Editorial: New Thinking not “Wilko Out” Slogans Can Mitigate the Stupidity of Spencer’s Firing

Posted in Columnists, Featured, Portland

Published on July 22, 2012 with 19 Comments

The 5-0 loss in Dallas means plodding on is not an option
Photo: Pablo Serna (Prost Dallas)

A Bad but New Solution to Save the Timbers

It has become increasingly hard to disguise the atmosphere of crisis that has enveloped the Portland Timbers. The more fervent of fans may have overreacted to the defeat by Cal FC in the Open Cup but that does not mean the similar reaction after the 5-0 loss in Dallas is also an over reaction. This time the depth of their angst matches the reality of their club’s position.

Less than a month ago, I witnessed them record their first ever MLS win over local rivals Seattle Sounders. It was generally agreed that this win, impressive and deserved as it was, would lift a monkey off the back of the club and its seemingly beleaguered coach John Spencer.

The fans that night were jubilant and from an outside perspective, it seemed that the club had negotiated one more of those hurdles that stand between an expansion side and feeling fully integrated into Major League Soccer.

Among such steps are the first point, the first win, the first road win, first win over a benchmark opponent, a table displaying a record of over .500, and reaching the play-offs for the first time.Those kinds of progression win you a coconut, with each coconut marking a step towards full integration.

The night before that game a headline in the city’s sole mainstream newspaper had suggested that John Spencer was one loss away from dismissal.

The club denied it and it turned out that a copy editor had inserted the headline onto an article which really said no such thing. The idea that a young coach whose blue collar mentality so fitted into the city and the club would be dismissed for a less than stellar 1/3 of a season was ridiculous to most Portland fans we spoke to, even those normally predisposed to moaning.

Just one game after beating league leaders San Jose and three after beating Seattle, John Spencer was fired.

The night of that game, the suggestion seemed even dafter.

Ten days later, they beat the unconquerable league leaders San Jose, a win reminiscent of their victory over Sporting Kansas which disrupted the midiwesterners hot 100% streak.

Incredibly just four days after San Jose had been beaten, John Spencer had coached his last match as Timbers head coach.

The side battled hard in the altitude of Salt Lake against the Conference’s most consistent side over the last five years.

After 60 minutes of containment, they folded and Alvaro Saborio punished them.

Other sides have been beaten at the Rio Tinto over the years. It’s the norm. Timbers last 30 minutes there was a nightmare. The first 60 had approached adequacy though.

The news baffled even officials at the last club to beat them.

Observing the wreckage as the last Cascadian journalist to venture inside a Timbers locker room before Spencer’s removal, the player mood was clear.

They took full responsibility for not having followed the coach’s instructions. He had called it right according to Steven Smith.

Kris Boyd was disappointed about not starting as he should be. If any player thinks he has a divine right to start every game regardless of form that’s his problem, not that of the coach. Ask Brek Shea who this week crossed the boss in Dallas and found himself watching his side’s best result of the season from the sidelines.

In the wake of Saturday’s result in Dallas, the Timbers fanbase exploded again on the internet.

According to observers, there is more unity than was the case after the shock Open Cup defeat to Cal FC. The majority now seems to have identified interim Head Coach and still Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson as the problem.

37 shots were recorded during the Cal FC debacle. It took 70 for the first Portland shot on target in the 1-0 loss at Chivas, still Wilkinson’s best result as interim head coach. At this point, the Timbers consist of the players he brought in playing to the tactics he ordered. There is nowhere else to point the finger.

So can Portland be fixed as easily as the “GW out” slogan suggests?

Perhaps once. But not now. The club has no coach. Removing the Technical Director at this point without a replacement merely sets the club further adrift. In sacrificing Spencer, Wikinson had made himself necessary and indispensable. Cynics have already suggested this was not accidental. There is no evidence to back this theory up, at least in the public domain.

To use a further shipping metaphor, even if Gavin Wilkinson is the anchor rather than the captain that can save the ship, cutting away the anchor merely serves to set the ship even further into the direction the wind will take it, almost certainly dangerous waters.

So what exactly can be done in the short term to stop this season slipping away into a series of one sided wallopings? One point on which we are adamant is that any perceived short term fix cannot be something that will one day hamper the club in the medium or long term.

Cries therefore to bring in a coach immediately rather then wait until the end of the season are understandable but have to be resisted if that coach is the wrong man to take the club forward on a permanent basis. The last thing Merritt Paulson needs, is to be saddled with another coach brought in before sufficient compatibility has been established.

