After weeks of anticipation, the new Portland women’s team finally has a name: Portland Thorns FC.
The Thorns FC crest was created by Portland artist Brent Diskin, an ardent local soccer supporter and member of the Timbers Army.
“Portland Thorns FC quickly emerged as a natural choice that was appropriate for the city and the culture of Soccer City, USA,” said Merritt Paulson, owner and president of the Timbers and Thorns FC. “And a nice side benefit of the name is the Army’s P-T-F-C chant doesn’t need much re-scripting for the women’s team.”
With some help of their friends from Girls, Inc., Thorns FC showed off their new logo and name in the video below.
It almost seems too easy to pile on General Manager–and widely maligned ginger super villain–Gavin Wilkinson after the abortive mess that was the Portland Timbers 2012 campaign. Most, if not every, PTFC supporter is well aware of Wilkinson’s past hits; from throwing his squad under the bus (a few times), to somewhat callously slagging off players on their way out of town. Unfortunately for Wilkinson, with each interview he grants, the hits keep on coming, usually in the form of anyone but Gavin Wilkinson being made responsible for the club’s substandard play.
And so, with the first round of #Rostergeddon behind us, and the next round rapidly approaching, Wilkinson delivered another few gems in the form of two separate quotes on Monday:
“The general manager’s job is to get the pieces for the head coach to help the success of the organization, and it’s about the organization,” Wilkinson said. “And it’s also about giving Caleb the pieces he wants to work with, the pieces he thinks will contribute the way he sees them contributing.”
“We have enough athleticism, we have enough ability,” Wilkinson said. “What we want to fix is maybe the mental side of it and bring in mentally tough guys who have been in the league and succeeded in the league.”
Critics of the Ginger Bilbo Baggins (and in the spirit of transparency, I count myself solidly in this camp) will first point to the fact that by Gavin Wilkinson’s own standards, he has been an abject failure as a general manager. They will likely point out that the last two years have not done the organization any favors, particularly the way ‘upgrades’ and releases have been handled, and short of seeing the Cascadia Cup in the Fanladen, fans are very down on the club’s ability to perform in an MLS league that ranks somewhere towards the middle internationally.
But what I found particularly interesting about Wilkinson’s latest interview is how it plays into something I’ve been saying about the club since it’s ascendancy to MLS; it quite plainly does not have a footballing identity. While it ultimately falls on the players to play the game, it is the responsibility of management to set the direction of the club, which starts with the hiring of key staff and then make sure that staff does their jobs.
In the beginning, both Wilkinson and owner Meritt Paulson tried to sell us on a strategy of bringing in footballers with athletic prowess to make a team that could out-MLS everyone in MLS with hustle and and a pure athleticism that could produce some beautiful football and ultimately solid results. This seemed odd on its face given that the club had hired John Spencer, a manager who immediately implemented a 4-4-2 system, which classically relies on a solid back four that can defend and get up the pitch during an attack, coupled with a pair of central midfielders to support the back four and initiate the attack going the other way. Under Spencer, the team rarely found themselves being able to boast of success in either area. They were ostensibly a 4-4-2 team that couldn’t take leverage any the 4-4-2 formation’s advantages, due in great part to a bevy of personnel issues.
Attempting to spell out these personnel problems in each area of the pitch is difficult, due primarily to the fact that the personnel in each area of the pitch changed around so much, that John Spencer’s famous quip that he was fitting “square pegs going into round holes” became a talking point in its own right. However, it is fair to say that forwards were often more isolated than an ascetic monk on a hilltop, waiting for the inevitable long ball from a cartoonish rotation of unsuccessful left- and right-backs, all but nullifying the supposed athletic advantages the squad was meant to be built around. The midfield was toothless and unimaginative; often featuring two defensive-minded center-mids, with largely ineffective service sporadically coming from the wings. To use a very cheap analogy, it’s as if Merritt Paulson gave his GM the chassis of a Bugati Veyron and charged him with the task of sourcing parts and a competent driver, only to find what he saw as a Bugati running like a fucking Geo Metro with an increasingly befuddled toddler behind the wheel.
Looking from our tortured MLS past, to the somewhat unclear MLS future, that toddler, John Spencer, is but a distant memory in the minds of Timbers supporters and former Akron Zips coach Caleb Porter has been brought in to right the ship. The choice is interesting, inasmuch as it seems to be both an admission that past two years of football played at the club are to be forgotten, while still remaining well within the thus-far unsuccessful MO of owner Meritt Paulson, who is always after the next up-and-coming (read: unproven) talent to build his club around. The problem here is obvious, in a rush to obscure his lack of soccer knowledge and the FO’s gross mismanagement, it seems that he has been watching Barcelona games on Fox Soccer, and now hopes to sell us on the idea that he’s going to build an MLS Barca here in Portland, without actually holding his people responsible for the success of that massive undertaking.
If you close your eyes, you can probably imagine Paulson yelling: “Just build me a fucking Veyron this time and let me know when you’re done, so that I can go for a ride. WEEEEEEEEEE!”
It is expected that Porter will institute a 4-3-3 system, one which is favored in the modern game by teams like Barca for its positivity, but which also places a much higher premium of player technique and creativity, especially in the midfield. When done poorly it can leave the back-line isolated and vulnerable to attack, something the Timbers were quite prone to under the more defensive 4-4-2 setup. Porter seems to be saying all the right things and his clubs at the college level have played some very attractive, and very successful football, but he’s not walking into a hand-picked group of players at PTFC. This is still a club with a fair amount of personnel issues all over the pitch. And so, it seems, the identity of Caleb Porter’s PTFC will depend largely on the direction of Merritt Paulson’s “soccer guy,” Gavin Wilkinson. That last sentence isn’t one prone to give supporters of the club much hope. In fact, you may want to call your favorite Timbers supporter now to talk them off the ledge, if you haven’t done so already this off-season.
The way “Timbers insiders” will tell it now–in a revisionist history fitting of Stalin or George W. Bush apologists–John Spencer was basically in charge of personnel decisions, directing his boss to scrounge up the squad we saw the past two seasons. While it is reasonably to expect that Spencer most certainly had sway in the process, as any manager does, it seems incredibly unlikely that this was actually the case, particularly given the sense of exacerbation with which Spencer bemoaned the lack of solid options at key positions. But this revisionism, which smacks of desperation by the FO to deflect some of the ire seen in the North End towards the end of last season, brings up management issues that many fans have quite rightly questioned. Firstly, if Spencer was essentially in control of personnel decisions, what the fuck was Gavin Wilkinson doing the past two years? It certainly wasn’t his job, even as he has described it as recently as Monday. Secondly, if he hasn’t been capable of doing his job the past two seasons, why is he being given a third? I’ve yet to hear a decent explanation for this and I’m most certainly not holding my breath.
