. And if you accept that it won’t be the chose four next year, why aren’t we giving others a chance?

If you consider that Ricketts was only signed in August and has played when fit, that Chara only falls a couple shy of 12 starts due to injury, and that Zizzo has started 9 of the last 10 matches, then you can stretch that “settled” number up to 10. Dike has started 7 of the last 9 if you want to make it a full team.

By comparison, only five players reach the 80% criteria under Spencer – Perkins, Jewsbury, Chara, Boyd and Nagbe. (3 of these are mainstays under Wilkinson, one got traded and one fell out of favour.)

It’s quite clear to me that Gavin has a pretty clear idea of his “best eleven” and he is, in general, sticking to that core group. Fair enough. Continuity and all that. But aren’t we supposed to be figuring out what we have so as to make the right decisions in the offseason?

Putting to one side Ricketts, who was signed after Spencer left, and Kimura, who played the one match under Spencer that he was available for, there are really only six players who have seen themselves get significantly more game time under Wilkinson than Spencer.

David Horst (29% / 87%) played five straight games for Spencer following Brunner’s injury, and has held that role under Wilkinson despite a couple of starts for Danso along the way. I don’t think we can chalk that one down to Wilkinson.

Steven Smith (47% / 80%) is a little misleading as Smith was signed in April and, in actual fact, played 8 of the 10 matches he was available for under Spencer, so he’s actually been used as much under Wilkinson as he was under Spencer.

Hanyer Mosquera (59% / 93%) is another example where a player’s enforced absence has skewed the numbers. But for an early season injury and a 3 game suspension in June, he was clearly a first choice under Spencer.

Franck Songo’o (47% / 80%) has more to do with a player taking the time to adjust to a new league and new team mates than it does with Gavin Wilkinson bringing him through, in my opinion.

Which brings us to the two guys whose increased game time I would ascribe to Gavin Wilkinson.

Sal Zizzo (6% / 60%) seemed to have designated a “super sub” under Spencer, but since given a run of games under Gavin Wilkinson, he’s put in some great showings and has made four assists in his last eight starts.

Bright Dike (0% / 47%) went from forgotten man to hero when given a chance by Wilkinson and has repaid his former USL boss with four goals and some all-action performances. So, fair enough, hats off to Gavin Wilkinson there. I’d have big reservations if Dike is truly the man we look to lead the line next season, but he’s in a purple patch right now, and we’re getting a good return from him, so strike while the iron’s hot.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two have shone together as they seemed to have struck up an immediate understanding. Three of Dike’s goals have been assisted by Zizzo, and it really seems to be the case that the two players are bringing out the best in each other.

Three guys who have seen their game time limited since Spencer left are Eric Alexander, Kris Boyd and Kalif Alhassan. In the latter case, injuries have been a big factor, as they have been to a lesser degree with Boyd, but the sense persists that these are three guys who don’t really fit under Wilkinson.

As with Zizzo & Dike, Alexander and Alhassan seem to bring the best out in Boyd as they seemed to be the two players who were most in tune with the Scottish striker. All of Boyd’s goals have been scored when either player is on the field, with Alhassan and Alexander both logging assists for Boyd.

In fact, the five game barren spell Boyd had between the 1-0 win against Kansas City and the 2-1 win against Chicago coincides with a five match stretch where neither Alexander nor Alhassan started. They all start against LA, Boyd scores; they return against Vancouver, Boyd scores. Can you guess which two players didn’t start any of the final three matches Boyd played before being dropped for Dike (ignoring the cameo against San Jose)?

All of this is to get off the point though. The fact is that, at best, you could say that Wilkinson brought Zizzo and Dike into the fold. Beyond that, what have we learned about this roster during this grand period of experimentation?

That Palmer and Wallace are every bit as not-very-good as we remembered them to be? That Mike Fucito will run about a bit, but just don’t expect him to score goals? That Sal Zizzo isn’t a right-back? That’s not a lot to show for 15 matches worth of time. If these are all things that Wilkinson thinks are questions that needed to be answered so as to build towards 2013, then I can’t help but fear for the worst with this guy as General Manager.

I haven’t addressed players being used as subs, cos I don’t think you’re going to learn a great deal about someone based on a 20 minute cameo here or there. Players need to start, and be given a few matches to show what they can do. We’re simply not doing that.