By his own admission, he has already screwed up the coach hiring process once although Prost Amerika does not really believe the ‘fundamental philosophical differences’ rationale put forward by owner Merritt Paulson for the dismissal of John Spencer.

If they were that fundamental, why were they not apparent during the initial interview stages when Spencer and the Timbers were getting acquainted? Is Paulson’s statement an admission that he and Wilkinson did not do their due diligence when investigating Spencer’s DNA or core beliefs?

How can a ‘fundamental philosophical difference’ not have come out in the hiring process? Either that process was not conducted as fully as it should have been given the club’s admitted intention to groom Spencer for a long term tenure; or Paulson’s soundbyte is codswallop.

If Paulson is telling the truth and some fundamental difference became apparent, then who can have any confidence in the same two individuals allocating themselves the task of finding another coach?

In either case, the paying public has a right to know what the ‘philosophical’ issues are. After all, right about now a tiny minority of the fan base has any sympathy for those currently running the club. An actual matter of principle can only bring a few round to Paulson and Wilkinson’s point of view.

A third possible alternative is that an argument about a more day-to-day issue exploded out of all proportion and someone felt backed into a corner.

Yet the hashing over the past only goes so far. It does not address what Paulson can do about it now.

Is Paulson suited to the task of hiring a new coach given his rationale for firing John Spencer?
Photo: Rick Morrison

We feel it would be irresponsible to criticise and complain without at least having a proposal.

Our proposal has as many holes in it as any other. Its only merits may well be that it isn’t any of the others.

Nothing Paulson can do now barring inventing a time machine and not firing Spencer can undo the stupidity of the last three weeks.

However limping on with Wilkinson doing two jobs is now the worst case scenario.

The Kiwi is clearly overworked and overstretched.

There is no reason to believe he is a coach of MLS quality. He has stipulated that he does not want the job.

There is no case to believe he has the ability and time to perform two high profile roles at once. His soldiering on can only serve to have one ramification; which is to drain any remaining credibility for himself, for his role as Technical Director or for the club.

If Paulson is absolutely determined to keep Wilkinson on the payroll, then further diminishing the man’s appetite, energy levels or credibility can only harm the entire franchise. For right or for wrong, the dismissal of Spencer means, at least in the short term, that Wilkinson has to remain at the club.

The next worst scenario moving upwards is bringing in a coach as quickly as possible, just for the sake of relieving Wilkinson of one of his duties. That would begin Portland on the start of the same cycle they just left. Not only would a third coach in two months utterly confuse the players, the effort may mean paying compensation to his existing employer unless they can find one currently not under a contract. That either limits the choice available or eats into the player budget.

If the right man for the job exists without compensation, then Paulson should feel free to go for it immediately but that new coach must have license to define not only his own role, but those of any assistants he may bring in. If that means removing part of the scouting role from Wilkinson, then the New Zealander has to bite the bullet and accept the poor results also have to be partly attributed to the average quality of player he has uncovered.

But what if there is no such perfect candidate who will arrive immediately? Having ruled out bringing in the wrong man just to have a coach, and having ruled out Wilkinson plodding on effectively writing off the season; what is left?

What is left is the least bad option.

Sir Winston Churchill once called Democracy the worst system of government in the world, except all the others. That is where the Timbers currently find themselves looking for the least worse move.

Ironically they may have already been operating it.

The Portland reserve team operates by committee. They have more of a collective coaching effort from the assistant coaches this season, Amos Magee, Cameron Knowles and Mike Toshack each of whom participate.In short, there is an option that is neither Wilkinson nor a hurried appointment.

These three men have worked together in seeming harmony this year. With Portland out of the Under 23s, Jim Rilatt and Rod Underwood can maybe lend some insight.

New arrival Sean McAuley is also available, but cannot be expected to do anything until the necessary paperwork has been done. Even then, it seems unfair to throw him in too deep too soon.

Can Amos Magee help alleviate the pressure on Gavin Wilkinson?
Photo: Michael Orr

Eventually, he can be the man that makes a final call when the collective cannot agree if Magee doesn’t want the pressure.

Even Wilkinson can be the man who makes the final call in the event of no agreement, providing that is the limited nature of his involvment.

Last night, the New Zealander seemed to indicate he had had enough of the day to day coaching:

“As far as coaching, I coached as much as I can for right now.”

We agree.

There is nothing to be gained by continuing down the current path.

No-one is suggesting any of these gentlemen are in the running to fill the position permanently. No-one is really suggesting government by committee is a long term option.