What’s staggering is, while it’s easy to get focused on personnel, Wilkinson’s history of general managerial incompetence, when it comes to shaping the identity of the club, spans well beyond player signings. When John Spencer was hired as the first manager of the MLS Timbers, it was based on his history and reputation as a highly respected coach in MLS under Houston Dynamo’s Dominic Kinnear. And while few could doubt Spencer’s energy, passion, and ability to work day-to-day with players, it was often that case that he looked pitifully out of depth on match-day unable or unwilling to adjust to tactical changes and woefully off-base with substitutions. Things only got worse when Trevor James, an MLS veteran, left the bank at the end of the first season. Wilkinson’s answer was as simplistic as it was incomprehensible, he doubled down on USL-era coaches and perennial ‘parts of the problem’ Amos Magee and Adam James. The results were predictable as the club struggled once again to find an identity or any points on the road for that matter. The James departure and its aftermath may seem like a small event, but it was a clear opportunity for Paulson and the man he relies on for soccer related counsel to step in and assert some control over the situation, to bring someone in that could assist Spencer in bringing the team into his system before things got so out of hand that the club was dropping games to amateur teams in front of its fans to the tune of “Taps.”
But for 2013 at least, we are going to battle with Gavin Wilkinson at the helm, and what Gavin Wilkinson is saying is that he believes that PTFC is basically set-up to allow Caleb Porter to succeed. He would have us believe that it is not, as many fans have complained, a lack of quality on the pitch– or should we say the right kind of quality on the pitch–but rather a lack of mental toughness that has held this squad back to this point. This could very well mean that we won’t see a great deal more change to the roster ahead of the upcoming campaign, not even in key areas for a 4-3-3 formation, like the midfield.
Given Porter’s track record, particularly as the U-21 coach for the USMNT, it has to be said that short of changing his mind, this is the crux of the gamble Wilkinson is making with PTFC’s future. As noted sports philosopher Shaquile O’Neal once said, “Don’t fake the funk on a nasty dunk;” either this team actually takes on the identity of a fluid, 4-3-3 style attacking Porter team–with the players we currently have (give or take a pair here and there)–or Porter could be forced to be the face of another season of disjointed, disappointing play as square pegs are unceremoniously and repeatedly jammed into round holes without even the courtesy of a lubricant.
For supporters, whose anxiety is sure to produce some positively epic SCUSA posts in the coming days, we can only sit back and wait to see what happens with the rest of #Rostergeddon before we decide just how much to freak the fuck out. With Gavin Wilkinson at the helm we may have to be resigned to the fact that as long as we have no solidified footballing identity and as long as failure is accepted at the highest levels of this club, this is what our normal is.
Admin note: Logan has asked that a line be edited from the piece as it seemed to be detracting from discussion of the actual thrust of the article. Let’s keep the conversation on what matters, please. Thanks.
Twitter has been buzzing with anticipation for days and right at the stroke of noon, the Portland Timbers made their first official MLS offseason announcement. Here’s a rundown of the transactions:
* Timbers acquire allocation money (what jersey # will allocation money wear?) and the rights to homegrown player and current Akron Zips defender, Bryan Gallego, from the New York Bulls in exchange for Kosuke Kimura and a 2013 2nd round draft pick.
Rumors of Kimura being sent to the Red Bulls came to light on Sunday afternoon. The rest of this deal though didn’t become clear until the Timbers dropped the press release. Word is the Timbers received over $100,000 in allocation money (not confirmed) along with a promising defender who is very familiar with incoming coach Caleb Porter. It remains to be seen whether Gallego, who will turn 20 in March, will forego returning to Zips for his junior year. To get anything promising in return for Kimura who, despite his love for the badge, really struggled from day one with Portland, is a positive takeaway as far as I’m concerned.
* Timbers acquire defender Michael Harrington from Sporting KC in exchange for allocation money.
In a league not known for strong fullbacks, Harrington had the unfortunate luck to try and crack a starting lineup with two of the better performers in the league: Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers. Harrington carries a steeper price tag than I would like ($125,000), but if he can solidify a position that’s been weak for the Timbers since coming to MLS, it just might be worth it.
* Timbers acquire allocation money from the Houston Dynamo in exchange for defender Eric Brunner
This one stings a bit. If there was a guy you could count on to bring it in every match he played it was Eric Brunner. It was a difficult 2012 campaign for Brunner has he spent over three months out of the lineup while recovering from a concussion he suffered in a May match against Vancouver. General Manager Gavin Wilkinson, not always known for his appropriate goodbyes to players, had nothing but praise for Brunner:
“Eric is a great person and quality player, and these types of decisions are never easy. We very much appreciate his service to the club over the past two seasons, both on and off the field. The opportunity in Houston for Eric is one that he is excited about. He is well-liked and will be missed”
* Timbers acquire Will Johnson from Real Salt Lake in exchange for allocation money
The news of this move was broken on Sunday as well, and even with the other news today, this is by far the most exciting of the transactions.
Johnson is one of those players you love to hate — as long as he’s on the other team. Johnson will provide some much-needed tenacity as well as some outstanding skill on the ball. This is clearly a move orchestrated by Caleb Porter, who likely sees Johnson playing a huge role as a winger or attacking center midfielder in his possession-based attack.
While he is a Canadian international, Johnson does not occupy an international slot on the Timbers roster.
* Finally, in other moves
The Timbers declined the options on defenders Lovel Palmer and Steve Purdy. Both will be eligible to participate in the MLS Re-Entry Draft this coming Friday.
It also appears that left back Steven Smith will not be rejoining the team in 2013. Nothing has been announced by the team, but Smith did post this on Twitter:
We’ll have more about the Steven Smith move once it’s officially announced by the Timbers.
As you can see, the site has had a bit of a makeover. To mark our more explicitly Timbers-centric nature, the site has ditched the old grey/red scheme for green/white. I hope you like it.
So… what to write about?
Well, we’re stuck in that strange hinterland between the season ending (play-off, what?) and “silly season” kicking off in earnest. Three players were waived – Freddie Braun, Charles Renken and Ian Hogg, only one of whom saw any first team action this season (Braun). The case could be made that there were perhaps more players deserving of being waived than Braun, but fact is that over two years (and two head coaches, with, presumably, the input of the third) he’s not done enough to be anything other than the “oh, we need 18 players do we? okay then, him” guy.
The cutting of Ian Hogg was a bit odd. Just months after spending six weeks on trial with second division Swedish side Umeå FC and failing to get a contract – a side that would go on to finish rock bottom of the league, by the way, and beat a hasty retreat back to the Third Division whence they came – he pitched up in Portland. As I said at the time, the step-up from the semi-pro ranks of football in Hobbit country to professional football is big enough, let alone the fact that even seasoned pros can find a move to the athletic and high-impact MLS requires some adjustment time, that I thought the chances of him seeing any time this year was virtually nil, but it seems that he didn’t even do enough in training to suggest that he would make an impact next year. Strange, as we’re not exactly blessed in the full-back position and Hogg’s still pretty young, but chalk another one up for Gavin’s famed scouting network.
