Identity Issues

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 general manager 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.