October 8th, 2012 by Michael Orr
The Caleb Porter effect has dominated the Portland Timbers’ decision making processes from before he was even announced as the next head coach. Having been consulted on potential trades before his hiring and suggesting positions for particular players throughout the remainder of the season, Porter could be considered as big an influence on the 2012 season as John Spencer or Gavin Wilkinson. Before Portland’s 3-0 loss to Seattle on Sunday night, it was widely assumed that the experimenting with players in foreign positions would cease, at least long enough for the Timbers to put forth their best possible XI in pursuit of the Cascadia Cup. That assumption was incorrect.
Said Wilkinson in the bowels of CenturyLink Field, “We had the mentality that next year, if fortunes being different, this could be a playoff game. And it means an awful lot coming into this environment and how do we cope? Have we learned, and are we mature enough? We learned a little bit tonight about certain individuals. It’s going to be an evaluation process through to the end of the year. It was important for Caleb [Porter] to see a few players in different positions, so we could go into the offseason making the right decisions.”
Moving from the general to the specific, Wilkinson addressed why he chose Rodney Wallace over Steven Smith at left back. After explaining Smith’s tight hamstrings, the Timbers’ general manager and coach added, “It was a tough decision based on the health of the players and on the direction of the team and we’ve got some decisions to make over players. So it’s important that we put Rodney in this environment and see how he did.”
In prior games, the use of various players in different positions has been met with confusion on the part of the fan base, despite repeated explanations on the part of Wilkinson to indicate that evaluations were just as, if not more important than the results of the individual matches. The majority of those matches had little impact on how the Timbers’ 2012 season will be remembered. In other words, it was worth experimenting because frankly the fan base would prefer to beat Colorado Rapids or San Jose Earthquakes, but if something can be gained in the longer-term at the expense of a loss in this season full of them, that would be palatable. For the most part, that seems to have been true of those who have understood what it is Wilkinson has been trying to achieve in the second half of this season.
However, last night’s game in Seattle was not one of those instances. The majority of fans considered it the most important game of the season and wanted to see the best possible XI on the field. The admission that the Timbers used the game as another opportunity to evaluate players was a poor decision from an on-field perspective and even more so from a public relations standpoint. In the former case, making three changes at the back from a team that only allowed a controversial penalty a week ago seemed like a misguided idea from the outset. One move was necessary, as Hanyer Mosquera’s injury prevented his inclusion and forced Wilkinson to use out-of-favor Futty Danso instead of long-injured Eric Brunner. But replacing Smith with Wallace and Kosuke Kimura with Lovel Palmer only added to the issues that were going to be inherent in changing the longest-running center back pairing of the season. Wilkinson admitted as much afterward, saying, “When you make a change in the middle at the back, obviously there’s a few concerns, and chemistry is one of them.”
Yet beyond the on-field ramifications of the changes at the back, which were only rivaled in their calamity by the inclusion of Mike Fucito at half-time, pale in comparison to the backlash to Wilkinson’s post-game comments. Though the thought process for evaluating players was identical in each preceding game, fans’ expectations had changed. The calls for Wilkinson’s ouster have returned and even if the Timbers do win the Cascadia Cup with a win in two weeks in Vancouver, the offseason will likely be filled with an angry tone.
The final piece to a strange night in Seattle was the revelation by Alexei Lalas, via Twitter during the game, that Porter said, “Moving forward we will no longer be inferior to the Sounders,” and that Timbers fans, “deserve a club that is in line with their passion.” The bizarre timing aside, the question must be asked, why was Porter speaking to Lalas on the record about the Timbers at all? When his name was announced as the new coach of the Timbers, it was made clear to local media that Porter would not be at all available for comment in any way until he formally arrives in December. Likewise, Porter himself said that he would not speak about the Timbers job at all until his season at Akron is complete. How then do these comments reach Twitter during a nationally televised game?
Beyond that, the first official words from Caleb Porter about his new job suggest that the club he is inheriting is inferior to their biggest rivals. While on the field that was very clear on Sunday night, saying so is probably not the best way to start. Likewise, the club that currently does not meet the supporters’ passion, in his estimation, is led by his future boss. In almost every way, comments that were probably supposed to engender support for his impending tenancy of the top job in Portland did little more than raise questions as to the appropriateness and effectiveness of saying them at all.
Portland can still salvage something from the season if they can beat Vancouver at BC Place on October 21. Yet the damage done on what the fans count as the biggest stage of the season has more than likely irreparably damaged Wilkinson’s position in popular sentiment. To be sure, Wilkinson will not lose his job as a result of this game, or any other in the near future. But if the Timbers’ front office hoped to avoid the nasty overtures for the ouster of the club’s longest-tenured employee, they badly missed the mark last night.