by Brennan Burns
The Portland Timbers travel to the Great White North on Wednesday to play Toronto FC at BMO Field (4:30 PM, ROOT Sports), a matchup of the league’s lowliest clubs.
Both teams sit at the foot of the table in their respective conferences after 22 matches played, and while Portland possesses one more point it is Toronto that holds the more impressive form of late, 3 wins in their last 6 contests compared to a lone draw for Portland in that same span.
For Toronto, having begun the campaign with 9 consecutive losses, the writing was on the wall for now former manager Aron Winter, replaced prior to midseason by current gaffer Paul Mariner.
TFC’s Director of Player Development earned promotion to the sideline to assume the managerial reins and a tandem Director of Soccer Operations title, his brief tenure an unqualified success in light of his predecessor’s failures, 4 wins and 4 draws a welcome return in 12 league matches at the helm.
The same can’t be said of interim Portland manager Gavin Wilkinson, the general manager unable to duplicate the spells of success he exhibited when coaching the second division incarnation of the club, and the long memory of the Timbers Army is growing increasingly impatient with the New Zealander’s inability to inspire a team he handpicked with the man he replaced, John Spencer.
Wilkinson’s tenuous relationship with the club’s vocal supporters group is not without historical precedent, and his latest decision to axe starting goalkeeper Troy Perkins in favor of Donovan Ricketts via a trade with the Montreal Impact leaves observers scratching their heads as to the timing of a deal that uproots a fan favorite and supplants him with what can only be described as a caretaker signing while a more long term option develops in either Jake Gleeson or Joe Bendik.
While Ricketts brings with him 2010 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year credentials, the Jamaican international seemingly didn’t settle in at Montreal, and his more recent stats reveal a decline that makes it difficult to comprehend the departure of one of Portland’s most consistent players for one whose best days may be behind him.
Granted, serious injury and the form of backup netminder Josh Saunders denied him his place and made him surplus to requirements while at the LA Galaxy in 2011, and backstopping an expansion club defense this year did his numbers no favors, but Ricketts will need to display superhuman form to be considered an upgrade with a comparatively leaky Timbers back four in front of him.
Should Portland’s new goalkeeper wish to prove himself far from rickety between the pipes, he will need to quickly impose cohesion on a defense that holds the league’s fourth worst goals against record, only marginally better than LA, Toronto, and Montreal, respectively.
Improved distribution will be key if Ricketts is to gel quickly with his teammates, one facet of Perkins’ supposedly deficient skill set that was either sorely lacking or not an option with inept wingbacks incapable of providing a regular outlet.
The route one approach of sending longballs upfield from the back was unsatisfying back in the USL days, and Kris Boyd must feel he’s swapped present day Scotland for that of yesteryear as the MLS version of the Timbers has offered him little else by way of regular delivery.
An increase in assists is vital to any hopes of a Portland resurrection this season, only 13 in total thus far leaving them dead last in that category, a major contributing factor in the team’s meager 2 road goals, another abysmal statistic the club can claim outright in a season full of disappointment on the pitch.
Improvement at both outside back and service are what Wilkinson hopes Ian Hogg can bring the team, the New Zealand international cut in the same mold of defender that his now coach once showed for the All Whites. The young Kiwi’s signing comes as immediate replacement for the departed Mike Chabala to DC United, whose infrequent appearances lacked consistent quality but no shortage of passion.
The bright side in all of Portland’s turmoil is that Toronto enters the match with similar travails, a number of absences from injury, suspension, and international duty depleting Mariner’s first choice lineup.
Despite the disarray at his disposal, Mariner holds a wild card in newcomer and former Cascadian Eric Hassli, the Frenchman a familiar name to Timbers fans after arriving in Ontario’s capital following a trade from the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Longtime German international Torsten Frings also highlights a disheveled looking Toronto, but in spite of its challenges this team is showing itself formidable under Mariner’s navigation.
Portland, conversely, appear a rudderless ship in a storm that has yet to subside since Spencer’s dismissal.
Only time will tell whether Wilkinson can come good on numerous promises of redemption, starting with another road test that the Timbers must overcome to make believers out of all those doubting the club’s current course.