But in three games under Wilkinson’s running the show alone, results have not only been disastrous but there is no indication whatsoever that the players he has found, and the coaching advice he has given, can affect any recovery.

It is time to find a temporary solution that does not deepen the harm, but does not do any long term damage. Paulson could stick McAuley, Toshack, Magee and Knowles in a room and ask for a plan to muddle the club through until a full time manager is appointed. It can’t be any worse than the current plan.

In a separate room but at the same time, Paulson and Wilkinson should be having a very honest conversation about where Wilkinson can best serve the club in the future. He is said by observers to have his finger in so many pies, that his disengagement from the club would lead to chaos.

That is an unhealthy position for any individual to have at any club. ‘Too big to fail’ is not a blue print for success in any industry. Nobody should know that better than Merritt Paulson who need only ask his father, the US Finance Secretary as the banking system in the USA began to unravel due to its own giants disintegrating.

Whereas Gavin Wilkinson as the Lehman Brothers or Fannie Mae of the Portland Timbers is a ridiculous though mildly amusing pictorial, the principle is the same. Wilkinson now appears to be so deeply embedded in the DNA of the organisation that he is indispensable.

That is unhealthy for both parties, and any root and branch reorganisation cannot ignore that factor.

However, that still means that for now Wilkinson is exactly that, indispensable. Calls for his removal from the organisation are just not practical at this time although the ability to remove him (or any other) long term without anarchy is now more than desirable.

It is now vital for the long term stability of this franchise.

Related:

Follow us on Twitter

Wilkinson: I feel humiliated. I apologize to fans and that’s me and the organization apologizing.

Texas Massacre without the Chainsaw

So Seth Dunny …. Portland lack the ‘Fuck You’ mentality

Once a Cascadian – A sad day in the Rose City by Ian Joy

External Sites May Not Reflect the Views of Prost Amerika

The Gavin Wilkinson Problem – Stumptown Footy





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19 Comments

Comments for Editorial: New Thinking not “Wilko Out” Slogans Can Mitigate the Stupidity of Spencer’s Firing are now closed.

  1. Good article………… What a mess!

  2. Let him run the academy program. Hire a technical director that understands MLS and a coach with MLS experience.

  3. GW is not some indispensable part of the DNA of this organization. He is a parasite. A cancer. He is deeply ingrained to be sure, but the fact of the matter is he harms the organization every second he is part of it. You will see it all the rest of this season as we progressively get worse and worse. You think this is rock bottom? No, we have a long way to fall. Prepare not just to lose badly, but to be humiliated. It is all on GW. These players are talented, but we have surpluses of talent in some positions and little to absolutely no talent in positions that are vital to our success. That is all on GW.

    Who is going to want to even come to our team after what we have been through if he is still around anyway? Who is going to want to be apart of it at all? Not the players we need to compete that’s for sure.

    • Gavin has given enough of his years to football in Portland to deserve a more considered response than mere name calling. I could name a few folk who have appeared around soccer since 2009 just to suck what they can from it.

      Gavin Wilkinson is by no means close to that. Our editorial was far from kind but that does not justify calling him just anything you can think of.

    • DCG1- All hope is not lost for the rest of eternity. Is Portland going to win the MLS this season? No, they aren’t. However, it seems a bit silly to say that no players will ever want to come to the team. Players don’t have THAT much choice of where they go in the MLS trade system.

      Also try to remember despite the numbing haze of despair that Europe’s current champions were at one point, not so terribly long ago, relegated. And a team that won the MLS Cup last year has lost more than won this season.

    • “Who is going to want to even come to our team after what we have been through if he is still around anyway? Who is going to want to be apart of it at all? Not the players we need to compete that’s for sure.”

      The only thing keeping a head coach or players coming to Portland is the fact the fan base actually cares and will criticize them. If they are actually a good coach or a good player that shouldn’t bother them.

  4. I’m sure Gavin is saying something similar to Merritt, “I need more time because I’ve been here twelve years.” And when his coaching/GM tenure has mostly brought mediocre to poor results – with the Hollywood United and Cal FC debacles inbetween – it’s near impossible to make a reasonable case for him. Furthermore, the “too big to fail” dilemma you mention is another reason why they should be working on an exit strategy for him now, not keep him around. As for Spencer, the mistake was not in his dismissal but in making Gavin interim coach.

    • “Furthermore, the “too big to fail” dilemma you mention is another reason why they should be working on an exit strategy for him now, not keep him around.”

