Things were a bit different during Gavin Wilkinson's playing days. When you changed teams, essentially, it was on you to figure out all the details.
The current Portland Timbers general manager once was an international-caliber defender for New Zealand and spent time playing professionally in six different countries. From New Zealand to Australia, Hong Kong to Singapore, Ireland to the United States, Wilkinson traveled the globe with a ball at his feet. He wasn't given much help along the way off the field.
He had to figure where to live in foreign places with new cultures. He had to fight to establish himself in his new team, in a new locker room in front of a new coach, too.
That personal history has molded some of Wilkinson's philosophies in the front office and why he cares deeply about the personal side of a transfer. It's also a factor in why Brian Fernandez has been successful immediately at a historic rate, becoming the first player in MLS history to score in each of his first five games with a new club.
“I jumped around, lived in many different countries, always chasing contracts," Wilkinson told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. "I played in six different countries. That means moving, different languages. In most of those clubs, you had to figure things out for yourself. You’re always stepping into the unknown. It's also a simple matter of respect. We bring a player in, we’re asking him to perform and care deeply about the club, there has to be reasons for that. There has to be a level of respect. It can’t be as simple as there’s a transaction, you’re a good player, now go out and perform.”
Fernandez, who the Timbers acquired as a club-record signing in May, is the latest foreign player to join the Timbers and transition smoothly to the locker room and club.
"It's trying to get them acclimated as quickly as possible, making them feel part of the club," Wilkinson said. "For a Spanish-speaking player, there’s a few more challenges. We have a tremendous staff, several who are just focused on player relations. With this situation, because Brian was the only signing at that time of the year, we’ve been able to focus a few more resources on Brian, give him a little more care and attention."
That care and attention manifests across all aspects of life.
"That’s getting him into a place as quick as possible, making sure his family are relocated and have all the necessary visas," Wilkinson said. "Making sure the bank accounts, the phones – all these things immediately are set up so he hits the ground running. That means taking them to training, making sure the chefs are aware of their foods, the grocery stores – anything and everything. It’s a massive checklist. I think we do a very good job at looking after players.
“It’s a holistic view relative to how you want to be treated, how I want to be treated, but also to make sure this is a club that people feel valued in and want to be a part of," Wilkinson added.
It's also about investing in the right people.
“I’ve been blown away (by Fernandez)" Wilkinson said. "Apart from the special moments he has, he continues to work hard, stay grounded and be humble. I think one of the things that has impressed everybody in the locker room that, even though he comes off as a boisterous individual (on the field), he’s very respectful. He cares about the relationships in the locker room and the club already. It’s been quite special to see how quickly he’s hit the ground running.”
There's only so much Wilkinson and his staff can do, of course. A big part is the culture of the locker room and letting your best players lead by example. Thankfully for the Timbers, Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco are just as good of teammates as they are soccer players. They're also Argentinian, just like Fernandez is.
Brian Fernandez and Diego Valeri have made an immediate connection on and off the field | USA Today Sports
“We have two players of note: Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri who have been absolutely phenomenal at taking the player under the wing, making sure he has everything he needs," Wilkinson said. "He’s joining their families for meals, he rooms with Diego on the road. As far as quality human beings, you can’t get much better.”
The last big hurdle for Fernandez and the Timbers is the language. It's something the star striker was upfront about when the Timbers were in negotiations for his services.
"Brian is respectful and very honest; he had a major concern about English," Wilkinson explained. "He wanted to make sure he could identify with the club. With our club being very bilingual, it was a massive selling point. He said 'Look, football is my life but I’m not sure I have the ability to learn English that quickly.'"
But Fernandez is off and running on that front, too.
"As soon as he landed, he was asking, 'When do I start my English lessons?'" Wilkinson recalled. "Now he’s putting the pressure on us to learn.”