After waiving three, and picking up no-one in the thrill-a-minute Waiver Draft, we now await the other foot dropping. Merritt Paulson has already tweeted that the Timbers have “been active on player front”, but any trades won’t be announced till after the final of the MLS Cup on 1st December. So, the question marks over Boyd, Palmer, Alexander and Wallace, to name but four, will remain for at least a few more days. Paulson also said that “moves aren’t made in a vacuum”, and since a vacuum could be loosely defined as a space utterly devoid of atmosphere, I think we can rule out any dealings with New England.
Of course, our new glorious leader Caleb Porter will be in town soon, after seeing his Akron Zips fall in the 3rd Round of the NCAA Championship. There was some irony in noting that, just as a missed penalty against Cal FC was cited by a highly-respected Timbers journalist and preeminent historian as a cause for the end of John Spencer’s reign, Porter’s time at Akron was brought to a close by a missed penalty, this time in a 5-4 shootout loss to Creighton.
It’s a shame that Porter couldn’t end his time in Akron with another championship, especially as his team were on a 15 game winning run before dropping out, but that’s football for you. He’s certainly left a great impression on the program at Akron, and with the fans who honoured his departure with a #ThanksCaleb hashtag on twitter.
Andrew Jean-Baptiste was the Timbers’ first round pick last year, and while he didn’t get much of a look-in, primarily used as injury cover, he’s a player I’d like to see more of in 2013. Between Mosquera, Jean-Baptiste, Horst, Danso and Brunner, the Timbers have plenty of centre-back cover, and I suspect Danso will go as I was a little surprised he wasn’t waived, to be brutally honest, but wouldn’t be at all surprised if Brunner was one of the trades-waiting-to-formally-be-announced, though that would mean finding another club looking to take on a guy who missed a lot of last year through injury.
Darlington Nagbe, the Timbers first pick in 2011, reunites with his former coach next year, and we all hope that this is what help Nagbe take that next step, and fulfil some of his undoubted potentialWord That Shall Not Be Spoken.
Even though we’re playing the waiting game, things aren’t exactly quiet for the Timbers. Bright Dike made his international debut for Nigeria in a 3-1 victory against Venezuela. While it would be fair to say that Nigerian football has been at a low ebb for the past couple of years – a dismal showing in the 2010 World Cup was followed by the President, the fantastically named Goodluck Jonathan, getting involved and pulling the country out of international competition (later reversed when FIFA started to lace up their ass-kicking boots, and things all got a bit messy) and then the two-times Cup of Nations winners failing to make the 2012 competition – they’ve made it to the 2013 Cup of Nations, and there is still such an aura around the nation that they’ll likely be among the favourites to win it, with Dike hoping to be there.
And yeah, so, that’s about it for now. As I said at the top, I hope you like the new look and I hope the site can have a bit more range to its coverage this year. If you want to write for us, just get in touch. It’s really simple. We’d love to get folks who could keep everyone up to speed with the latest goings on at U23 and youth soccer, or even if you want to keep us posted on grassroots and local soccer.
Thanks for stopping by in 2012, and I hope to see you all back in 2013.
“He comes, ensconced in flame and seeking the eternal mysteries of the inside of the fortress. It gives some kind of aura of power; it draws him, and calls to anyone who craves the power that resides within that fortress.”
Wait… Hold on a bit…… Too fantastical
“He comes, upon a fire breathing steed, bent upon destruction and the sanctity of his breed.”
Wait… Hold on a bit……Too Dragonforce
“Verily, prithee rest yon eyes upon fingers such as I bite my thumb at thee..”
Wait… Hold on a bit…… Too Shakespeare
This is a play; it is a one stage act, a plot of absurdity hashed out in modern terms with a level of pathos that would intrigue the Greeks. When did this all start? Where did this all start? Is the power of Castle Greyskull so striking that Eric Wynalda cannot resist the temptation?
Let’s recap quickly for those that don’t remember their adolescence or were born after “The Real World” started to air. Depending on which adaptation you follow, Prince Adam (otherwise known as He-MAN) son of King Randor and Queen Marlena (former rulers of the land of Eternia) lives in Castle Greyskull. This castle gives He-Man most of his supernatural abilities and physical powers. He-Man’s enemy is the ever mysterious Skeletor, described as both a “Demon from another dimension” and as well “Prince Adam’s uncle”. Skeletor is hell bent upon obtaining the power within Castle Greyskull for himself. Thus is set up a movie, cartoon series, merchandising line and comic book series with spin offs and discussions galore.
By the way… Dolph Lundgren at one point was involved…. Ask your parents about him.
Your mileage and investment in this particular story may vary and your comparisons (maybe to you the roles are reversed) may vary, but let’s be clear here. This internet conflict between Paulson and Wynalda, whether manufactured or not, has been entertaining as can be.
Paulson and Wynalda both share a bit too many characteristics to let things go and both tend to troll each other with baited words and sharpened comments. Much like He-Man and Skeletor were potentially related based upon which comic book you actually read or which morning TV show you remember.
By the by, the above comparison just made my head explode in a way that may render me incapable of finishing.
But, of course, I carry on for you loyal reader…
The Scene: Twitter
The Thrust: Needing a Job
The Parry: Interview?
Eric Wynalda – “For those who have been speculating- no was the answer in Portland – rumor stops here- no from them- not from me good luck @MerrittPaulson”
In the wilderness of Port-land, a lone man stepped to the parapets of Castle Jeld-Wen and yelled… BY THE POWER OF JELD-WEN (WINDOWS AND DOORS)!!!
Merritt Paulson – “Eric – how can “no” be an answer if you have never even had a conversation let alone an interview? I’m confused here”
The year: 2012
The Date: September 6th
The Thrust: A simple troll’s bait
Eric Wynalda – “Is it just me or does Caleb Porter resemble Lane Kiffin at USC? Lotta similarities there. Or maybe Merritt Paulson reminds me of Al Davis?”
Merritt Paulson – “Should I be worried that Eric Wynalda is obsessed with me? I have had one stalker ex-girlfriend but Eric is crazier than her. #nutjob”
Eric Wynalda – “@MerrittPaulson go ahead a file a restraining order- 972 miles should do. love what you’re doing up there- just stay up there- good luck”
Merritt Paulson – “I feel dirty even dignifying the guy. That’s it from me, Eric. Tweet away and enjoy the attention”
Certainly most of this war of attrition comes from the ability of both participants to love royally trolling the crap out of each other. Much also comes from the ability of both to think quickly and use sharpened words to attempt to injure/entertain each other.
The Scene: Détente
The Emphasis: You didn’t expect this?
The Reason: Just remember that things aren’t always what they appear
Merrit Paulson – “@Wynalda11 nice win last night. see you guys wed.”
