This piece by John Nyen written *prior* to the Timbers 5-0 FC Dallas debacle.
In the front room of a schoolhouse for survival training, Gavin Wilkinson gives master classes.
Somehow, one way or another, Wilkinson remains a sole surviving and thriving link between the re-incarnated Timbers of 2001 and the modern MLS Timbers of today.
Quite possibly he remains because of his ability to sideswipe criticism, perhaps it is his intensity, or perhaps it is his friendship in the right circles. However, given the issues involved with the Timbers this year it becomes important to the Portland Timber’s Ramiro Corrales–a Timbers Original.
Coming over from Kilkenny City in 2001, Gavin Wilkinson started a now 11-year career with the Portland Timbers, first playing 124 games in the back four for Portland and then as an assistant manager and then manager for the Timbers in the lower divisions.
Renowned as a fierce competitor, Wilkinson has always had a penchant for not exactly being an “easy guy to know”. The former captain of the Timbers, Ian Joy, wrote a column for Prost Amerika saying about Wilkinson, “my former coach and someone who I thought I knew very well but found out in the end I knew nothing about.”
That phrase could be interpreted many different ways, but the discussions and conversations among players about Wilkinson’s reign with the Timbers has always been couched in similar Joy-like terms: “An extremely aggressive man who himself is very passionate about winning at all costs.”
Wilkinson is not without bestowed honors, and nor is he without success.
Did he as manager oversee a 25 game winning streak in 2009? Yes. Did he flame out of the playoffs every time he got the team there? Yes.
Did Wilkinson achieve success at different points in the USL? Yes Was that success with a lineup stocked with former MLS castoffs and also rans that happened to be a step above the competition in the USL? Also yes.
You can’t necessarily give Wilkinson grief for succeeding with talent when given the opportunity, but the contradiction to where the Timbers sit now with that notion is that Wilksonson wasn’t going to have the upper hand in procuring talent for a MLS team as he did previously in USL days.
Wilikinson was appointed General Manager in 2006, appointed technical director of the MLS Timbers at the beginning of 2010.
The close of the 2010 season saw the Timbers finishing 3rd, getting knocked out of the USL playoffs in the quarterfinals by the Vancouver Whitecaps and knocked out of the Open Cup in an epic match with the Seattle Sounders. Upon completion, Gavin hung up the clipboard and redefined his position solely as the general manager and technical director.
He left the sidelines with a sugar-coated 50-29-39 record and two coach of the year awards. From the outside it appears that this was someone the fans should revere, but Wilkinson has never had a rapport with the Timbers Army or the greater Timber fan.
That’s not a necessity, but it helps especially after the sour knacks of falling apart in the playoffs and playing with tactics that would be considered old school in Scotland. Combine that with a record against teams in the USL ranks that were so under supported and funded that they don’t even exist anymore (see California Victory) and the veneer starts to etch.
Now, by proxy, his time as General Manager for the MLS Timbers is fairly up for debate.
As much as John Spencer made mistakes, had multiple verbal and logic gaffes, and seemingly drove fans crazy with player selection and favoritism, he was still squeezing wins from a roster whose components don’t exactly fit together like Voltron.
The Portland Timbers are team of tweeners and less talented value pickups. Their problems (and to a certain extent Spencer’s problem) resulted from a lack of talent at necessary positions combined with mental and system mistakes. The biggest problems come from the acquisition of players that seemingly aren’t simply good enough at their position in MLS. Looking at this from the outside perspective, one could easily say that “the Timbers are an expansion team that just need more time”.
However this ignores the simple fact that some of the Timbers problems would be fixed had they simply not gotten rid of the talent that they already had on their team.
The Timbers had several acquisitions and trades at the beginning of the 2011 (their first) MLS season.
PTFC picked up Dax McCarty, Jeremy Hall, Eric Brunner, Adam Moffat, Anthony Wallace, David Horst, Robbie Findley, Peter Lowry, Jonathan Bornstein, Jordan Graye, and Arturo Alvarez with the 2011 expansion draft.
Of those players, the Timbers traded Dax McCarty for Rodney Wallace, Jeremy Hall (much later) for Eric Alexander, Adam Moffat for Lovel Palmer and Mike Chabala, Anthony Wallace for allocation money, and Arturo Alvarez for a draft pick. Lowry, and Graye are no longer with the team, with Bornstein and Findley likely never playing for the Timbers.
Looking at the team in 2011, the trades (in the ever dangerous hindsight) are staggeringly terrible.
Rodney Wallace is a bench-spot start player after playing himself out of the now rotating left back position for the Timbers.
Lovel Palmer and Mike Chabala are both bench players after playing themselves out of both the LB and RB-MF position.
Palmer himself is a prime example of a player that either needs a change of scenery or just doesn’t get it. He is frequently left flat footed in the center of midfield and has found his minutes slashed unless either Diego Chara or Jack Jewsbury is out for some reason.
Those sent away: Adam Moffat and Dax McCarty have become key components of their new teams. Moffat started for Houston in MLS Cup while McCarty has finally found his feet in New York with over 30 appearances for Red Bull in two years.
Even worse for Timbers fans is the fact that Moffat brings something that has been noticeably lacking in the Timbers central midfielders, that is an aggressive tough streak. The Scottish midfielder plays vigorous and hard through the middle of the field, an area in which the Timbers most closely resemble Swiss cheese.
Certainly Jack Jewsbury played a fantastic first half of 2011, but his inconsistencies in the second half of 2011 that have now continued into 2012 have robbed him of his sparkling 4 month form.
At one point in 2012, Lovel Palmer played so poorly at RB, that Jack Jewsbury was forced to deputize at RB in order to relieve him of his duties. Unfortunately in a bit of circular logic, Palmer was then moved to Central Midfield where (after one slightly competent display) he has now settled into his normal routine of leaving players open and turning the ball over.
