2012 in Review: Q&A with Portland GM Gavin Wilkinson
Over the next three weeks, MLSsoccer.com will take a look back at the 2012 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with Toronto FC and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.
2012 record: 8-16-10 (34 points); 34 GF / 56 GA (-22 GD)
PORTLAND, Ore. – For everyone involved with the Portland Timbers in 2012, there wasn't much that went according to plan.
After a promising preseason that saw the addition of Designated Player Kris Boyd, the Scottish Premier League’s all-time leading scorer, and jumping out of the gates with a 3-1 season-opening victory, things quickly turned sour for the Timbers in their second year in MLS.
Portland won just once in their first six games. Head coach John Spencer was fired in early July. The Timbers languished at or near the bottom of the Western Conference table for the entire season, finishing in eighth place by season's end.
For Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson, the unexpected nature of the season rang especially true, as he took over as interim head coach after Spencer’s dismissal. MLSsoccer.com spoke with Wilkinson now that he has returned solely to general managing duties with the imminent of arrival of future head coach Caleb Porter.
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MLSsoccer.com: What was it like going through all the challenges the team faced over the course of the season?
Wilkinson: When you sum things up, it was very, very disappointing. There were great challenges. It’s never easy. Professional sports is about winning, and winning is key especially for an organization such as ourselves, which has such tremendous fan following, sponsors and is such a foothold in every way, shape and form with football. And you look back, and it was a very disappointing season. But in speaking to the league and many league officials, there were many situations that were out of our control.
We’ll take full responsibility. But when things aren’t going your way, there are quite a few other variables that you have deal with. Ultimately, we were three wins out of the playoffs. And when you start to look at it that way, and the games that were potentially affected by things out of your control, it could have been a very different season. And I think as the season grew and the players continued to develop, a Sal Zizzo, David Horst, Jack Jewsbury had a good second half of the season, there were a lot of positives. A lot of negatives, but we’re going to look at the positives and continue to build on those.
MLSsoccer.com: Did serving as the team’s head coach for the second half of the season help you see things any differently?
Wilkinson: I don’t think it helped me see things differently. I think being in the locker room, you find out a little bit more about the players. Being around, you’re a little bit more aware of a lot more. But it’s something I didn’t wish to do, something I didn’t prepare myself to do, to be honest. I had tremendous support from the coaching staff and the players were fantastic. I think some of the quality of what we did, there were some positives there. The results, they didn’t improve, but for me personally, I always had healthy lines of communication with the coaching staff, and that didn’t change. It was something that, again, I would have preferred not to have done.
MLSsoccer.com: After taking over as head coach, what about the season took you by surprise?
Wilkinson: I’ve been there as a coach before, and there was nothing that really surprised me. Like I said, the players were fantastic. The pressure of the job is always there, that doesn’t change. The passionate fan support, whatever way that goes, is something that is always appreciated by this organization. But I don’t think there were too many surprises, to be honest.
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MLSsoccer.com: After you took over coaching duties, you cycled a number of young players through the starting XI. How did that help you as you assess things in the offseason?
Wilkinson: We found out a lot. Sal Zizzo getting a chance at the end of the year showed that he was capable. Even looking at a reserve team game, getting Jose Valencia fit and healthy. Bright Dike, would he have made the Nigerian national team without the amount of playing time he got and the performances that he put in? You look at Brent Richards in appearances as a Homegrown player. David Horst, he continues to develop.
There were an awful lot of positives. Darlington Nagbe started to develop and take more control in games. It depends on what you look at. Danny Mwanga coming from Philadelphia, and maybe we would have expected him to get more playing time, but the two goals he scored against San Jose were another positive, and he’s going to continue to develop. It was good to get a lot of young players the opportunity; it’s helped us in the offseason make some very, very important decisions. And it was important for us to see first hand.
MLSsoccer.com: In the offseason, what are the main priorities that need to be addressed?
Wilkinson: For us, it’s mainly about the character and consistency. And when I say character and consistency, we’re looking at the work ethic of players week in and week out, the training habits of players in some of the key additions we have to make. And it goes back to representing the fanbase of our organization, which is a blue collar one that works hard day in and day out. And looking at our results, I think on the athletic side we have the ability, technically we have the ability, so now we’re looking at do we have the right mentality, do we have enough of the players we need with the right mentality?
So the trades we’ve made in the offseason (Editor's note: Will Johnson and Michael Harrington arrived from Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC this week) represent what we consider to be our key objectives going into the offseason. And a lot of it is that winning mentality and that consistent work ethic and that blue-collar approach to the games, and you’ll start to see that in the names that are coming out soon.
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.