Prior to the May 22 match between the Portland Timbers and Philadelphia Union, Timbers Forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda, President of Soccer and Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson and Owner/CEO Merritt Paulson joined 50 Annual Members in a pre-game Q&A. Below are some of the key questions and responses from the event. The questions and responses below have been edited for clarity and some have been combined from multiple related questions or responses.
Timbers Forward – Jaroslaw Niezoda
How's the injury and how are you recovering?
"The injury is okay, it's just going to be like a few more weeks and I should hopefully be ready to go after the Miami game."
How have you settled into Portland as your home for the last couple seasons? What do you think about the city of Portland?
"I think it's a great city and my family really likes Portland. My daughter was born here, about a year ago, so that is a big thing for me and my family. My wife is happy here, so that's the most important thing for me."
Gavin Wilkinson: We spent forty-two days together in the bubble, and I think the whole team got to know Jaro a little bit more, but what was the memory that you'll take from Orlando.
"It was forty-two long days. We played a lot of ping pong every day, it was like our thing to do. We just trained there each day, so we had a lot of free time. We couldn't go outside, because of the pandemic, we were just playing ping pong all day."
What's your what's your favorite memory playing at Providence Park?
"Honestly, I think last year's final against New York, unfortunately we lost, but, it was a great experience and a great atmosphere here. It was such a great feeling when we scored the equalizer. Unfortunately, we didn't win, but what a great memory."
PTFC for Peace was one of the greatest things I've seen the organization do. Your home country of Poland is front and center with the refugee crisis. Do you have any stories from your friends or family that you could share with us?
"My family are safe and they don't see anything in the area where they live. I just know a lot of people from Ukraine are coming to Poland to live, at this moment, that's normal, because we are their neighbors. I really liked that event and hope we can do it again for another cause."
Timbers Owner & CEO – Merritt Paulson
President of Soccer & Timbers GM – Gavin Wilkinson
How do you, as an organization, plan to address the inconsistency at the start of each season?
MP: "If you do look at our last six seasons, inconsistency from the start of the season has been consistent. I mean, we always add players and we seem to finish well, but we have to solve that, we can't rely on this team getting hot when it counts the most, every year. I do think it's a League that has a lot of parity in teams, so getting hot at the right time is definitely a big part of success, as is keeping a team fresh going into the playoffs, but we have to solve for our slow starts."
GW: "So, I believe you have to look at each isolated moment within each season when looking at this. There are different reasons and there is a different narrative behind each season. So, we could have been four points further ahead, if VAR had gone our way. If we are awarded and score those PKs, that could have been four points and that puts this phase of the season with a different narrative. So, the objective has been for us to come out of the starting blocks and hit 1.5 points per game until we develop rhythm. 1.5 points per game gets you to playoffs. Then the idea is to accelerate, get momentum, and peak at the right time of the year. In football, it has to be a progression as we work through the phases of the season. By the third phase, which we are heading into, we should be hitting our stride and we should be trying to get up to two points per game. Now, we've been able to bail ourselves out in the past, and that's what we cannot rely on every year. We have tough meetings, and we have tough conversations every year, as a collective group, to continue to raise the bar. Every year we figure some things out, but we also assess things if we fail. So, it's a constant process of reflection. We haven't figured it entirely out, otherwise we wouldn't be going through it again."
My observation is that year after year the average quality of play in MLS has gone up. I don't see that the average quality of refereeing in MLS has gone up commensurate with that. Is there something you're doing about that?
MP: "I will say it's a tough one to ask me, I'm gonna try to zip my lips. I think some of the younger refs that have come into the league are very good. Howard Webb, who I have a ton of respect for, who's running PRO, feels like he's got the best young pool of refs. I believe that soccer is the toughest sport to ref. I'm involved in kids soccer, and while my kids are playing, I see some parents yelling at refs and it's just not what you should do. I know that it is pot calling the kettle black and I’ve gotten a lot of fines, you know, but I've actually become friends with a few refs, like Alan Kelly, who just retired last year, and I have good discussions, and I really respect a lot of them."
It came out this week that the Timbers have the third lowest payroll in MLS and your DPs are fairly low paid, by MLS standards. What does that mean to us fans? What are you going to do to make sure that you're going to stay competitive in a league?
GW: "So first of all, the information that you get, they don't show everything. So there's close to 2 million that's not showing up in the payroll because we've used targeted allocation money for transfer fees. So, the way in which we were able to acquire Claudio Bravo was structured over a four-year deal, where we got the participating clubs to take the payments over four years, keeping Claudio Bravo at a very affordable number, but his actual cap hit is much higher. We have actually got four players on our roster that we've used targeted allocation for transfer agreements. We do have limited cap space and there are some things that we're trying to structure in order to give ourselves flexibility. In addition to that, Merritt has agreed to what could be two large acquisitions next year. We're trying to cycle the roster relative to age, relative to spend, to be consistent year in and year out. And, what I would say is we have different metrics that we look at. We should be better this year than we were last year based on age, experience, and players and where we’re projecting them to peak."
