In the midst of the fervor and hoopla surrounding the state of Oregon’s two undefeated college football teams last Saturday, in the midst of the countdown to the start of a conservatively promising Portland Trail Blazers season, during the climax of the World Series, and hidden behind the looming disaster of a ferocious hurricane and upcoming elections, the Portland Timbers played the San Jose Earthquakes last Saturday afternoon. No one cared much – the Timbers played themselves out of the sporting picture in their own city this year, and if the empty seats in the west stand of a Jeld-Wen Field covered in gloom and drear were any indicator, seeing off Mr. Gavin Wilkinson and his beleaguered soccer team wasn’t a high priority. The game finished 1-1; Chris Wondoloski scored a penalty that made him the joint top single-season scorer in MLS history. Really, however, the Timbers won Saturday afternoon. They ran out the clock on their miserable 2012 season.
Not to be heard from again until March 2013, the Timbers Army made their voices heard one last time Saturday, multiple “GW Out” signs broadcasting the frustration that this past year brought, in the front and center of the singing mass. But GW is out now, at least from public view. The Timbers patriarch coached his last game Saturday, and the downtrodden walk of the Timbers coaching staff, many of whom were hired by John Spencer all those light-years ago, gave off a strong vibe that they too didn’t expect to be back for 2013. The uniforms were worn for the last time, and many of the players pulled on the green jersey for the final time. It was a tough year, a year that Timbers fans are ready to wash their hands of, and it will be left to Caleb Porter to pick up the pieces. 2012 is over. All eyes now, thankfully, turn to the future.
Caleb Porter is a bit of a wildcard. The 37 year old from Richland, Michigan has had abundant success on the college level at Akron, but his only experience on the big stage of American soccer has been leading the US Olympic team that famously and inexplicably flamed out early in qualifying for London 2012. We know Porter likes to play an up-tempo, possession style of soccer, as opposed to the blatant and often ugly kickball that Spencer and Wilkinson employed. We know that Porter has some fantastic vibes with Timbers point-man Darlington Nagbe, but we don’t know much else. Porter is a wildcard, and he’ll have plenty of work to do this offseason.
Most likely, hopefully actually, more than half of the Timbers’ starting 11 on opening day 2013 will be different than the 11 that closed out the 2012 season. Let me put it a bit vulgarly: Most of this Timbers team sucks. It’s harsh, but abundantly clear when you watch many of these players work up close and personal that they don’t have the soccer skills or chops to succeed on a regular basis in MLS. It was painful to watch Bright Dike and Danny Mwanga Saturday; the future of the Timbers strike-force couldn’t successfully trap the ball the majority of the time, and couldn’t hold possession for more than a few seconds. There were mishit clearances, misplaced short passes, and a general feeling from the majority of the team that they don’t have enough talent to play the way Porter will ask them too next season. Most of these players look scattered and terrified on the ball, with the exceptions of Diego Chara and Nagbe, who exude the kind of composure and calm with the ball at their feet that the needs to be a trait the majority, not the small minority of the Timbers players posses.
Porter has to turn over the team, in one offseason. The Timbers have at least two of the Designated Player spots locked up, but they do have the #3 pick in the MLS SuperDraft and a willingness from Merritt Paulson to spend money and make uneven trades to better the club. Porter needs to decide what to do with the enigmatic Kris Boyd, who says he’ll be back next season. He needs to figure the situation on the wings, where Franck Songo’o, Kalif Alhasson, Sal Zizzo, and Eric Alexander have all shown spurts of greatness, but long stretches of ineffectiveness. These players all fighting for one, at the most, two spots. Will Porter be able to lure his many Akron graduates to Portland, and who will he bring in to help him lead the club? It’s all gray area for the Timbers right now. Almost no one, nothing is untouchable, and Porter is coming in, not with a task of tweaking a machine, but rebuilding it from scratch. Tough job for a first time head coach, but a possible one. Of all the major sports leagues in America, MLS has the highest percentage of teams go from out of the playoffs, to into the playoffs, each season.
It will be interesting to see how Wilkinson, the great terrible beast of 2012, works with Porter, the great savior of 2013. We know Wilkinson has run the team for two failed years, and made some mind-bogglingly terrible decisions at GM (too many, in fact, to run down here), but Paulson appears to remain in the Australian’s corner. We assume that Porter will take the reins, but we don’t know if Wilkinson wants to relinquish his spot on top of the Timbers’ totem poll. It is highly likely that Spencer and Wilkinson clashed, and while Spencer was more stubborn and most likely less easy to work with than Porter will be, the Timbers can’t afford to have the GM and coach clash, especially if Wilkinson is getting in the way of Porter doing his job. We don’t want Wilkinson selecting players anymore; he’s already failed in that business. But he remains the GM, and assembling the team remains in his job description. How the power structure will work itself out next year and beyond is a fascinating, and all-important subject.
There is still no better ticket in town than a Portland Timbers’ home soccer match. Even as the losses, the misery, the scalps of traded players and sacked coaches piled up this season, the atmosphere at Jeld-Wen still transcended the game, and the game transcended the circumstances. The adrenaline, the beautiful game, the RCTID pride … it still runs through this city: a 96% season ticket renewal rate for the most disappointing team in MLS. We desperately want a winner. We want to host playoff games and, eventually, the MLS Cup. The Timbers have the resources to succeed at this high a level, and hopefully they now have the coach and brain-trust in place to make it happen. This season was about as nightmarish as a season can get. But with new kits, new players, a new style, and a new regime, 2013 has a chance to be the breath of fresh air – and honeymoon – that 2011 was. There is still plenty of work to do, but there is plentiful hope as well in Portland. Forget 2012. It’s over. Let’s turn on the jets, pick ourselves up off the mat, get ready go, and turn our eyes to the future.