Don’t believe the hype. There is no appreciable difference to squad rotation under Wilkinson than there was under Spencer. In fact, only twice have the Timbers named an unchanged XI from one week to the next, and both of those occasions were with Gavin in charge. We’re not learning anything we didn’t already know. Beyond the change of formation and a couple of different faces, you would be hard pressed to see any difference.

You can’t put out a settled team every week and still play the “experimentation” card. You’re either rotating the squad and giving different people a chance to do different jobs, or you’re picking the same bunch of guys week in-week out.

Even if you buy that early on Wilkinson was looking to push the team to the playoffs and only latterly, when that became impossible, turned to experimenting with the roster the fact is that of the 13 line-up changes in the last five matches, 5 have been enforced (injuries or suspensions) which leaves 8 in a very broad “tactical” category, or, if you prefer, 61.5% of line-up changes have been tactical. That is actually lower than the same criteria under Spencer (64.7%) and a big dip in Wilkinson’s overall 72.7%. So Wilkinson is changing things up and giving players a chance, he’s making changes when they’re forced upon him.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. The greatest trick Gavin has pulled is that he’s working to some kind of plan.

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29 thoughts on “The Man, The Myth

    1. Why does Merritt Paulson get a free pass? Whereas Gavin Wilkinson, while not a good GM, is the scapegoat?

      Merritt Paulson has done nothing to earn his mantle of team president. His dad bought the team and stadium renovations for him, and Adrian Hanauer has been instructing him all along on how to run the business side of things. What has Merritt Paulson actually brought to the Timbers of his own volition, other than the shame that our fair town is now burdened with as we coddle a criminal family who caused great damage to millions of Americans and many Portland families?

      In contrast, Gavin Wilkinson is a long-tenured Timbers fixture beginning as a player. He’s been instrumental in the Portland youth soccer movement, with Brent Richards one of the players he has groomed in his youth program. He has only ever had the responsibilities of a GM under the leash of Merritt Paulson, and we have not seen what he is capable of if he was free of Merritt Paulson’s interference, something John Spencer eventually became fed up with.

      I am not saying that Gavin Wilkinson is the cat’s meow. He doesn’t have that impressive of a track record. However, Merritt Paulson also has no track record, has been propped up with outside help, has caused great damage to the organization internally due to his abrasive and spoiled personality, and is rolling in his dad’s stolen money acquired in a way that nearly destroyed our country and caused real and lasting pain to millions of regular every-day Americans.

      I am increasingly becoming frustrated with the GWOUT attitude; not because Gavin Wilkinson doesn’t probably need to go — yes, we need a fresh direction — but because the level of hatred of vitriol that he has to endure is so incredibly unfair whereas it would be entirely appropriate to direct at Merritt Paulson and his father. Why do they get off scott free? Why does Merritt Paulson receive praise for things he has nothing to do with — building the Timbers brand (that’s Hanauer), marketing the team in the local community (that’s Golub), working with the TA (that’s actually the TA making it impossible for him to otherwise, and he does it grudgingly, as the past efforts to eradicate the TA starting in 2007 were his idea, not Gavin’s who was just playing the lapdog role he is so good at) — and not called out for the damage he has caused — knee-jerk firings of employees, from regular office foot soldiers to John Spencer; getting involved in operations he is unqualified for, such as directing players at practice and making the coach look stupid to interfering with player acquisitions; and the public display of his abrasive and spoiled personality which is an embarrassment for the Timbers? The Paulsons are interlopers and carpetbaggers who have somehow managed to cow many otherwise intelligent and ethical Portlanders, and in the process we are losing our identity and moral standing. Portland should be the last city that the Paulsons are able to dupe, and yet here they are, running our team into the ground and diluting the very fabric of our city’s culture. Meanwhile, they benefit from the convenient diversion that the inane GWOUT drama provides for them.

      In the end, we fans are the ultimate caretakers. Collectively, we are doing a horrible job. We should be running the Paulsons out of town and working actively to find an appropriate owner, the way Soccer Silicon Valley did in San Jose. The Earthquakes and their fans are now benefitting from that conscious effort to make real positive changes to the team. I don’t see that happening here for a long time; not until the seemingly intractable drama-queen bullshit of our culture is eradicated and new leadership emerges that re-instills the cultural values that has made Portland what it is, up until now. We need to take the reins, not the Paulsons. Let’s take back our team and city.