Eric Wynalda – “@MerrittPaulson can’t wait. Bringing my son, who is 3, I always tell him “this is what soccer games are supposed to look like” gonna be fun”
This is the interesting give and take between the two, the hate and love, the round and round. Sometimes the banter resembles that of a brotherly rivalry, and sometimes the banter resembles that of a bunch of pissy kids who threw their toys of the room.
The Deal: Oh Valencia….
The Skinny: From Hell’s heart I stab at thee (or at least over a decaf skinny latte)
Eric Wynalda – “Can somebody explain to me how a kid who never practiced once needs surgery, out for a year? uh, medical? Valencia in Portland,”
Merritt Paulson – “I will explain it to you if you can learn to read before tweeting first. Seriously, you are a frickin twitter trainwreck.”
Eric Wynalda, as many of you know, is the talking head pundit of the two, allowed to roundly expound his own information to the minor masses who tune into Fox Soccer. Incidentally, at one point, Wynalda actually used to play soccer professionally. At this point, you would be hard pressed to find many people under the age of 30 who actually remember Eric suiting up next to his teammates for Club or Country. The man has simply replaced his legacy of playing with a legacy of punditry and outspoken statements.
In the end, Paulson has what every owner in MLS has that Wynalda desperately wants… That is… the Keys to Castle Greyskull.
In other words, Merritt Paulson has the ability to grant Eric Wynalda a job as a coach/general manager in Major League Soccer. The fact that Merrit Paulson or any other owner hasn’t “seen the light” and caved to Eric Wynalda’s resume is seen as an affront to that which will work.
What potentially roils Paulson is the ability of Wynalda to hoist the victory of a Wynalda-coached Cal FC team over Paulson’s own Portland Timbers in the US Open Cup. It doesn’t matter that the Timbers had a ridiculous amount of shots and even a penalty kick with which to seal the game, in the end knock out tournament soccer is a game of who won and who lost. On that night, Wynalda won, and Skeletor pranced victorious around the grounds of Castle Greyskull rattling his sword at the seat of He-Man.
Yet this back and forth will probably continue as both parties simultaneously proclaim that they will stop and then cannot resist testing that dagger once more.
The coaching carousel will turn ever more in Major League Soccer and the collective owners of MLS teams will summon their courage and shout “BY THE POWER OF GREYSKULL” and Eric Wynalda will sit in his chair silently whispering “The power… will … be…… MINE!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
The Timbers served up another one of those games that’ll take a couple of years off the lifespan of every fan who witnessed it as they lost for the 18th time in 29 road trips. But this was so much more than just another routine road loss.
This game had the Timbers racing into an improbable, yet richly deserved, two goal lead before blowing it all, losing 3-2, amidst some cosmically awful refereeing, missed chances and an epic post-game twitter meltdown from the club owner.
And yet there are some people out there who think that soccer is boring. I pity those poor, poor bastards.
After the emotional wringer that was Toronto in midweek, Gavin Wilkinson opted for the same shape against New York but swapped in Songo’o and Dike for Wallace and Boyd.
The exclusion of the club’s top scorer was certainly a bold move by Wilkinson, though it was to pay dividends early on when it was Dike that put the Timbers 1-0 up.
Dike is a popular guy among Timbers fans after his USL exploits, and it’s great to see him finding a place in the team after his first year was badly hampered by injury. When he was sent on load to LA Blues earlier this year I honestly thought that was the end of Bright Dike as a Portland Timber, but he’s fought his way back into the reckoning very nicely.
What I loved about the goal though wasn’t necessarily the finish, it was the build up play. Against Toronto the team seemed determined to slow the pace as they crossed into the opposing half, but there was none of that hesitancy here.
New York had been served a warning only minutes prior when the Timbers broke out from a corner.
A better touch from Dike, or more willingness and composure to put his foot on the ball and get his head up and perhaps something could’ve come of the break, but it served the Red Bulls notice of what the Timbers intentions were – they were going to sit in and look to spring out down the flanks.
Roy Miller, at left back for New York, had the sort of game that reminds you that the full-back position for the Timbers could be worse. He was terrible. Time and again he was caught out of position and Zizzo had him in his back pocket for all the 36 minutes he graced Red Bull Arena with his presence.
It was by mugging Miller that Zizzo was able to set in motion the flowing move that led to the Timbers 2nd goal.
I get the feeling that in earlier games, Songo’o either throws a hopeful ball from wide into Dike, or looks to lay it back to Smith, but here he cuts in to great effect and draws the defenders towards him. Rather than his usual tact of then trying to beat them, he lays it off to Zizzo and he rolls it past Miller and into the path of Nagbe who made a devastating run from deep that every Timbers fan would love to see more of.
Zizzo’s role in both goals was a delight too. He menaced the New York back line, looking like a real threat every time he got the ball. He was crafty and composed and by far the team’s most effective player early on.
Having been at fault in both Timbers goal, Roy Miller’s game came to a premature end as he was replaced by Kenny Cooper.
As all thoughts turned to making it to half-time with the two-goal lead in tact, the Timbers began to sink back as New York pushed on to grab something before the break. There was almost a sense of inevitability when Cooper scored the goal they’d sought, and that it would come from some suspect defensive work.
Songo’o put in a better defensive shift that I’ve seen from him, but the one time he fell asleep it cost the team a goal, though David Horst needs to have a strong word with himself. At no point does he seem concerned by the presence of Cooper, and it was such a sloppy goal to lose. And at the worst possible time.
With their shape totally lost, the Timbers task was simply a case of grimly hanging on for a few minutes, but they allowed McCarty time to get a shot off, which was blocked by David Horst, only for the rebound to be lashed home by Tim Cahill.
And there is nothing more to say about that goal.
Oh, except that referee Jason Anno is an Olympic grade halfwit.
Anno blew his whistle, presumably for a handball from Horst – though the angle is hard to tell – before Cahill took his shot, but then decided to allow the goal to stand. He can claim he played advantage till he’s blue in the face, but the fact is he blew his whistle before the goal was scored and therefore the goal shouldn’t have stood. It’s his own fault for not taking a second to see if an advantage occurred before spasmodically whistling like the last pillhead at a rave.
Now unless there’s some kind of weird time dilation effect in Red Bull Arena, there’s no getting away from that fact. The whistle went first. Science agrees with me. Let’s say that Anno is 30m from the sideline, so it would take a little under 0.1 of a second – or a third of a blink of an eye – for the sound of the ref’s whistle to reach the sideline mics. By comparison, it would take a tad over 100 microseconds for the light from Cahill striking the ball to reach the camera – roughly 1/10000th of the time it took the sound to carry.
Even if you allow for the camera to be further back, in order for Anno’s interpretation to be correct, there must have been some inexplicable warping of light speed that caused it to slow to that of an admittedly sprightly cheetah, while the speed of sound remained constant.
QED, Anno is full of shit.
That’s not me talking, that’s science, bitches.
