Wilkinson: Timbers players relax at their own peril

PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Timbers interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson conveyed a simple message while addressing the media in advance of Saturday’s game against D.C. United at JELD-WEN Field (10:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online).

With a Cascadia Cup match against Seattle coming up next week, and the playoffs out of the picture, overlooking D.C. could be a possibility.

But do that, and do it at your own peril.

“For us, it’s a matter of staying focused and keeping the guys concentrated and making sure that they know that maybe playoffs aren’t an option, but for self preservation and personal pride and their personal integrity, it’s, not up for grabs, but maybe at stake,” Wilkinson said Friday. “I think it’s important to show what they can do individually and collectively.

“And the only way they’re going to get to play in the Seattle game is if they play well against D.C.”

As the team’s general manager, in addition to the head coach for the final four games of the season, Wilkinson is constantly evaluating players for next year. And since the hiring of the University of Akron’s Caleb Porter, who will take over as the team’s head coach this winter, it’s been well-documented that he’s watching, as well.

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“The first thing a player has to do is show they have right mentality, have the right work ethic,” Wilkinson said.

And there will be no shortage of opportunity with a number of first-string players nursing injury. Goalkeeper Donovan Rickets (separated shoulder) and midfielder Diego Chara (groin strain) are both available but questionable, while Designated Player Kris Boyd is out possibly for the remainder of the season.

Joe Bendik, meanwhile, has emerged as a perfect example of embracing opportunity. A club source told MLSsoccer.com that he has taken hold of the backup goalkeeper spot after starting the past two games, both on the road – a 2-2 tie against San Jose and a 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake. It was a spot formally held by Jake Gleeson, who has also battled injury, most recently in a reserves match Sept. 16 against Seattle.

“There’s four games left in the season,” Wilkinson said. “For Donovan, we’d love to have him play all four. Joe has done well. Now it’s just a matter of making the decision based on whether we can get 90 minutes out of [Ricketts] and whether we can get another three sets of 90 minutes. It’s just a matter of managing bodies and rewarding players who have done well.”

Forwards Danny Mwanga and Bright Dike have also taken advantage of recent playing time. Mwanga scored two goals against San Jose and Dike netted the Timbers’ only goal against RSL.

“It’s motivation just knowing that you have to show what you’ve got,” Mwanga said. “For me personally, it’s just motivated me to get out there and show my quality and show what I can do on the field.”