      1. Peter,

        Your view is so completely wrong and misguided I don’t even know where to begin so I’m not even going to try. Though I will point out you very much sound like someone who showed up to the party in 2011 and have absolutely zero clue as to why MLS is here. Piss off back to BlueOregon and talk politics there.

      2. Well said, Thunderbear: I may disagree with you on some things but on this one I totally agree. Coming after Paulson because of things his father has done is just silly. You are wrong Peter, totally wrong.

  1. Would it be worth noting, on the subject of Boyd and his assist-men, that all three were starting in the Seattle Reserve game, where Boyd had a goal and an assist?

      1. Yep, and if I can add to that, they played very well together. EA and KA were running the middle, with Boyd up top centrally.

  2. The thing that makes me want to gag is the way the carrottopped rascal gets a pass from the so-called “sports reporters” in this town.

    Now I get it that GCA doesn’t want to burn his bridges with the FO, and that ol’ Gav is a notorious grudge-holder, but, shite, man; how naive do you have to be to buy this “evaluating the players for next season” crap.

    As a Scotsman holding a day job Kevin Alexander does a brilliant job here (http://sliderulepass.net/the-man-the-myth/) of doing what our supposed Oregon sports reporters SHOULD be doing; shoving dynamite under the Wilkinson Credibility Bridge and blowing that bastard shy-high.

    I get the heroic man-crush that Merritt has on his Kiwi boy-toy. Mere idiots and morons will not pry his arms from around his GM/BFF. Blogging is good, but…how many potential ticket-buyers and merch-snafflers read the Timbers blogs?

    But…if the media in this town would do their jobs the public might develop enough anger at the ridiculous way this gomer has managed to sink this team that a divorce could be forced on the happy couple.

    Mind you – I’m not living in expectation…

    1. You’re forgetting that GCA has literally no idea what he’s talking about. He was assigned the soccer beat with no knowledge of the game.

      1. hey man, gw called this, on strong’s pre-game show his exact words in response to the playoff goal question…”i just dont see it, i just dont see this team being very good.” he knows a bit more than he lets on. what we need is a soccer pundit at the oregonian.

  3. Did anyone in the press actually pose the question to GW about his benching of Boyd? Before the untimely injury, it was very, very clear that GW didn’t favor the man, but I don’t recall the press here in Portland or more widely in the MLS soccer ecosystem asking him why he was benching a $1.5m DP signing, who leads the team in goals, in favor of a man who was previously starring for the LA Blues of the American third division.

    How much of a roll do we think the press plays in GW remaining GM of this club? It seems that with the astounding success of the MLS transition, from a ticket sales and fan interest perspective, reporters have been weary of asking too many difficult questions, even as we languish towards the very bottom of the table.

    1. I must admit, I don’t follow the press so much as I get most of my Timbers news from blog sites like Stumptown etc, but it seems to me that there’s much more of a localised approach for media coverage. In the UK, much of the coverage is on a national, or regional level with local reporters the second tier. Here, especially with MLS, it seems to be local first, with whatever scant national coverage you can get, when you can get it.

      That seems to me to lead to a situation where local reporters don’t want to have their access and privileges potentially harmed by taking a hardline, or “no bullshit”, approach to their dealings in the way that a national reporter might not bat an eyelid to do as he has plenty of other fish to fry should a GM or club owner get their panties in a twist over something he writes. With the local guys very much the front line, I think their more “softly-softly” approach can lead to the sense that the FO are getting a pretty easy ride.

      Just my 2 cents, from the outside looking in.

  4. Ah Kevin – I was having a pleasant relaxing day until I read your article. Now my blood pressure is soaring and I just want to kick some kittens!

    It is frustrating to watch GW as he tries to tailor a tuxedo from toilet paper. While claiming that it’s fine cloth – “it must be, because I paid top dollar for it”. It’s like watching Karl Rove discussing tax cuts or Dick Cheney hunting for WMD’s. The frustration comes from knowledge: knowing that there is not one thing I can do about it, and knowing that I am paying for the privilege.

    I may wish that MP will take action, but deep down I just know he won’t.