It was a sickening way to end a half that had promised so much, but there had been enough evidence in the first half to suggest that the Timbers could still come out with all 3 points.
The second half served up good chances for both sides. Ricketts came up big with a double save, while the Timbers continued to carve open the Red Bull defence. Nagbe had a good chance from the edge of the box, but he didn’t get it far enough away from Gaudette to beat the keeper.
Chara served one up for Zizzo shortly after with a really delightful through-ball.
Chara’s role further up the field certainly sacrifices a bit defensively, but when you see him split open the defence like that it’s hard to argue with playing him in a more advanced role.
The wee Colombian got the next crack at Gaudette when Nagbe, who looked reinvigorated in the first half, set him clear.
Again the Timbers failed to apply the finish that the set-up deserved. There was no Boyd to blame for the misses this time, and indeed the club’s top scorer would remain on the bench as Wilkinson looked to Fucito to replace the gassed Bright Dike with less than 20 minutes to go.
Kimura had earlier been replaced by Lovel Palmer when Tim Cahill’s macho charisma caused the Japanese fullback to dive face first into the turf, breaking his nose and giving himself concussion. Or the snidey little Aussie shitehawk elbowed him in the face. Who can tell?
The third change would see the club’s assist leader also left on the shelf when Rodney Wallace replaced Franck Songo’o as the Cameroonian faded out of the game.
With all three subs made, the Timbers promptly shot themselves in the foot and gave up another soft goal.
A sickening end to a roller-coaster game. How often will the Timbers give up free headers in and around their six yard box. I like David Horst, but I fear he’s simply not commanding enough to warrant a place in the team.
As for the subs, the Timbers were desperately unlucky in losing a goal as soon as the third change was made, meaning there was no way to push for an equaliser (though we still did have a good chance at the death, to be fair). However, the Wallace ? Songo’o change smacked of a team that was settling for the draw, and when you do that you risk getting sucker-punched spark out.
The Palmer change was understandable. The only other (keep the same system) change available would’ve been to put on Alexander and slot Jewsbury back into RB. It would’ve meant putting Chara into defensive midfield. Maybe that was the call to make. If I’m being honest though, in Wilkinson’s position I make the same change and I’m no great fan of Palmer.
Dike going off wasn’t a shock – he looked tired. Fucito coming on was. I think the idea was that Fucito’s energy would stretch a tired NY defence, but having faced the physical presence of Dike I can’t help but think the Bulls defence heaved a sigh of relief when they saw Fucito coming on.
For me, if you wanted to keep the tempo up, the ideal change would’ve been to bring Mwanga on, but he wasn’t in the 18. Boyd languished.
With the final change Songo’o had faded too (shock) but bringing on Wallace wasn’t the move I’d have made. Fucito could’ve easily gone out left and Boyd up top, or even Alexander on and out left (or Nagbe going there) which would’ve, in my opinion, offered more of an offensive presence. In the end, Wallace Marcelin’ed his closers role.
There were certainly some positives to be taken. There was some tidy attacking play, and with better finishing we’d be looking at a comfortable road win at a ground no team have come to and won this year. The chances the Timbers created were very good. There was a post earlier in the week that ranked various stats in an attempt to “shed some light” on why Spencer was fired, and the differences in the team under Wilkinson but such an “analysis” was flawed in that it didn’t take into account things like the type and quality of chance created – anyone can spank it from 30 yards, some may even have it saved easily by the keeper for that all-important “shot on target” – and finding any great significance in possession is like mining Pauly Shore’s IMDb for Oscar winners – you’re onto a loser before you even start. The over-importance of “possession” is the great lie TV has sold the football-watching public. Just a quick scan revealed that the six matches ending in a win this week, precisely 50% of the winning teams won the “possession battle”. The whole debate about possession is for another time though.
And hey, maybe Merritt does actually place an inordinate value on such things, in which case the likely start of Palmer next week (Chara is suspended and Kimura likely out) should have him prepping his special plastic underpants in anticipation.
In the end, we didn’t finish our chances well, while we continue to exhibit weakness at the back and it was this that told in the end. The ref’s appalling showing certainly sticks in the craw – would’ve changed the game, etc, so on and so forth – but he wasn’t the reason for the bad defending.
Merritt’s post-match meltdown saw him rail against fans calling for Wilkinson to go. I believe he referred to the #GWOut crowd as “idiots” and “morons” who would “line up to kiss gavin’s ass” when “we win a cup”. The Gettysburg Address, it was not. Oh, and Gavin is “not going anywhere” in case you were wondering if there were consequences to haphazard team building and a terrible track record in trades, so there’s that.
I’ll leave it to others to rake over the coals of Paulson’s trademark twitter trainwreck.
So we end a road series that saw the Timbers score 4 times, and yet earn only a single point. There are some positives to take, but still the Timbers look soft at the back. Next up is a return to Portland, and the visit of Vancouver in a big Cascadia Cup match.
The Whitecaps have lost their last two, without scoring a goal, and are five away games without a win. It’s sure to be an interesting atmosphere, one way or another.
If you can’t support us when we draw or lose, don’t support us when we win.
Less than a week later, after a defeat to Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers parted company with head coach John Spencer, and installed Gavin Wilkinson as interim coach in a move that was met with almost universal disapproval among the fans.
Over the following month the talk has grown ever more angry and militant, with talks of boycotts and protests common between both sets of supporters. And here I am stuck in the middle of both.
I grew up a fan of Killie. They are, were, my local team, so it was only natural that I’d end up on the terraces, and later crammed into the seats with legroom that suggests the club expected a crowd of Douglas Baders, at Rugby Park. My wife being Oregonian, and a move over there on the cards, supporting the Timbers was an obvious next step. What wasn’t so obvious was the way the club, and in particular the supporters, would draw me in so wholeheartedly to the point where, whisper it, the Timbers are the team I follow first and foremost now.
Nevertheless, I still keep my eye on Killie and try to stay in touch with what’s going on there. The calls for Johnston to go are nothing new. The Killie Trust, a supporters group, have for a long time set themselves up as wanting change at the top.
When Bobby Fleeting took over the club in the late 80’s, reshaping it into its modern form, he did so by waving a crest of popular support from fans. These were fans that were contemptuously described as “hotheads and bampots” by the old regime, led by Bob Lauchlan. Lauchlan had presided over the club’s bleakest period as the one-time champions slid from relevance and into part-time football and, for a mercifully brief period, the third tier of Scottish football.
Now the supposed benefactors and reformers are shadowy figures. Certain fan representatives claim to know who they are, and vouch for their credibility, but until they step forward and gather support around them, the calls for Johnston to go seem like little more than a futile gesture. Some supporters talk of a popular buy-out, led by a Trust, that could take over the club and hand it to the fans for control, but it’s hard to see that happening when the bank, crucially, are happy to have Johnston there.