      However to part with him right now, or more likely reduce and contain his responsibilities, will still harm the club if done as a knee jerk reaction to a crisis. Long term planning is what is needed here. I thought they had done that when Spencer was hired. I think the article clearly suggested that a rethink of Gavin’s influence should be happening alongside whatever changes are made to the playing side.

      It’s not so much a criticism of him but no person at one club should be allowed to become indispensable. Such a person could get ill, or leave.

  5. This editorial could have been two paragraphs long. Who edits the editor?

  6. Where is Trevor James? Bring him back, he has top MLS and international experience, can actually coach, knows the Timbers organization (although GW/MP may be the reason he left), he has the respect of all of the 2011 players, they will play for him and I’m certain the new boys will too.

    • TiN,

      Trevor James did not leave because of either Gavin or Merritt.

  7. A lot of venom is spewing out of our supporter base down here. I enjoyed your read Steve. I do like the idea of a 3 assistant by committee approach for the interim. Why not? Exit strategy should of been thought of yesterday and executed today. The players must hold themselves accountable and I believe beyond reason that most are. Yet GW’s prints are all over this crime and if the result does not come soon after kickoff Saturday night I believe the terraces will thunder for GW’s resignation. Does that mean Anarchy to follow? I do not believe so. The first step is for Merritt Paulsen to remove himself as team president. He is a business man with zero soccer knowledge. His roll is to STFU and sign checks that’s it. If he was smart he would be scouring Europe & S. America for a legitimate senior executive.

    • Paul Barber just took a job at Brighton. ;-)

      • “Paul Barber just took a job at Brighton.” lol

        The April Fools Day for Vancouver was brilliant. I especially loved the part about how “Paul Barber would be missed by all.”

        Hey they just got rid of those bad seeds Le Toux and Hassli also! :-)

        Sorry, I know this is Portland land. My apologies for the sidebar.

        • Never apologise for telling us how wizard and funny our April Fools stuff is. But that one was one of my favourites. That and the Caps selling lines to sponsors in Oh Canada.

  8. The “fundamental philosophical differences” line is a cleverly chosen phrase. Yeah, one could assume it is about soccer philosophy, but like most people who have done wrong, they are not good at telling outright lies. The “philosophical” differences probably have to do with personality. John Spencer does not take crap. Meanwhile, Merritt Paulson is known for being a know-nothing crap-slinger. He did it during the stadium negotiations, and Randy Leonard even called him out on it. In fact, if it wasn’t for Randy Leonard and Sam Adams basically doing all the work, there would be no Civic Stadium renovations, and thus no MLS Portland Timbers. They held Merritt’s hand, and now he gets to be the know-nothing crap-slinging big boss in charge. My suspicion is that John Spencer grew increasingly tired of Merritt’s personality and called him out on it. Thus, “philosophical differences”. Of course, as a professional who hopes to get another job in soccer, he isn’t going to go public with this.

    Gavin Wilkinson might not be the best coach, but we will never know for sure. He has only ever been a head coach under the ownership of Merritt Paulson beginning in 2007. Knowing how Merritt like to inject himself into the soccer operations, despite knowing nothing about the sport, Gavin isn’t so much some Machiavellian or Rasputin figure as he is one of the only people who will put up with Merritt’s spoiled kid tantrums. That is why Gavin is Merritt’s guy. It pretty unfair to see Gavin used as a scapegoat for Merritt Paulson’s failures. But that would be par for the course for how Paulson treats people and gets away with it.

  9. Also, watching the last three Timbers games, the players just really don’t care anymore. You can tell in their body language. It is obvious they are upset that John Spencer was fired. But who fired him? Not Gavin Wilkinson. Merritt Paulson fired him. And the players know what kind of person Merritt Paulson is. I don’t see how any human being would want to play for Merritt Paulson, but at least John Spencer was there to make it tolerable. Now he is gone, and Merritt is probably laying into the players at every opportunity.

    This is another example of people taking a really circuitous logical route in assuming that Gavin is some kind of Machiavellian manipulator who got John Spencer fired. When the clear-cut simple explanation is right in front of their faces. Merritt Paulson fired him. People should be calling for Merritt’s head, not Gavin’s.

    • You make many allegations against Merritt including a very lucid explanation of why Spencer left.

      Can you provide evidence to back it up?

    • I don’t know the inside details regarding the stadium renovation, but I do agree that Merritt Paulson seems over his head when it comes to the soccer decisions. Also, anyone who follows him on Twitter knows he hates criticism – even of the mild sort (some is over the top) – and he is prone to Twitter outbursts that are quickly followed by tweet deletion. So the image of him being a cool, calm executive is questionable.

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