    Here kitty, kitty.

  5. Ahhhh, yes…we all know that GW has got to go if we EVER want our team to be whole, once again! So, who has the dirt on whom? GW has NEVER been good for this team or town – – – snake in the grass. GW OUT!!!! PTFC – RCTID

  6. We’re going to win the league!
    We’re going to win the league!
    As soon as f$&@ing Gavin leaves!
    We’re going to win the league!

  7. Kevin, how much do you think the disparity between the size of the pitch at Jeld-Wen and the rest of the league contributes to our road winless record as well as our relative success at home? Are there any historical comparators out there? Other teams that played on a small home oitch and continually got clobbered on the road on larger fields? On the one hand the smaller home pitch creates an advantage for us, while making our work on the road even more of a challenge.

  8. Did anyone watch the 5-3 loss to LA in GW’s first game in charge? A game where the team passed the ball around like they thought they were Barcelona, scored three goals, played HORRIBLE defense? A game where the team trotted out the 4-3-2-1/4-3-3 for the first time, a new system that is now core to their play?

    Of course MP wasn’t going to wave the white flag. With some extremely good luck, the Timbers might have started winning, and talking that up keeps fans from giving up on the year and disappearing. It’s good pr. But it was also a long shot.

    What management WASN’T going to do, the ground-up system-building plan get pre-empted by an obsession with short-term winning tactics. What GW has done is to stay true to the long-term growth objectives instead of trying to win every game at the expense of longer-term development.

    I don’t think GW is a great coach. I’m glad he’ll be back upstairs next year. I still hate the Perkins trade and subsequent “upgrade” comments. I still hate the decision to disrupt the backline cohesion for the Seattle game.

    But this article omits a big chunk of reality. It has to, in order to make it’s BS case.

    It’s pure and unadulterated anti-GW propaganda, which is is fine for a blog like this, but I’m also going to call it when I see it.

    1. http://sliderulepass.net/the-devils-advocate/

      “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”

      “recent performances have been much improved”

      “a team under reconstruction, and undergoing a change in footballing philosophy”

      “system has brought about an improvement from a number of players”

      As I’ve said before, on more than one occasion, I’ve no problem with taking a hit in results for the long term good of changing the system. My issues are, 1) we’ve not done a particularly good job of it as we’ve lost matches, not becuase the players are playing a new system, but due to poor tactical preparation and perplexing coaching decisions and 2) the idea that we’ve been trying out players, and seeing who works where, is a myth (the point of this article). We’re playing a different style, sure, but we’re not doing it with different players. So do we know if Jack can play right-back in the new system (his run there was under Spencer, and we expect different things of our full-backs in a 4-3-3)? what about whether Mwanga fits in as a striker or in the hole? Where does Richards fit in? Could Alexander hold down a role in the centre? That’s the point I was making, not that Wilkinson should’ve been all-out for results at the expense of development (though I’d argue we should’ve had a better balance than we’ve had) and those quotes are more illustrating how “the project” has become a crutch to wave away poor performances (and lack of development of playing staff other than a core of usual suspects) but that, when the facts are looked at, we’re merely seeing the same players playing differently (sometimes). Nothing to do with chasing results as the be all and end all.

      1. OK, well, fair enough.

        But I still disagree that “auditioning” hasn’t been part of this. Look at the number of players that have gotten runs of time in different positions. Dike, Boyd, Mwanga, all getting time in a lone-striker system. Richards got a run. Alhassan got a few starts. Alexander. Futty. Horst. Wallace. Palmer. I don’t think GW feels Kawoluk/Hogg/Rincon/Renken would be best served getting thrown into the fire yet. They’ve got plenty of growing still to do in practice and with the reserves.

        As to the Seattle game, I see three scenarios.

        1. GW WAS auditioning players in the biggest match of the year.

        2. Mosquera and Smith actually DID have mild injuries. GW evaluated probabilities and decided our best hope for the cup was to hold them out of the Seattle game to avoid further injury, which may have been a long-shot to win anyway, and go for the win in Vancouver with a 100% healthy back line.

