September 17th, 2012 by Michael Orr
As the Portland Timbers’ 2012 season comes closer to its conclusion, Gavin Wilkinson faces motivations on three fronts. Each perspective carries weight in the decision making processes that determine who plays and in what style. The first motivation is the easiest to explain, but has proven the most difficult to achieve, which is to succeed in every game. While there are certainly considerations for the future (as will be discussed shortly), every manager and every player, not to mention ownership or fans, want to win. Regardless of how poor some results have been, particularly away from Jeld-Wen Field, Wilkinson cannot be charged with throwing in the towel and playing only reserves. Each game, the Timbers try to balance several motivations, but the desire to win as many games as possible is the starting point.
Next, Wilkinson has chosen to try to provide incentive for good individual performances throughout the second half of the season. Said Wilkinson on Friday before the Seattle game, “I think for the integrity of the group, and the honesty of the group, when somebody does well, you need to reward them…Where we’re at in the season and what we’re trying to find out about players, it’s important that we do reward good performances.” This line, ‘rewarding good performances,’ has been oft repeated this summer and has most frequently been used to explain the continued presence of Bright Dike in the starting XI.
Of course, the Timbers do not have to make selections using this criteria. With limited games left before Caleb Porter takes over, Wilkinson could be rotating players through the line-up every game to get as much on-field time as possible in order to provide the most exposure for Porter, the coach in waiting. Instead, the likes of Dike, Sal Zizzo, Steven Smith and Franck Songo’o remain in the XI at the expense of Kris Boyd, Danny Mwanga and Eric Alexander, among others. While Dike and Zizzo have arguably benefitted the most from the extended runs they’ve been given after initial successes, fans can rightly question why others have not been given a similar chance.
Those questions become even more relevant when Wilkinson says things, as he did on Friday, like, “It’s important that we allow Caleb [Porter] adequate opportunity to evaluate the players that we have on board,” or, “Definitely, 100% [it is an extended try-out]. I know Caleb [Porter] will be watching it with an awful lot of interest.” If Porter is to be given the greatest opportunity to see as many players as possible, why use the same starting XI for more than a month? Apart from the team’s first motivation, of course.
Wilkinson spoke again today about Porter’s influence over the team, saying, “We need to find out more about our team, more about the individuals. Find out what they’re made of, what we’re made of collectively, as a group. It’s also a chance for them [the players] to showcase themselves to Caleb Porter. To try to make sure they’ve got a place to play next season, or that they know we value them and want to keep them here and try to work out the process to keep them here.” Here, Wilkinson asserted for the first time the fact that some players will be playing to impress others, not just Porter. The Timbers are not obligated to allow undesirable players the best chance to impress future employers, particularly if they are Portland’s opponents. Yet the flip side is that Porter will not have as much evidence to know whether some players are absolutely not what he wants if he never gets to see them play in the first team.
In that vein, the injuries to Donovan Ricketts and Diego Chará provide the Timbers with a slightly different approach to the aforementioned motivations. Alexander will almost assuredly start in Chará’s place, just as he did against Vancouver Whitecaps on August 25. With Chará expected to miss several games, Alexander will get a true chance to be rewarded for a good performance – a chance he did not have when Chará was only absent for one game due to yellow card accumulation. The goalkeeper position is a different proposition entirely, but with both Ricketts and Jake Gleeson set to miss at least Wednesday’s game, Joe Bendik will get his chance to perform for either Caleb Porter or another coach of an as yet undetermined team.
Quite clearly, in-game performances are not the only measure by which Porter will determine which players remain in Portland. But without being physically present for training sessions, it is the easiest barometer (along with recorded reserve games, to be fair) for such decisions. No Timbers fans will want the end of the 2012 season, as poor as it has been, to be given away to a try-out with no continuity between games. Nor should anyone expect Wilkinson to try to win as many games as possible at the expense of learning more about the players who will emerge after the expected carnage in the offseason. Yet through all of that, the Timbers must be fair to the players who are still here and who are still trying to win games.
It’s an unenviable position, to be sure. Whether the balance levels out is open to interpretation and will likely take several seasons to clearly develop an answer. Regardless, there is much more to the story of the end of the 2012 season than a cursory glance would afford.