COLUMBUS, Ohio – The five Portland Timbers players still with the club from their inaugural 2011 MLS season have been celebrated as key leaders in the team’s run to Sunday’s MLS Cup (1 pm ET: ESPN, WatchESPN and UniMas in the US; TSN1/4 and RDS2 in Canada).
But the original Timber has flown a bit more under the radar.
General manager Gavin Wilkinson, a former New Zealand international, started with the club as a player in 2001, when the Timbers were reincarnated from their early NASL days as a USL First Division side. He then took over as head coach and general manager from 2007-10 before transitioning into the MLS era in his current role.
It’s been a roller coaster ride for Wilkinson and the Timbers in the five years since, going from missing out on the playoffs in their first two seasons in the league and having to part ways with the team’s first head coach, John Spencer, to their current position as the Western Conference champions. At points along the way, Wilkinson has been the target of fans and the hashtag #GWout, which manifested in banners during a handful of games over the past few years.
Those cries have, obviously, been silenced. He sat down with MLSsoccer.com on Friday at the team hotel to talk about the team's run this year:
MLSsoccer.com: As a longtime member of the club, who has been the target of fan criticism, what does the team’s MLS Cup berth mean to you personally?
Wilkinson: “Extremely rewarding, but we’re already thinking about how to get a little bit better. I think if you slow down and enjoy it a little too much you’re going to get passed by very quickly. And for us, we’re all ambitious, we want to prove a point and we want to reward the city and the fans and continue to grow this. For me, very rewarding, but it’s another box ticked, as such.
"We’ve got another big game in front of us; can we tick that box and get the job done there? But to put ourselves in this situation is tremendous for the city and tremendous for the owner and tremendous for the fans, just for everybody involved. And I truly believe they feel a part of it and they should feel a part of it.”
MLSsoccer.com: Have you been able to “smell the roses” at all?
Wilkinson: “Probably not as much as I should. I have a 12-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl, and they talk about it a little bit. You can see the excitement on their faces and they say, ‘Hey, Dad this is cool.’ And you sort of slow down for a minute and you say, ‘You know, this is pretty cool.’ But it sort of has become a part of my life, my family’s life, so it’s a discussion where we try and have times when we don’t talk about the Timbers or soccer or sports in general.
"But it’s hard not to when you’ve got a few people who are patting you on the back and saying ‘Well done.’ You realize the magnitude of what it means to everybody else. You keep wanting to go one step further.”
MLSsoccer.com: How did the criticism from fans affect you, especially considering how important this club has been to your life over the past 15-plus years?
Wilkinson: “I think in all honesty in some ways it’s a motivating factor. Everybody is entitled to an opinion, but some opinions become more personal than others. But, I don’t know, there’s adversity in different ways, and some people feel they have to voice their opinions in different ways as well. So for me it doesn’t change the way I go about things or it doesn’t change what I represent or the direction of the club.
"If anything, it shows that we’re unified as a group, from the players to the staff to the owner, we’re very, very unified. And we share a direction, and I think that’s very, very important for any professional sports team. And I think when there are distractions like that, you see how unified you are. And it’s also a stage where you take a great step forward you become more unified. So in many ways, you get tested in different ways, and I think we got tested, and we were proven right maybe.”
MLSsoccer.com: Did you ever question the direction you were headed and consider taking a different approach?
Wilkinson: “No, it was a matter of all the trends – and again, this is where I’m maybe a little bit over the top, but there’s predicted goals analysis and goals analysis – and our predicted goals analysis was a lot greater than our goals analysis, for example. Yet all the other trends were aligning where teams have been previously that made the playoffs and won things.
"So we were on the right path, yet results dictate performances in many ways. Our performances weren’t that bad in several of these games, but the results didn’t match the performance. Then you start to say 'If they lost, there’s something wrong.' Yet there’s still an element of luck involved in any sport.
"So I think you have to take a step back and be cerebral in the way you look at it and say 'Is it broken or is it just a tweak here, there or everywhere?' And that’s where Caleb [Porter, head coach] does his thing. And a couple of tweaks and suddenly different chemistry and different elements on the field and different results. But there wasn’t ever a worrying trend.”
MLSsoccer.com: You talked about already working toward the future. How do you improve on a team that is playing in MLS Cup?
Wilkinson: “First of all, you’ve got to ask how you keep the team together, and with the cap system the way that it is, there are always going to be some decisions that need to be made with the group short-term and long-term. For us, it’s a matter of having the success shows that we’ve got the chemistry and got good players.
"I think the biggest challenge is how do we make small adjustments that the coaching staff wants and continue to move forward but keeping the majority of the same group in? That’s going to be the challenge. I think you’ve seen that with other teams that have won MLS Cup and have had to make decisions.”