What is difficult is to look at these trades in hindsight. When Portland sent Moffat to Houston they desperately needed fullbacks, mostly because Hall and Wallace were already taking themselves out of their positions.
As with anything, most decisions are a domino effect and hindsight is a killer.
The problem here is that Spencer, Wilkinson and all the valuators of talent on the Timbers didn’t see a reason to keep Moffat and McCarty even though identifying talent and filling holes should be part of their job. The fullback situation itself has been one setback after another as player after player after player have been attempted to be shoehorned into those positions.
The Timbers tried Steve Purdy (a Wilkinson pickup from the USL days), Rodney Wallace, Jeremy Hall, Mike Chabala, Lovel Palmer, Steven Smith, Kosuke Kimura, Freddy Braun, and Jack Jewsbury at fullback in the last two seasons. One can ascertain the reasoning here, attempting to pick up a starting fullback via trade, except that by doing so with McCarty and Moffat, the Timbers traded from an area of weakness to try to fix an area of weakness.
Certainly this is more damning in the case of Moffat than McCarty as it appears that the ginger ninja was never in the Timbers plans, but of course the question there would be why? The answer is Gavin Wilkinson’s blueprint towards having a competitive team.
Gavin depends on fullbacks, width and dumping the ball up the field as fast as possible. You can see this mode beginning to take place in the now infamous seasons of 2007 and 2008. Gavin took over a team in 2007 that went 7-15-6 (W-L-D) and had them finish 14-5-9…. This seems fantastic, yes? Well chafing under the rule of Gavin’s abrasive personality the team went 7-13-10 the following year and finished dead last in the USL going 2-8-6 on the road with -9 goal differential.
Essentially, out of the 2011 expansion draft players both drafted and traded, only Eric Brunner, David Horst, and Eric Alexander currently play for the Timbers. Out of the three, only Horst and Alexander are actually currently playing as Eric Brunner has been injured with a concussion for a good portion of 2012. And… As much as I do love David Horst’s passion, you do not necessarily build your roster around him as a center back.
In reviewing past expansion drafts, the contrast is more frightening.
In 2004, there was an expansion draft between Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake. Basically all the picks were relatively awful in terms of long term value with the exception of Andy Williams who played 7 years in Salt Lake. The first pick for Chivas (Arturo Torres) played one year and then ended up missing 2006 and playing 1 game for the Bakersfield Brigade (at least according to his Wikipedia page). So as you can see, getting some value out of the expansion draft as a whole is not a foregone conclusion.
If we start looking at the other acquisitions of 2011, things don’t really get much better. Jack Jewsbury was picked up and claimed as being rejuvenated during his barn burning first half of 2011. However, after the Timbers were found out by teams in MLS, Jewsbury’s contributions plummeted and his play followed suit. This would be less surprising if we remember that Jack was a super sub during his last year with Kansas City and requested to leave. The Jewsbury the Timbers picked up was less the talisman of Sporting Kansas City, and more so the player on the bench struggling to get playing time. If 2012 and the second half of 2011 have shown anything it is that these bench players are often on the bench for a reason.
To a certain extent, Gavin Wilkinson and John Spencer filled the roster of the Portland Timbers with reclamation projects. Jack Jewsbury, Rodney Wallace, Mike Chabala, Lovel Palmer, Bright Dike (who was solely Wilkinson’s pickup), Charles Renken, Kevin Goldthwaite (solely Wilkinson’s pickup as well), Kenny Cooper, Troy Perkins, Sal Zizzo, and David Horst are just some of the players that were bench players for other teams in the league or recovering from injury. One can even look at the recent 2012 pickups from that perspective as well. Kris Boyd is trying to recover from a disastrous two/three years that watched him bounce from Scotland to England to Turkey. Jose Adolfo Valencia is now recovering from a major surgery that will see him miss the entirety of the 2012 season.
If we count those players above (and that is by no means a completely comprehensive list) that means that out of the 13 players listed only four consistently play. That number is made worse by the fact that Jack Jewsbury probably should not be in the starting lineup as well.
Why then did the sword fall on John Spencer? It is an unfortunate side effect of a head coaching position that sometimes you are to blame even if the situation isn’t completely your fault. Where that leaves Timbers fans is with the questionable player acquisitions and man management tactics of Gavin Wilkinson.
Certainly no one should expect their Front Office and General Manager to be perfect 100% of the time. Player acquisition can be a gamble despite the legions of Football Manager fans telling us differently. The front office has had a few successes with the acquisition of Hanyer Mosquera and Diego Chara. As well, the Valencia move may still pan out and Darlington Nagbe may develop into an impact player. However, with the task of building a competent team, Gavin Wilkinson and John Spencer both failed. Only, John Spencer paid with his job for those mistakes.
Now Gavin Wilkinson has taken over the interim head coaching position and has presided over three straight losses with a locker room that, by all accounts, John Spencer had NOT lost. While the Timbers, as of 7-19-2012 at 8:30 pm, equaled Toronto FC at the bottom of MLS, they are not nearly as bad as you would think. There are some good pieces in the team that can play and there is absolutely no excuse for how poor the Timbers are on the road compared to their home form. At their core the Timbers have continued their pickups and ideals from the USL days when they signed out of favor players like Stephen Keel, Bright Dike, Steve Cronin, Ibad Muhamadu, OJ Obatala, and Kevin Goldthwaite.
Having said all this though, Gavin survives another day despite a spotted resume and history of questionable decisions. In his 6 years as General Manager the Timbers are still yet to take that next step. At some point the question must come, “Can Gavin Wilkinson get them there?”