February 25th, 2013 by Michael Orr
This time last year, AIK made their first trip to Portland and their first visit to North America since 1957. Members of each front office saw the 2012 pre-season tournament as a means to launch a more comprehensive relationship between the two clubs: a relationship that would be mutually beneficial both in terms of scouting and potentially player movement. So what has transpired through the ensuing months? Gavin Wilkinson sat down exclusively with NASN Portland on February 20 to discuss the developing bond between AIK and the Portland Timbers.
“I would say, first of all, there’s a very good relationship. There’s an open line of communication and they’re a great resource. It’s a different set of agents and a different set of players, so it’s just nice to have some eyes on the ground. When we need a player – when we go after a player like Ryan Miller, for example – that’s my very first phone call,” Wilkinson said at the outset. Though Miller played at Halmstads, AIK scouts like Björn Wesström could speak to his character, his ability and the likelihood that he could fit in with Portland. Said Wesström last February: “You have to be there. You have to see the environment, the city, the pitch, the crowd. Then you know what the expectations will be. The culture, the club and all of the things like that. That’s the main reason why I’m here. To feel the environment, the people and the town.” Though Wesström was unable to make the trip in 2013, the impact of his 2012 visit ultimately helped the Timbers fill a void at right back.
Not only have Wilkinson and the AIK brass discussed players from other squads, the Timbers and the Gnaget have considered moving players between the two clubs. Said Wilkinson, “Last year we entertained loan options to try to bolster their squad going into Europe. They didn’t come to fruition, but it’s a healthy relationship. We can throw ideas back-and-forth.” In 2012, AIK finished fourth in the Allsvenskan, which leaves them just one spot outside of European competition for the coming year, but that has not halted conversations about players. Wilkinson continued: “I see the next big thing as potentially looking at the movement of a player. Either an AIK player to the US or vice versa. If we have a young player that maybe needs a little bit more exposure to realize their value in the marketplace, maybe we’re going to send them through Sweden. If we have a player who’s coming back, and let’s just say Bright Dike for example, and he wants to go over to AIK to work in a different environment to change the scenery, it might be worth it to us just to help Bright Dike mentally, to get him over there. We’re going to use the relationship in many, many different ways.”
The movement of a young player, be it from the senior team or one of the academy squads, is an interesting possibility, particularly given the Timbers’ current overabundance of players relative to the MLS limit of thirty per team. Could someone like Jake Gleeson, Kalif Alhassan or José Valencia take advantage of a European stage to ‘realize their value in the marketplace?’ Wilkinson did not specify, and mentioning any player at this point would be conjecture, but the possibilities are enticing.
Meanwhile, Portland and AIK continue to work to create a club in Sierra Leone. “There are players there that we can develop and have an impact over. Some of it is a goodwill component. Some of it is a scouting component, as well as developing the sport in a third world country. I’ve been to Sierra Leone and it’s not a place that I would say has an abundance of riches to throw at its [soccer] development. But it’s a place that I think would definitely embrace it and deserve it. With that idea, we’re going again to dinner with the president of adidas and throwing these ideas out there,” said Wilkinson, after mentioning Norwich City’s Kei Kamara and Bursaspor’s Tetteh Bangura as examples of the possibilities in the country. Though progress continues, nothing formal yet exists.
The hiring of Caleb Porter has transformed the Timbers in Portland, but has not changed the overall relationship between the two clubs. “I think Caleb’s embraced a lot of things that we were doing. I hope he builds them,” Wilkinson said. As the new manager builds his relationship, not only with the AIK front office staff but also with manager Andreas Alm, the larger Timbers organization will get its chance to further access AIK’s successful academy system. According to Wilkinson, the Timbers have discussed, “a reciprocating component where we can send our academy coaches over to work within their youth structure or learn from their youth coaches and to share best practices.”
Whether or not AIK return to Portland in 2014 remains unknown for now. A third consecutive year in the same location for pre-season might be too much, though Wilkinson said nothing from the Timbers’ side would prevent such a return visit. Even if AIK are not part of next season’s tournament (which will be given a proper name and a trophy to be awarded, according to Merritt Paulson), the Gnaget will have an impact on who does come to Portland. Said Wilkinson: “I respect their opinions of the various clubs in Sweden who would carry themselves the way they [AIK] have carried themselves…I would love to have them back. Will they come back? 50/50 probably. But they will be able to find a replacement club for them and it’ll work well.”