        3. GW wanted to stick it to the fans.

        While I was so mad after the Seattle game that I was exploring option 3, in hindsight, I think option 2 is the more likely scenario. He was thought, well, we are going to be hard-pressed to get a result in Seattle with two key defenders not at 100%. Lets aim for the win in Vancouver, and give Wallace and Palmer one last chance to show they can rise to an occasion, and maybe we’ll be happily surprised in Seattle. We weren’t, of course.

        Honestly, that scenario is a hard one for me to stomach—the idea that we wouldn’t go all-in against Seattle, but at this point, I accept it and am happy to take the cup as we did. Overall, I still feel like GW’s coaching, while very imperfect, has done more over a few months, to build a clear system and identify a core of players, than Spencer did in 1.5 years. There has been more purpose to GW’s lineup changes, and several previously-ignored players have gotten stretches of several games to show growth (Horst, Dike, Zizzo). It might not get us many wins right now, but it does the most important part. Making the best-possible scenario for Porter to walk in, make decisions, and hit the ground running with his chosen core of players.

      2. One more thing. I agree with your evaluation of the players that have gotten bigger chances under Wilkinson, except that I do credit GW for sticking with Horst much longer than I think Spencer would have. He seemed to be very impressed with Horst’s raw talents, and decided to get him a run of starts and stick with him through some difficult performances to give the guy teachable moments on the field and see how he responded, which ultimately, has started to pay off.

      3. I don’t think 2 starts constitutes a “run”, neither does coming in for one match, doing well, and bring dropped the next week (Alexander).

        I think, had Brunner been fit sooner, Horst would’ve been out of the team when he was struggling. He got dropped after a poor game, in came Futty. He had a howler of his own and back came Horst, at which point I think GW made the choice that of the two, Horst was marginally the better. Horst has come on well recently, but I don’t think this scenario plays out differently under Spencer, tbh.

        I’ll give GW credit for bringing Dike in and getting more out of him than most would’ve dared to hope for, but for essentially writing off a need for results in pursuit of a longer term greater good, I think there are still too many guys we’ve learned nothing of substance about. The same core group will play every match. More so than under Spencer. It’s that contradiction between actiond and words that I take issue with.

        GW himself has talked about learning about the players and figuring out what we have. I don’t think he’s done enough of that. You clearly do.

      4. OK, back for a rather late reply . . .

        All I will say is that I feel like we learned more about players in .5 years with GW than over 1.5 years under Spencer. Was it enough? Should greener talents like Kawoluk and Rincon have gotten runs? Should AJB and Richards have been given more time? What is it about EA that made both Spencer AND GW hesitant to use him consistently?

        I’m not going to claim to know the answers. But when GW took over, we took steps in the right direction, whether he went far enough or not. We dropped the desparate, game-by-game, win-now or go home philosophy that had stunted our progress. We developed a more consistent approach with an attacking style that emphasized possession and more creativity.

        So it’s not just the run that certain players got (Horst, Zizzo, Dike, Kimura) but also the more consistent approach (usually a more creative, attacking style) and the freedom these players had to create. Things were a lot more rigid under Spencer—it seemed like he had the whole team in a straightjacket most of the time. When you’re trying to develop a young team, that may help you grind out some wins, but the players and team don’t grow at the rate they should.

        Just my opinions.

  9. OK, maybe that was a bit charged. But let me clarify. My point is, while the rhetoric has changed, the talk we’re hearing now is probably closer to the reality that GW/MP expected from the get-go, but have still spoken of winning until they no longer could . . . i.e., until it became clear we weren’t that lucky anomaly that starts wining during a huge strategic change.

    To see what the guys in charge are thinking, you have to watch the actions, as the rhetoric to the media is usually going to be a big BS in any sports environment. To me, the actions have been a lot more consistent than the rhetoric, and I feel like this article puts way to much weight on the rhetoric in judging the reality of what MP and GW were trying to do.

  10. Gavin’s coaching this summer became the lightening rod (with some of us) for our greater frustration with the mix of players from which he built last year’s and this year’s teams.

    It’s the long-term problem (that Porter will inherit) of an unbalanced team where, by and large, the midfield can’t provide for the front men and can’t score worth a damn on their own. Some seem to view passing the ball more as a way to pass on the attacking problem on to someone else.

    Songo’o stands out in mid mainly because he does say to himself periodically, ” Well, hell, I’ll try something!” He breaks out of the prevailing mold of square passes, lack of field vision and timidity.

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