National Writer: Charles Boehm

Gavin Wilkinson: How the Portland Timbers are navigating transfers amid the pandemic

Merritt Paulson and Gavin Wilkinson -- Stand on sideline at Providence Park

Do the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic require a defensive crouch or a step forward? Is this unprecedented crisis a moment for careful risk avoidance or bold adaptation?

Something of a Rorschach test is facing chief soccer officers across MLS and around the world in these strange times. Depending on who you ask, the global transfer market has been “impacted,” “depressed” or outright “collapsed” by the brutal economic slowdown of the past year. But there’s possibility among all that belt-tightening, too.

Portland Timbers general manager and president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson sees it, and that’s a big factor in their active offseason to date. The MLS is Back Tournament winners have been busy both within the league and abroad this winter, acquiring Josecarlos Van Rankin on loan from Chivas Guadalajara, completing permanent transfers for Felipe Mora and Claudio Bravo, re-signing Larrys Mabiala and Eryk Williamson and trading away Jorge Villafana, Marco Farfan, Julio Cascante and the No. 8 overall pick in the 2021 SuperDraft.

Wilkinson suggests there’s more to come, too.

“The roster is in a decent spot. We’re happy with some of the transactions – obviously, I've never heard a GM say they were unhappy with a transaction – but in all honesty, we've still got one or two holes to fill,” Wilkinson told in a recent 1-on-1 conversation, adding that the club still covets left back depth and hopes to use the league’s new Under-22 player initiative to bring in a young center back with long-term upside.

“In hard times or a recession, it still presents opportunity. And the Felipe Mora [buy] is definitely one that we would put into that category, being able to acquire him at the price that we did, and also Claudio Bravo. I think with both of those two players, we’ve brought in two very, very talented individuals that we were able to acquire for less than half of their current market value and hoping to either turn that into wins or asset appreciation in some ways.”

By inking deals for Mora (with Pumas UNAM) and Van Rankin, the Timbers also did good business in Mexico, a market previously considered a bit rich for most MLS budgets but becoming increasingly attractive as MLS’s profile grows and the leagues form closer bonds. Portland also did so with an eye towards Concacaf Champions League, which they will make a run at this spring thanks to their MLS is Back Tournament win.

“We reached out to four different clubs in Mexico saying, ‘you've got this player, this player is not playing,’ and they weren't necessarily shopping the player, but we aggressively went after them and asked,” revealed Wilkinson, adding that Portland presented a detailed plan to the Chivas technical staff to underline the collective benefits of Van Rankin’s move.

“And the interest from all of these clubs to work with MLS clubs is unique. They see it as mutually beneficial. I think their respect for MLS has drastically changed, and that's to do with the MLS clubs performing in Concacaf, obviously, and the [Carlos] Velas coming over here and doing exceptionally well and continuing to raise the level in MLS.”

Also notable: Two moves the Rose City side didn’t make. Portland received multiple transfer bids from abroad for young American stars Williamson and Jeremy Ebobisse and declined them all, as none met the club’s valuation of the players and the costs involved with replacing them.

That may not always be the case, however. Portland rate the duo highly both as professionals and as people, and anticipate further interest from overseas, particularly if their profiles continue to rise within the US national team system as the Timbers hope and expect.

It’s another example of the growing importance of asset development in the MLS context. Though Portland haven’t yet produced the eye-catching outbound sales of counterparts like FC Dallas and the Philadelphia Union, it’s long been central in the calculations of Wilkinson and his colleagues.

“There's a double-layer approach, a two-fold approach with every single player that we're bringing in, and it's a matter of, can we get a return on the investment?” he explained.

“It's a matter of making the [salary] cap work, getting value in the cap, and also getting better as a team,” he added. “Acquiring the players at the cost that we did [this winter], there's no way we're ever going to lose on those transactions. So, from a cost analysis, I think we're safeguarded. And then there's the benefit of their age and their ability … So we're looking at this as a way to still be financially very responsible and to an extent frugal. It's just changing where we're spending our money and looking at acquiring assets that will appreciate, and good players, good people that we can get minutes.”

A sturdy spine, anchored by club icons Diego Chara and Diego Valeri, has kept Portland consistently competitive for most of their decade in MLS. Wilkinson and his staff are charged with the unenviable twofold task of keeping their incumbents ticking as they move deep into their 30s, all while ensuring that replacements are ready when the time comes.

“We can go about it one of two ways. We can either look at using a DP slot or we can start to bring in a few younger players, potentially move those players on, acquire transfer fees, allocation money, and then look to go again and actually start to spread the wealth around the team a little bit more,” he said.

“With our academy, with the talent pool, it's a different dynamic. So we have to look at potentially acquiring young foreigners, and using those to move and transfer and see if we can capitalize on that.”

The Timbers occupy a particular place in the MLS ecosystem – not a “big market,” one with a relatively limited catchment area for homegrown talent, but fanatically supported by their soccer-mad city to an extent that raises both expectations and ambitions.

Portland don’t have an Alphonso Davies or Brenden Aaronson poised to emerge from their academy just yet. They – and the rest of the league – still stand to benefit from such sales, Wilkinson notes, pointing to the long-range importance of outbound transactions and the scouting that lays the foundation for them.

“We need to continue to invest in one, transactions, moving players to Europe, et cetera. That opens up many, many doors,” Wilkinson said. “As we continue to be recognized as developing good young players that can do well overseas, I think the level of respect that starts to open up communication channels and relationships in a different way. The other is just a hell of a lot more investment in scouting. When you have a presence on grounds and you're constantly in and around the game overseas, again, it opens up dialogue.

“The world becomes a very small place with football, but ultimately relationships are what we end up going back to and trusting clubs and resources about the information we're getting on players.”