There’s no getting away from the elephant in the room – debt. It currently stands around £9m ($14m), which is colossal for a club from a small industrial town in Ayrshire, with an average attendance of around 5,500 (of which around 3,000 are season ticket holders). The loss of so many jobs in the town, the biggest being the pull-out of Diageo who own the Johnnie Walker brand (Johnnie Walker being founded in the town, and the man himself being buried not 2 minutes from where I’m sat right now) has left the town as a whole is a depressed state.
The reasons for the debt are myriad. A decade a go, or so, many clubs is Scotland “chased the dream”, spending lots of money that came into the game through television deals. When that money dried up, a few faced the difficult reality of having run up debts they could no longer service. Killie had gone as far as to build a four star hotel next to Rugby Park, a legacy of ex-Chairman and hotelier Bill Costley.
Johnston arrived on the scene not through a love of the club, or even football in general. He’s a solicitor, and it was only through his connection with Jamie Moffat that he was given the share for a nominal fee of £1. Moffat himself had inherited the club from his late father, and massive Kilmarnock fan, Jim Moffat. The younger Moffat never inherited his father’s love for the club though, and always seemed to be eyeing the exits.
The suspicion held by many fans is that Johnston is a mere puppet of Moffat’s; a buffer to keep the bank happy. He brings no financial investment to the club and has displayed next to no business or marketing know-how in his time at the helm. Local businesses have been gradually alienated, and at a time when jobs are being lost in the town and the cost of football rises, he’s done nothing to arrest the slide in attendance, even following a League Cup win last season.
Instead, he continues to alienate the fans.
Halfway around the world, Gavin Wilkinson is held in much the same regard by Timbers fans. Wilkinson’s reign at the Timbers falls in the “before my time” bracket, so I tend to be guided by those that were around to experience it. The anonymous article posted here drew a lot of attention, but off-site communication with other fans suggest that it’s merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Gavin’s poor relations with fans and players.
Yet, in the one relationship that matters, Wilkinson seems to have his back covered by Merritt Paulson, the club owner. Paulson’s clearly not a stupid guy, but neither was he a “soccer guy” before he got in the Timbers business, and it seems that from very early on Wilkinson has cannily positioned himself as Paulson’s go-to soccer guru.
It’s a relationship that many fans have likened to that of Wormtongue and Theoden from The Lord of the Rings. For me it’s almost like a case of Stockholm Syndrome, where Wilkinson has Paulson convinced that not only is he the right man for the job, but that’s he’s worth riding roughshod over players and fans alike for.
The trade of two popular players this week in Troy Perkins and Mike Chabala gave Wilkinson a chance to indulge in one of his favourite sports: having a little dig at departing players. He claimed that Donovan Ricketts was an “upgrade” over Perkins, a rather classless statement to make as it’s perfectly possible to talk up your new player without having to frame it in reference to the guy who has gone after giving you fantastic service.
It’s something that the club, rather than drop the “upgrade” tack and learn some lessons about PR from what has been somewhat of a clusterfuck, have doubled down on. Paulson himself tweeted “Troy has meant a lot but he’s not Petr Cech. People making him something he’s not” which is a strange assertion as a) no-one ever claimed he was and b) neither is Ricketts. It’s utterly irrelevant to the point.
Perkins weighed in with a rather telling statement to reporters in Montreal, “He’s said some things in the past about guys who had left the club, and that’s him.” Ex-Timbers players have expressed strong opinions on Wilkinson in the past, and it seems that it’s not something that’s going to stop any time soon.
Timbers fans face, I fear, a long and hard fight to remove Wilkinson for a position that he has dug himself into so effectively. When the owner is willing to go toe-to-toe with fans on social media to defend his ginger-haired beau, even as Wilkinson is having to tear up the team that he helped build as he presides over a disaster run of results and performances with all the public grace and charm of a rattlesnake, it’s hard to see how the fans can effect positive change.
Paulson himself weighed in with what was perhaps his “hotheads and bampots” moment when he reacted to the outraged masses on twitter by calling the medium a “cesspool of vitriol” (I would link to these tweets, but Merritt is notorious for deleting them). Now that may be true. Certainly, the British diver Tom Daley felt the full impact that the immediacy and relative anonymity that twitter offers recently. But just because the fans anger is now being directed in a more forthright manner, straight to the owner’s inbox where in the past letters would be screened, and Paulson himself has a itchy twitter finger doesn’t mean that had twitter not been invented the fan’s dissatisfaction with recent events wouldn’t have been manifested in other ways, and may still yet.
Michael Johnstone may not have been, and some would argue he still isn’t, a football fan when he took over, but he certainly seems to enjoy the trappings of being an SPL chairman now. If there’s an opportunity to get his face in front of a camera, Johnston will be there, and in the days after his abstention in the July 4th vote he was elected to the SPL board.
With no figurehead for the hotheads and bampots to rally round, I suspect any attempts to force Johnston out will come to nothing. So long as Johnston wants to stay in the limelight, the bank are happy for him to be there and the fans lack a Fleeting-type character to rally round, all the banners and flags in the world aren’t going to change a thing.
In Portland, it’s difficult to see how the fans will force Wilkinson out so long as Paulson is his Patty Hearst. Clearly Merritt must see something in Wilkinson that convinces him he is the man to guide the Timbers forward, but the failure to transmit this to the fans and get them on board is another failure of communication. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to see any cohesion or direction in the way the Timbers have gone about their first two years in MLS.
But it seems that as bad as it gets, one man remains untouchable in the eye of the storm. The supposedly imminent announcement of a new head coach may take some of the heat off Wilkinson, though I doubt the fans are going to completely forget about the Kiwi as, I suspect, they had better set their expectations to “underwhelmed” in regards to that appointment. I just don’t see how any top coach is going to want to work in this environment, though I’d love to be proven wrong.
What the future holds for both clubs is hard to see at this point. It would be nice, as a fan, to get back to thinking exclusively about what’s happening on the field again. That is why we love the game after all, right?
Maybe I’m some kind of jinx?! That’s the price for having me support a club. At least the Perkins trade took the heat off me as the guy who killed Timbers careers dead. Now I’m the guy who brings an omnishambles of a front office/boardroom to the table.
Whatever happens, one thing is sure. The fans will endure it. Owners and chairmen come and go, as do coaches and managers; the one constant are the fans. They are the beating heart of any club.
Hotheads and bampots they may be, but without them the club is nothing.
John Spencer’s term as head coach of the Portland Timbers came to an emotional end on Monday as the Scot paid the price for a poor season. Andrew Brawley penned a good piece on the reaction to the firing that everyone should check out.
Truth is there was little-to-no surprise about the move. Some disappointment, for sure, even some relief, but no shock. The writing was on the wall on Sunday when it was revealed that Monday’s training was closed to media, and sure enough, Merritt Paulson had taken the difficult decision to relieve Spencer of his duties.