I really appreciate y'all being here. We don't sit in the Army, so, I'm not privy to every conversation that’s happening there. As a diehard loyal fan that sits somewhere else, I kind of just want to get an update. What's happening with any discussions with them?
MP: "I would say that they've been fundamental. If you look over the last 10 years, there have been a lot of teams in the League who have multiple groups, even Seattle's got multiple supporters groups. We've had one, and I think that's been to our benefit and having an organization that is elected, so that they can speak for the supporters, is a huge positive, even when we've had disagreements. It can be a thankless job, and they're volunteers, and they're dealing with constituents with varying points of view, so it's not an easy job. I'd say that that the dialogue that's happened between the Thorns players and the Riveters has been really positive recently, and I think that some of the dialogue with the TA that we've had recently, has been important. We worked with the 107ist this week, because there were some security issues at the last game when the signs went up in the 40th minute of the game. It wasn't so much about what the signs said, but that we had fans behind the signs, during the run of play that were upset. That becomes a security issue, you know, we have to work together, and the Army's actually been fabulous at policing itself over the years. I'd say the relationship has been pushed a lot, but I'd say it has not broken down and we always talk about keeping lines of communication open, whether or not there's disagreement. It’s been something that's been a strength of this club through good times and through bad times."
GW: "I think we're stronger today than we were 10 years ago. Some of that has been through trials and tribulations, but I think that through accountability and through questioning, there's been growth. There's a constant evolution as a club, both on and off the field. So, you know we want to make sure there is a willingness to listen on both sides."
I’m a local educator, and a parent of two young girls who follow both teams. Our youth are looking up at these players and this business, so what are your plans to really make sure that the Timbers and Thorns are a good model for our youth?
MP: "Well, it's a layered question for sure, That Athletic piece came out about 8 months ago, you know, there's been a ton of learning, amongst many other things. And one of the big learnings, for me, is, that so many people in their own experiences, specifically women, 70% have dealt with some type of harassment or assault which when you think about it, that's a staggering statistic. And that’s topical because people process and hear this stuff in different ways. And it's intensely personal for people. So, I would say to anybody looking at the club, if that's hanging around, I apologize. That’s for anybody who's dealing with children, or anybody else looking at the club and saying that, if that is their view and it is impacting them.
On the NWSL side, it's been a long period going through the investigations, and there's nothing that would make me happier than having it out there and being able to be able to talk more openly. The players on the Thorns team are extremely fluent in what happened, not only through what we've talked with them about, but through their friends in the league, and other players. We have players on the team that were on the team in 2015, they are extremely comfortable with this club. They feel proud of the club, and they feel supported by this club, and they know that the club's progressing. I think the initiatives that we've announced, whether they are DEI initiatives, whether there are focused on Equity or Accountability. I mean, those are some of the things that we're doing and we will have a number of updates that we're providing. These initiatives are things that I'm proud of. We continue to learn, we continue to get better. So, I would say this has been a club that should make Portlanders proud, including your children. When you look at the impact it's had on the city when you look at things like PTFC for Peace and the game we did for Atticus, and for what we've done for women's football and women's sport globally. We didn't do women's soccer for any other reason, and we've been an example and a shining star. It is a fraught world right now and there's a lot of stories and a lot of things going on across the world and sport, it's not an easy time. But, you know, I do think that all we can do is say: Are we proud of what we're doing right now and are we trying to get better? Are we learning? You know, in terms of what happened? Why did it happen? What did we actually do? That stuff matters to what actually happened, and I do think some people have lost sight of that."
GW: "Can I add that there continues to be a lot of importance placed on bringing in good people for this Club, at all levels. We celebrate the Sinclairs. the Emily Menges, the Diego Charas, the Diego Valeris, Sebastian Blancos, Larrys Mabialas, those are some of the older players, that there's been a lot of emphasis on culture, and there's been a lot of emphasis on bringing in mature players who are very comfortable in speaking their mind. There's been a lot of meetings with players, and everything you've challenged us with, is fair."
MP: "Look, It's really tough talking about this, I was asked a pointed question in one of our previous Open Houses about some specifics about what actually happened and to what extent that I could talk about it. There were a lot of people there who really listened and cared to know, and some others who didn’t. If your narrative is already set, you're going to find it."