July 29th, 2012 by Kelly McLain
The question posed to Portland Timbers general manager and interim coach Gavin Wilkinson seemed to start innocuously enough.
“What do you do as this team’s coach…,” began a reporter during Wilkinson’s post-match press conference following the Timbers’ 1-0 loss to visiting Chivas USA.
“Interim,” Wilkinson interrupted.
“…interim coach…,” the reporter continued.
It’s a label that most in the position would like to have removed, but not Wilkinson. He’s been very clear since back in the club’s final season in the lower divisions that he is not interested in the head coaching position. Both Wilkinson and club owner/president Merritt Paulson have said exactly that on multiple occasions. Of course conspiracy theorists will say that Wilkinson secretly wants the job, but Saturday’s game may have provided some evidence to help reaffirm what Wilkinson has been saying all along.
Newly hired assistant coach Sean McAuley was the most visible person on the touchline in front of the Portland bench all night. The Englishman played for the Timbers in 2002 and has been in charge of Sheffield Wednesday’s academy program for the past six years. He was brought in when John Spencer was let go to help with coaching duties and relieve some of Wilkinson’s workload as he steps in as interim manager while maintaining his duties as GM.
“I’ve known Sean for a long, long time,” Wilkinson said. For me it was a different voice for the players, something to change things a bit.”
One of the more noticeable changes was the team’s shape. Under Wilkinson, the team has employed the standard 4-4-2 formation that Spencer fancied, as well as a new-look 4-2-3-1. But Saturday’s match saw the team lined up in a sort of 4-3-3 that hasn’t been seen much in the MLS-era Timbers. The group’s shape, particularly on defense, has been a focal point since McAuley’s arrival.
“We worked on shape Thursday and Friday,” said Kris Boyd. “You’ve seen it out there tonight, the whole shape of the team was great. I’m sure Sean will want to stamp his authority on the squad and put across his views as he’s done in the last two days. It’s up to us to sit and listen and take it forward.”
McAuley is expected to take more of a lead role as the season progresses.
“I’ll remain the interim head coach,” Wilkinson confirmed, “but by bringing Sean in, it’s a different voice for the players moving forward. It better allows me to balance other responsibilities.”
Wilkinson pointed out earlier in the week that as the team clings to fleeting playoff hopes, they will perhaps make more sweeping changes game-to-game in an attempt to adjust to specific opponents, as opposed to installing a new formation and taking time to build it up. As the playoffs get further and further out of reach that philosophy may change, but for now the team’s shape may evolve from week-to-week, with a new voice directing traffic.
“[McAuley’s] very experienced as you can tell from his resume,” said defender David Horst, “but it doesn’t matter who that voice is, we’ve got to do our job on the field. We did our job for 93 minutes and 50 seconds tonight. It was that ten seconds that let us down and we got punished for it.”
Although McAuley is letting his voice be heard, Wilkinson was clear about his future role on the coaching staff.
“We brought him in as an assistant coach,” said Wilkinson. “He’s not a head coaching candidate. He’s going to be an assistant coach next year.”