John Spencer will forever be a part of Timbers history as their first ever MLS coach, and he gave the fans some great moments to remember. There’s no doubting his passion or drive to succeed, and I’m sure this won’t be his one and only foray into management, though he might be better serving the rest of his apprenticeship away from the glare of a top league where mistakes and deficiencies aren’t quite so conspicuous.
And it was those mistakes and deficiences that ultimately cost Spencer his job. I’d written in the past about how I thought he was starting to lose control and focus under the pressure that the Timbers’ stuttering second season had put him under.
On the pitch, Spencer didn’t show the development or improvement that myself and many other fans had hoped to see. The team failed to find another way to play beyond the old-school kick-and-rush tactics. Even Barcelona, arguably the greatest club side ever, have had to adapt or die, and we’re no Barcelona to rely on a Messi or Xavi to conjure something up.
Even when he did adopt a 0]”>4-3-3 against Real, it was in such a defensive and negative way that the only question in the match was how long the Timbers could hold out. It’d be easy to look back at that game now and see an ultimatum from Paulson delivered to Spencer that drove him to play in such a manner, but truth is I don’t think this was a decision reached over a result or two, especially against one of the league’s leading teams.
Indeed, Paulson made reference to “philosophical differences” in his statement, and that would seem to suggest that the problem wasn’t necessarily that the Timbers were losing (yet, bizarrely, were still within touching distance of the playoffs), but rather it was the way we were losing. The Timbers lost ugly, drew ugly and won ugly, a few exceptions aside.
There may have been a case to stick with John Spencer if there’d been signs that the team were trying to play good football, and players were developing, with young guys coming through. I don’t think either of these three points were being addressed.
The football belongs in another age. Spencer talks a good game, and it’s easy to get swept up with him, but the fact is that either the players didn’t do what he said, or he couldn’t figure out how to implement it. In trying to repeat what Dominic Kinnear has at Houston, where Spencer was assistant, he found out that Kinnear is actually pretty good at what he does. I’d thought Spencer perhaps needed an experienced guiding hand alongside him, but he never got it.
I’m not sure the young guys on the roster will be in mourning for long, either. While Nagbe has been a regular starter for the team, he’s the only player under 22 in the top ten of minutes played. Alhassan might have figured in that group had he not been injured for most of the season.
There’s actually a lot of experience in that top ten, with five bringing previous MLS experience to the table and many having played at international level. It’s not the “young guns” that some would have you believe. I don’t attend the U’23 games or Reserve matches, but those that do assure me that there are excellent prospects coming through.
The problem is that Spencer seemed unwilling to give them a chance, except when given no option as with Jean-Baptiste earlier in the year. When there was a crisis at right-back, Spencer didn’t turn to youth, he gave the job to a 31 year old midfielder. As the goals have singularly failed to flow, the kids weren’t given a shot until youth was bought in by signing Mwanga from Philadelphia.
It seems to have become a vicious cycle – the team weren’t winning so Spencer doesn’t want to risk the kids – but there comes a point when the old heads simply aren’t cutting it. I’d rather have a 20 year old make a honest mistake but learn from it and improve, than have a veteran simply stink.
It’s hard to see how the guys Spencer has been giving a chance to have developed. Nagbe burst onto the scene, but as he’s been leaned on more and more he’s on a Mwanga-esque career trajectory. Alhassan is every bit as inconsistent and mercurial as he ever was. Alexander has gone from the fringes of the national team to the fringes of the Timbers XI.
He’s been over-reliant on trusted players, and this has hurt him. Fitting Jewsbury into any XI, no matter what, is a problem. What Jack did in his first year for this club will live long in the memories of every Timbers fan, but there’s no escaping the fact that his performances have been on a slippery slope for some time now. Yet, he always played. Palmer – a solid MLS player at Houston and a Jamaican international – is arguably the single most frustrating player on the roster, given his poor ball control and almost sisyphean approach to long-range shooting, yet he’s been one of Spencer’s most picked players.
I don’t want to beat Spencer up too much though. He’s gone, and I’d prefer to see him off with a shake of the hand for his work. He made mistakes, sure, but he made them honestly. I wish him all the best for the future, but this was a decision that had to be made, and it’s as well to make it now.
When it became clear that Spencer wasn’t going to turn the ship around, there was no sense in keeping him here till the end of the season. It’s hard seeing how results would improve significantly, and having a lame duck manager does no-one any good. Better to make the call early, and give the next guy a chance to plan ahead for next season without coming in at the end of the year and finding himself months behind every other MLS club in preparation.
At Killie there was a manager who was stuck-in-his-ways, and played old school football. He’d gone stale. When he left midway through the season, the club hired an interim manager to see it out. He kept the club up on the last day, but was cut from the same cloth as his predecessor. He went, in came a completely new managerial team, who brought with them a revolution in style and methods, and led the club up the table and to a cup win. I can only glean hope from the parallels with the Timbers.
Speaking of interim managers, Gavin Wilkinson, the general manager, will take over from Spencer until a permanent replacement is found. Who that man will be is going to keep the rumour mill going for a while. I suspect it’ll be a manager with top flight experience this time. I’m not sure MLS experience is a must, but it may be that Paulson will want to “play safe” with this appointment and get a guy in who has managed here before.
But back to Wilkinson… His new role wasn’t met with a great deal of enthusiasm. I’d asked a while ago for thoughts on Wilkinson, and it seems apposite to finish this by posting one of these now.
By John Lawes
Watched from the North End during Gavin’s tenure as coach during the last of the USL years – and that’s all; no closer connection then that of a supporter in the stands. So anything I can provide is purely subjective. That said –
Gavin always seemed fairly hands-off on matchday. He wasn’t a shouter, like Spencer, much less aggro. He seemed to have a similar problem with substitutions, tho; his subs often seemed to let in more trouble than they solved.
He seemed to get on well with certain players, and those guys would play – in my opinion – often well past their sell-by date. That seemed especially true of his forwards and attacking mids. He stuck with several strikers, both in terms of minutes and in his adjustment or lack of same to the way their skills/styles fit into his tactical setup, after it was fairly obvious that other coaches had figured them out and had developed tactics to counter them.
As for his tactics, they were…ummm…a bit on the crude side, IMO. He seemed to like to play pretty direct, hoof-it-up, Route 1 style football. We always figured that this was a Kiwi thing.
And in particular, he seemed to have little or no interest, or patience, for Latino players. I don’t recall any Hispanic player getting significant minutes or having any particular success during his tenure.
His single honor during his tenure was winning the league in 2009. But this is deceptive on two counts; first, because this being American soccer the actual “winning” the USL-1 meant nothing other than a first round bye (and then a speedy exit at the hands of our old enemies Vancouver), and, second, because even with the unbeaten streak Gav’s team fell apart at the wrong time. Going into September the team had four losses. Over the next four weeks the side managed to win two, draw one (the final match against Vancouver that, with the Timbers down 2-1 from the first leg, meant elimination), and lose five.
