Let’s take a step back for a moment and look at the big picture.
No, this isn’t going to make you feel any better.
Last year, the Portland Timbers won the Western Conference with a beloved team led by the MLS Coach of the Year, qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League, and made the Western Conference Finals.
This year, they are the worst team in MLS and the only team in the Western Conference not to have won a game. The Timbers have had one multi-goal game, and the Coach of the Year hasn’t been able to turn it around.
In short, the Timbers have had a staggering fall.
We knew there would be adversity this season – there is in every season – but nothing like this. The Timbers have gone from one of the best three teams in MLS last season, to the worst team in the league this year.
That’s shocking. It’s shocking because Portland have almost the exact same team, led by the exact same coaching staff.
Yes, Ryan Johnson is gone and Rodney Wallace is hurt. And yes, head trainer John Cone departed as well. But that, ladies and gentlemen, is the extent to which Portland’s first team setup has been plumaged in their nosedive from first to last.
I liked Johnson, and I like Rodney Wallace. And as the Timbers struggle with fitness late in games, Cone’s presence is missed too. But those guys weren’t MVPs last year. They aren’t in line for statues.
Ten of the eleven players Portland started in their drab 0-0 draw with the Houston Dynamo played key roles last year. The one guy who wasn’t here in 2013 was the team’s biggest offseason signing. This is, for all intents and purposes, the same team. So what happened?
Of course, when things go horribly wrong for a team, it’s natural to blame the manager, the technical director or general manager, and the owner. Those are the guys who put together the team. They’re all in the firing line.
So, is it Caleb Porter, Gavin Wilkinson, or Merritt Paulson’s fault that the Timbers are experiencing a total and unforeseen collapse? All three have gotten blame from fans recently trying to explain the inexplicable.
Is it Paulson’s fault? Not at all.
Merritt Paulson is one of the most committed owners in professional sports. People telling him to open his checkbook and make a big DP signing need remember that it’s been Porter who has vetoed such a signing because he thought it would upset locker-room chemistry. Paulson gave $1.5 million plus to Kris Boyd when asked.
I think Paulson would do anything to win. He’s put his faith in Wilkinson and Porter to run the soccer side of things, and those guys were praised to the heavens last year. Short of firing people, there is nothing Paulson can do on his own right now to affect the product on the field.
That brings us to Wilkinson. Certainly, Wilkinson is the easy fall guy when the manager has as much respect as Porter does, but if Wilkinson wasn’t fired in 2012, he’s not going to be fired now after engineering in part one of the best single-season turnarounds in league history.
Look, the Timbers offseason was poor. Wilkinson frequently gets in trouble for going back to the same well after getting one cool drink from it time and time again – read multiple players from Argentina, Jamaica, Scotland, Columbia, etc. – but at this point, to blame Wilkinson is to blame Porter.
One of the reasons that John Spencer was run out of town was that he wouldn’t cooperate with Wilkinson and Paulson – he would skip their weekly meetings, and generally disrespected their work and knowledge. Porter was brought in on the basis that he would work hand in hand with Wilkinson and be forthcoming and accessible to Paulson, and he’s done those things.
It was Porter who was in South America this offseason, scouting and closing the deals on Norberto Paparatto and Gaston Fernandez. Porter has also brought in a number of his players from Akron.
Porter’s well-documented influence on the Troy Perkins for Donovan Ricketts trade shows the influence he has in player-personnel decisions at the club. He’s signing off on what Wilkinson puts on the table. It worked in 2013.
Now, Porter has had a tough year. A sophomore slump, so to speak. He got in trouble thinking that the Timbers could operate without a true number nine – a big body up top – and putting his faith in Maxi Urruti.
Whatever happened in the breakdown in Porter’s relationship with Frederic Piquionne would certainly be worth knowing.
Porter has also overcompensated at times – Alvas Powell – but he’s mostly found his way to dry land. The lineup Porter used against Houston was best lineup available to him.
Both Porter and Wilkinson have limitations in that they’re young and relatively inexperienced in MLS. Neither seem to have a scouting network that compares to the best MLS teams, and others have pointed the finger at the Timbers’ lack of a scouting setup or front office under Wilkinson.
You have to wonder about Porter’s coaching staff as well. The Timbers hired Sean McAuley in the aftermath of John Spencer’s sacking, a job McAuley wouldn’t have taken unless he was promised a role in the new regime in 2013 and beyond.
McAuley’s coaching experience consists of a long spell at Sheffield Wednesday, and he certainly seemed better suited to assist John Spencer than Porter.
Spencer’s other assistants, Cameron Knowles and Amos Magee haven’t been replaced with Porter’s guys either. Magee left the team for “family reasons” at the beginning of the year and wasn’t replaced. Magee has landed with DC United.
Portland does appear to have organizational holes. The staffs around Wilkinson and Porter haven’t been built up sufficiently. Neither man has a coaching tree.
And yet, that’s grasping at straws to some extent. None of that seemed to matter in 2013.
So maybe the blame lies at the feet of the people we don’t want to blame: The players.
They’re all underachieving. Expect for Diego Chara. Everyone else hasn’t played up to his potential this season. When things go wrong in sports, we look towards the manager, but sometimes the answer is play better.
Diego Valeri has one goal and no assists. Darlington Nagbe has no goals and one assist. Will Johnson has one goal and no assists – in fact, the entire team has three assists total. The defense has kept no clean sheets. That’s on the players. They have to pick it up.
It’s the same team as last year; they’re just in a deep funk. And that’s what gives you hope for this season going forward. Those guys – Valeri, Nagbe, Will Johnson, Ricketts – they have the ability to turn it around.
If they start turning it around quickly. Time’s running short, and the Timbers are looking at a historic collapse.