Frustrations In Portland Are Reaching A PeakUnderachieving Timbers, Thorns make for a forgettable 2015
by Ray Marcham | Friday, September 25, 2015
The current times, they are not good for Portland soccer fans right now.
Over the past week, the Timbers were horrid in a loss at home against the New York Red Bulls, the Thorns announced that Paul Riley wasn’t coming back as head coach and Timbers/Thorns owner Merritt Paulson went on a Twitter rant against a reporter on the same day that Timbers President of Business Operations Mike Golub said he wanted Paulson to stay off social media (and, as usual, deleted his end of the conversation when he was done).
It’s a long way from 2013, when the Thorns won the NWSL title and the Timbers were a game away from the MLS Cup Final. Those times were good.
The one good moment was the gathering of Timbers legends and alumni for a halftime ceremony celebrating 40 years of the Timbers in Portland (and five years in MLS). So many of the names announced brought big cheers from the Providence Park crowd.
But the match they saw was not good. Caleb Porter said the word “disappointing” numerous times in his post-match press conference, then went on to defend the effort by his team on Tuesday. Porter said that it was a lack of executing the game plan, plus a lack of cohesion after a long break, that were the problems.
Maybe. But that line of thinking didn’t sit well with many of the Timbers Army. One look at the #RCTID hashtag on Sunday and Monday on Twitter and Facebook showed a very unhappy group of supporters, with anger split toward Porter, the players and/or the front office. Few, if any, of anyone connected with the Timbers were spared criticism. That the Timbers have won just twice in their last 10 MLS matches, when they were at one point fighting for the top spot in the West, helps fuels the frustrations.
It was the peak of what has been an incredibly frustrating year in the Rose City. The Timbers were supposed to be bouncing back to their 2013 form, but instead are trying to stay in the playoff hunt in a very tight Western Conference. Timbers 2 didn’t make the USL playoffs, and they had troubles getting fans out to Merlo Field for games. The Thorns were incredibly inconsistent throughout the NWSL season, and even when they their full complement of players outside of the Women’s World Cup, they never seemed to gel together very well.
Of course, there have been bright moments. The US Open Cup win over the Seattle Sounders in Tukwila, Wash. has reached legendary status. Michelle Betos became a folk hero in Portland after scoring a goal to even a match against Kansas City, and then went on to be named NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year. Kharlton Belmar scored 12 times for T2 and made a strong case to be included on the 18 for the Timbers after the season ended.
But those are fading into memory. What few good times there have been in 2015 are quickly being forgotten, as the frustrations of the present bubble to the surface.
A big part of those frustrations are what was expected of these teams. The Thorns were supposed to possibly contend for a title, but they couldn’t adjust to missing players to the World Cup as well as other NWSL teams did (especially Seattle) and will be in the same situation in 2016 because of the Olympics. Playoffs were a goal of T2, as well, but the true measure of the team may not be known until those players get onto MLS rosters, whether in Portland or somewhere else.
The Timbers? They were supposed to be quite good once Will Johnson and Diego Valeri returned from the injuries that ended their 2014 seasons. The rise of Adam Kwarasey as not just Portland’s goalkeeper, but the foundation of the defense, was huge for a time. But the inability to score goals has been massive, with so many opportunities missed during matches. That Portland has scored just 29 goals in 29 matches (only Colorado has scored fewer, with 27 in 29 matches) makes those missed opportunities stand out more. How many points have been lost because of those goals that never were?
Blame can be spread around. Has Porter adjusted for the players he has, especially since Lucas Melano arrived? Is the effort on the pitch starting to fade? Has Gavin Wilkinson gotten the players needed for Porter to succeed? Has Paulson allowed his money to be spent wisely by Wilkinson?
Ah, the common thread of this situation. Wilkinson is the general manager for the Timbers/T2 and for the Thorns, and while that worked well in 2013 when he had “just” the Timbers and Thorns, one has to wonder if he’s stretched too thin now. The decisions he has made on players have affected both clubs, and both clubs are not doing well. While Riley was the easy fall guy for the Thorns, he likely couldn’t do the same with Porter if it got to that point.
He’ll always have the backing of Paulson on whatever he does, and that may be a major problem, as well. Paulson has stood by Wilkinson through the end of the USL years (when Wilkinson was head coach), all five seasons Wilkinson has been GM of the MLS Timbers and all three years as GM of the Thorns. There have been moments of success (2009 USL Commissioner’s Cup, first place in the MLS Western Conference in 2013, 2013 NWSL championship), but also dismal failures along the way. And it’s the failures that stand out the most.
It seems like Paulson will never loosen the responsibilities Wilkinson has, but there may come a point when he has to take a long, hard look at the direction both the Thorns and Timbers are going. That means he’d have to decide whether Wilkinson is the right person for the job(s), and it would be the toughest decision he will ever make. Whether Paulson is capable of doing that, well, we’re not sure.
The time for that decision, though, may be near. If the Timbers don’t make the playoffs, and a coach for the Thorns isn’t found quickly, then the entire direction of the organization has to be questioned.
Then again, it already is. Just ask a Portland supporter.