Overall, Gavin’s coaching seemed, well, like a decent club- or lower-division professional-level level; never particularly brilliant but typically never disastrous. Cautious would be the word I’d use. Befitting a former defender his backline was usually solid. His midfield and forwards, not so much. And the Timbers of Gavin’s time never seemed to be able to find a way to beat the teams they needed to beat. For all that his payroll was never immense Gav never seemed to find a way to use the attacking players he had to their best advantage; he tended to find a formula – a lineup or a tactic – and stick with it even after the results began to fade. He muled his striker Keita in 2009; the guy scored a league-high 14 goals in the first half of the season, but after July? Nada. The next year, the last USL year, Gav did the same thing with Ryan Pore; fed him the ball and enjoyed the results in the spring and early summer…but by August and September the guy wasn’t scoring – everyone else in the league had figured out how to put a body on him and mark him out of the match – and Gavin never adjusted. Sounds a little familiar?
The recent English Premier League season ended with a promoted former-assistant at the helm of two of the relegated clubs – Steven Kean at Blackburn Rovers and Terry Connor at Wolves. Both had good coaching reputations, but neither could prevent their side from going down
It’s always interesting to see how assistants do when given the reins. It’s very much a sink or swim situation. Kean and Connor are the latest in a line of sinkers.
Brian Kidd is one of the highest profile sinkers. He had been assistant to Alex Ferguson and instrumental in bringing through some of the prodigous talent that propelled United to the top of European football, but when he took over as Blackburn manager in 1998, he prompted got Rovers relegated. Kidd is now back in his best role, behind the scenes, at Manchester City.
Another name that could be considered as a managerial flop is Carlos Queiroz. Not a bad manager, he found some success,and a number of high profile appointments, but there’s no doubting that Queiroz’s most successful spell came as assistant to Sir Alex. His recent appointment as manager of Iran certainly suggests that he won’t be bothering the upper echelons of the footballing pantheon any time soon.
Not all Number 2’s go on to fail when given the top job, of course. Bob Paisley faced the seemingly impossible task of replacing the legendary Bill Shankly at Liverpool. He swam, winning six league titles and three European cups. Not strictly an assistant, Pep Guardiola was a promotion from within at Barcelona, taking over the top job after a year in charge of the B team. It’s a trick Barça want to repeat following the appointment of Guardiola’s assistant, Tito Vilanova, to take over from him from next season.
As a Killie fan, I could also mention Kenny Shiels as doing a great job since taking over from Mixu Paatelainen, leading the club to a comfortable league position and a League Cup triumph.
The reason that all this occurred to me was that as the Timbers have struggled this year under the guidance of John Spencer, a lot of fans have voiced the thought that perhaps Spencer is an example of someone who makes a better assistant than a manager. A sinker.
Spenny had a few years as Dominic Kinnear’s assistant at Houston Dynamo before being chosen by Timbers owner Merritt Paulson to take over in the club’s first year in MLS. Paulson has always emphasised the long term nature of Spencer’s appointment, and the “project” they’re embarking on, but it’s hard to imagine he’s not been bitterly disappointed with the way the Timbers’ second season had unfolded.
Unlike a Guardiola or Paisley, or even Shiels, Spencer hasn’t served his “apprenticeship” in-house. Coming in from relative obscurity at Houston, he’s been thrown in at the deep end with a club whose fanbase is fanatical and fervent, to say the least.
Inexperience is a common theme at the Timbers. From a manager with no managerial experience, to a General Manager with no MLS experience and a young owner who’d be the first to admit soccer was never his first love.
Given all this, you might expect that Spencer would’ve been backed up by an experienced number two. Last season Trevor James had served as back-up to Spencer. James had five years of experience within the LA Galaxy set-up, but his tenure at the club lasted only a year.
This year has seen Cameron Knowles join Amos Magee – an assistant to then-manager, now General Manager, Gavin Wilkinson, during the Timbers USL days. The appointment is Knowles’ first coaching job following his retirement at the end of last season. He’s another with a Wilkinson connection, having played under him for the USL Timbers.
To go back to Alex Ferguson briefly, he has given a masterclass in how to utilise assistants over the years. The role of assistant manager is a hard one to quantify.
To paint in broad strokes, the role is to be a guiding voice to the manager, and a bridge from manager to players. Within those outlines, there’s much more to the role. He can be the guy who’s on the training ground every day, such as Kevin Bond at Spurs, or he can fulfil the roles and duties the manager doesn’t want to, as Sir Alex’s assistants have done for years when the grumpy Scot wasn’t talking to the BBC.
Rather than just throw his assistants in front of the post-match cameras, Ferguson has used the role to develop his club into a forward-thinking operation. The key to how Fergie has managed to stay on top for so long without going stale could be the way he changes assistants periodically to bring in a fresh approach.
Queiroz brought a continental, technical style to the club – he’s widely credited with the club’s adoption of the 4-5-1/4-3-3 – whilst Steve McClaren modernised with a pioneering use of sports psychology and in-depth analytical technology.
What fresh ideas and approaches Knowles and Magee bring to the club is hard to tell without being on the training ground every day. Given the tactical naivety shown by Spencer at times over his tenure, it does seem like he misses an “old head” to provide guidance.
This lack of experience – from assistants, to manager, general manger and all the way up to club owner – is thrown into stark relief by the team up the road.
Seattle Sounders, in contrast to the Timbers, installed a vastly experienced head coach in Sigi Schmid, and they hit the ground running with successive US Open Cup triumphs that have kept the customers in rave green and bule suitably smug.
Travelling a little further north, Vancouver Whitecaps somewhat mirrored the Timbers when they appointed a relatively inexperienced Scot, Martin Rennie, as head coach (though he had held the top job at a number of lower league clubs), but made sure he had experience such as ex-DC United head coach Tom Soehn as Director of Soccer Operations to lean on.
It’s hard to tell if Spencer himself is is a sinker, or his Wilkinsonite support network within the club hasn’t been able to give him proper guidance. Given I’m relatively new to the Timbers, I don’t feel I have the authority to go over Wilkinson’s role in the Timbers’ struggles, but if there’s anyone out there who wants to give it a go, please do get in touch.
Very few first time managers hit the ground running and deliver immediate results, and it’s often the case that relatively inexperienced managers are given a more experienced assistant to help them out.
Even a legend such as Arsene Wenger, who lacked playing “credentials”, had the “football man” Pat Rice as assistant, until Rice’s recent retirement. Spencer certainly doesn’t lack for credentials having had an illustrious career in the UK and US, nor does he lack for confidence, but something is certainly missing.
Following the ignominious defeat to Cal FC, there are no matches for the Timbers for almost two weeks, when they will travel to face LA Galaxy. Despite having a team packed with quality and experience, Beckham FC prop up the Western Conference. I hope to have an in-depth look at them in the next week or so.