BEAVERTON, Ore. – Portland Timbers interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson doesn’t want the club’s fans to look past the fact that they have yet to win in seven games since former head coach John Spencer was fired.
The lack of results have hurt him as much as anyone, Wilkinson said Wednesday at the team’s first training session after returning from a two-game East Coast road trip that saw the Timbers tie 2-2 against Toronto FC and lose 3-2 to the New York Red Bulls.
What Wilkinson does want is a chance to make his case that things are indeed looking up.
Training 2012: Portland return from road trip
The fact that the Timbers scored two goals in back-to-back road games for the first time since joining MLS, he said, is exhibit A.
“How many games have we gone through in the last year and a half, over 50 MLS games with half of those on the road where we haven’t scored two goals, and then we do it back to back,” Wilkinson said. “And that’s against a team in New York that’s a very good team. We’re disappointed that we didn’t come away from that game with a lot more. But I think that’s a positive feeling when you go on the road and put your footprint on that game. ... When you start to look at New York I think we created the better of the chances, to be honest.”
In fact, the Timbers shot out of the gate in dominating fashion at Red Bull Arena last Sunday to grab a 2-0 lead. For the game, Portland equaled New York with 12 attempts on goal and five shots on target. Against Toronto, the Timbers created 10 attempts on goal with five shots on target. They also held a 59-percent possession advantage and logged 80-percent passing accuracy.
The Timbers’ passing and possession numbers, in particular, are a product of the more “mature” brand of soccer that Wilkinson emphasized from the moment he took over.
Toronto marked the third consecutive contest in which the Timbers held a possession advantage, which included a 1-1 tie against FC Dallas (57.2 percent) and a 1-0 loss to Chivas USA (54.7 percent).
In 17 games under Spencer this year, the Timbers had 80-percent or better in passing accuracy three times and 50-percent or better possession in five games.
“It’s all about winning at the professional level,” Wilkinson said. “It’s hard to see the positives, and when you point the positives out, it sounds like it’s self defense. But for us, when I came into this position, it wasn’t a simple process of just going out and trying to win. We had to address some issues, and there were some changes and there have been a little bit of progress.”
Aside from personnel changes – which included the departure of two popular players in goalkeeper Troy Perkins and defender Mike Chabala – the most notable difference under Wilkinson is the on-field formation. Wilkinson has fielded an attack-orientated 4-2-3-1 formation, putting attacking midfielders, such as Franck Songo’o, Darlington Nagbe, Sal Zizzo, Kalif Alhassan and Eric Alexander, behind a lone striker, usually Kris Boyd.
“I think the system is good,” said Nagbe, who broke out of a 17-game goalless streak with back-to-back goalscoring outings against Toronto and New York. “It gives us a chance to get more of our attackers on the field at the same time. I feel like that’s been good for us. I feel like the way we’ve been playing, the last piece now that we’re scoring goals is just getting shutouts. I feel like the team is throwing a lot of numbers forward right now, and on the counter we have a lot of guys with pace. I feel like that’s when we’re at our best.”
Of course, Wilkinson knows the frustration from the team’s fiercely loyal support, which has manifested itself with the Twitter hashtag of #GWout, will only be completely happy when the wins start rolling in.
“I would much rather have fans that care,” he said. “I care as much as they do. Do I express it in a different way? Of course. ... If it means taking a few bullets until the end of the year to find out what we need to do to move forward, so be it.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.