Wilkinson finishes Colombia trip with eye towards bolstering squad
Though the MLS regular season has ended for the Portland Timbers and the league nears MLS Cup, general manager and technical director Gavin Wilkinson is busy spending much of November crisscrossing the globe scouting various players. Having just returned from Colombia this weekend before shipping off to Ghana and Togo later in the month, Wilkinson’s plan remains clear.
“I am looking for players that can potentially help us in the starting line-up, while providing depth,” said Wilkinson. “When you go on these trips, you need to be mindful of the MLS salary cap, what a player will cost, if a player is under contract, when their contracts expire, when they may become available and if the player could have an immediate impact on the team.”
“The two Colombians that we’ve got in right now in Jorge and Diego are great people, great professionals and have settled in very very quickly,” said Wilkinson. “What we’re looking at is, can we bring in maybe another one, maybe another two Colombians to feed off what those two have started?”
To that end, Wilkinson attended a number of matches in South America, primarily in the Colombian Categoría Primera A, though the first he watched was a Copa Sudamericana first-leg clash between Colombian side Santa Fe and Argentina’s Vélez resulting in a 1-1 draw. Gerardo Bedoya scored for Santa Fe in the 24th minute with David Ospina Ramírez equalizing for the Argentines in the 76th minute.
Next up was a U20’s match between Santa Fe and Envigado FC followed by a first team game between Santa Fe and Once Caldas—helmed by former Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio. Osorio’s side pulled off a 2-1 victory at home with Once Caldas’ Mario González scoring the gamewinner in the 72nd minute.
“I had a great chat with [Osorio] prior to the game about players in Colombia. We discussed players on his roster and what else was around in the league,” said Wilkinson. “It was nice to speak to a coach who has MLS experience, because that background helps provide solid perspectives about players’ ages, their personality types, and their personal and professional backgrounds.”
Also on the match docket was a game between Boyacá Chicó FC and La Equidad. Chicó pulled out the 1-0 victory on a late PK in the 94th minute. This match was definitely one of focus for Wilkinson.
“I’ve been following a player from Chico for a while,” he hinted. “He did well again; however there’s still a question mark over whether he would fit into our system.”
Finally, Wilkinson flew to Medellín to watch Itagüí take on Quindío—a club both Chara and Perlaza spent some time with earlier in their careers. Though the match ended with a 1-0 win for Itagüí, the quality of this particular match was lacking in Wilkinson’s opinion. Good or bad, all of the matches he attended in South America hold importance in evaluating talent abroad.
“When you’re watching a poor quality game, you start to look for the positive plays and individual standouts,” said Wilkinson. However, he also added, “Even though the focus is primarily on individual players, you’re hoping they stand out in high quality games versus in poor quality games.”
Now back in Portland, Wilkinson, along with head coach John Spencer and the rest of the team’s coaching staff are evaluating a few trialists who are taking part in the squad’s end-of-season training at JELD-WEN Field. Among the players currently working with the team are U.S. U-20s national team goalkeeper Samir Badr who also plays on the reserves for FC Porto in Portugal, goalkeeper Justin Myers who played with the Puerto Rico Islanders in USL as well as Hòa Phát Hà Nội in the Vietnamese league, and forward Alhaji Kamara—a Sierra Leone youth international.
Next on Wilkinson’s itinerary for the month is a trans-Atlantic trip to Ghana, Togo and Europe. Given the the Timbers’ success two years ago with unearthing young Ghanaian midfielder Kalif Alhassan, Wilkinson returns to West Africa with an eye towards finding a similar talent.
“With Kalif, he was the first player we took out of Africa and maybe we got lucky with him, maybe we did a good job,” believed Wilkinson.
Never one to rest on his laurels, however, he looks to push the search further, “You want to go back and test yourself to see what else is out there,” he said. “We ask ourselves, what positions do we need? Could we find another wide midfielder for example? Could we find another forward or creative midfielder?”
After thousands of miles and countless players, Wilkinson believes that all his scouting—regardless of international locale or origin—comes down to two key elements, “It’s a matter of who impresses and whether John and I can see them fitting into our system.”