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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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