by Brennan Burns
After the Timbers quietly ended their season with a draw to the Supporters Shield winning San Jose Earthquakes back in October, the offseason offers a welcome respite for Gavin Wilkinson, who relinquished his dual role of interim head coach to solely focus once again on his duties as general manager.
The reason for the former New Zealand international’s step back up from the sidelines to the suite level full time is the impending arrival of incoming manager Caleb Porter, who completed his seven year tenure at Akron University with a gut wrenching penalty kick shootout loss to Creighton University in the NCAA playoffs.
Refocused on his task to supply Porter with a roster capable of succeeding at the professional level, Wilkinson faces perhaps the most challenging spell in his career, proving to the doubters that he can overcome the calls for his head.
To do so, he must deliver on promises he and owner Merritt Paulson repeatedly made to supporters and sponsors, a constituency that still awaits attractive, attacking, and most importantly, winning soccer.
While it may take some time for Porter to implement his system and make good on those predictions, the patience for Wilkinson to provide the new gaffer the tools to win will again be in short supply as the roster is reshaped over the winter in preparation for the 2013 campaign.
Continually in the hot seat following the firing of John Spencer at midseason, Wilkinson was constantly under fire for his integral role in assembling a team that played well below Paulson imposed expectations.
When saddled with the responsibility to provide direction from the coach’s box for the latter half of the 2012 schedule, some players thrived and others withered under Wilkinson’s temporary regime, but overall results were not measurably better than the philosophical differences that led to the demise of his Scottish predecessor.
Now in the thick of the silly season, the first casualties after a faltering year began with the waiver of three fringe players two weeks ago as Freddie Braun, Ian Hogg, and Charles Renken were released. Not earthshaking news, but it opened the door for movement in a roster where few positions can be considered truly safe.
On the heels of that came the news at the start of this week of the departure of Eric Brunner to the Houston Dynamo for cash and Kosuke Kimura to the New York Red Bulls for allocation money and rights to Bryan Gallego, a Zips defender under Porter.
This was followed by the surprising news that Steven Smith’s contract was not renewed, the Scotsman and club unable to come to salary terms. Unsurprisingly, Lovel Palmer and Steve Purdy were also released as the Timbers declined to extend their contracts, the first a subpar performer, the second a rarely used substitute since the team joined MLS.
While few will deeply rue the loss of Kimura, Palmer, or Hogg in particular (Brunner and Smith are another story), their brief length of time spent with the club will bring into question why Wilkinson signed them in the first place, a recurring theme amongst critics.
Not all is focused on the exit door, as Real Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson joins the club for allocation money, while Michael Harrington also comes on board as Sporting Kansas City sheds a substitute defender in exchange for salary cap space.
Rodney Wallace was initially left unprotected as he joined Palmer on the list for the MLS Re-Entry Draft, the move aimed at leveraging a lower salary for Wallace. As of Thursday, however, Wallace signed a new contract, presumably for a reduced salary after failing to live up to once lofty expectations.
Additionally, reserve goalkeeper Jake Gleeson and defender Ryan Kawulok received new contracts, while the Timbers exercised options to keep on board forwards Bright Dike and Brent Richards, midfielders Kalif Alhassan, Eric Alexander, and Sal Zizzo, and in defense Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso, Chris Taylor, and backup goalkeeper Joe Bendik.
The combined moves are a clear indication that Wilkinson and Porter aren’t waiting for the new coach to touch down in Portland for the revamped lineup to begin to take shape.
Neither Johnson nor Harrington are marquee signings, and to borrow a term from Wilkinson, they can be seen as upgrades that will leave several current players on the outside looking in for a starting spot next season.
Johnson’s arrival surely brings into question the long term prospects of a guaranteed starting midfield role for captain Jack Jewsbury, and with Kimura, Smith, and Palmer gone, Harrington is now the most probable candidate to start at one of the outside back slots.
While the Los Angeles Galaxy were busy winning back to back MLS Cups in David Beckham and perhaps Landon Donovan’s final match in the league, Paulson was in attendance and hinted at headline making signings that could see Portland fill the void in league stars.
While none of Portland’s moves as yet will garner the attention of either of those two exiting stars, it will be interesting to see if an additional Designated Player is signed now that the transfer window is open.
Big name deals can create publicity, but after two fruitless seasons in MLS (barring the consolation of this year’s Cascadia Cup success), the skeptics in the Timbers Army won’t hold their breath awaiting goals from a new star recruit following lackluster returns from Kenny Cooper and Kris Boyd.
Porter will play a big part in restoring fan faith in the front office, and he will be a man driven to uphold his reputation for turning the potential of youth into perennial title contenders, a reputation tested severely when he failed to lead the US Olympic squad to London last summer.
Likewise, his former protege Darlington Nagbe is still trying to rediscover the form that made him the best collegiate player under his former and future coach, and both will be eager to show they can find consistency in the top flight.
If Wilkinson can help build a team that provides a platform for Porter and Nagbe to resume their winning ways together, the spotlight will shift from a Kiwi effigy to what all sides involved strive for, a playoff bound team with title hopes no longer a pipe dream.
For that to happen, despite the contentious nature of the relationship between Wilkinson and some of the more vocal factions of the fanbase, all parties must take a step back to consider that for all his foibles so publicly criticized, the man is as passionate a supporter of the club as any in the stands, albeit at times at odds with how that support is best displayed.
In the midst of a highly knowledgeable and opinionated supporters’ culture, disagreement is rife over how to translate varying viewpoints into victorious tactics. Wilkinson, with his fingers firmly in the pie, became a polarizing target for fan frustration when things went awry this past season.
If Wilkinson is to bring glory back to Portland with Porter’s help, he may need to harken back to his time in Australia with the Perth Glory to draw inspiration to make vision become reality.
If he can ultimately transform the purple haze of his glory days Down Under to a never-ending stream of green smoke emanating from the North End in the heart of Cascadia, popular opinion may eventually shift in his favor.
Of course, as one of the few known gingers to ever willingly choose to wear dreadlocks, the concerns over questionable decision making are certain to crop up again, with supporters curious to know exactly what the man is proverbially smoking. To come out on top, the least Wilkinson must do is show something more than he has in transfer dealings to date.