BEAVERTON, Ore. – It’s a strange high mark to evoke, in that it was both a low point and came before Cameron Knowles’ new career even started. But when it comes to the long-time Timber’s coaching arc, one that takes a step forward this season, having been appointed head coach of Timbers 2, the former MLS defender points to the end of his playing days as an initial turning point – the early, defining moment of his new vocation.
“The best thing that happened to my coaching career was getting injured,” Knowles says ironically, just devoid of humor. “I thought I would still be playing.
“Even if you talk to me now, I’m going to be 35, 36 this year. When you’re sitting there as a 22-year-old, you hope you’d still be playing!”
Knowles, however, has long moved past the injuries that prematurely ended his career on the field. He was 29, then, five years removed from Major League Soccer and well into his run in the former, more modest version of the United Soccer League. He’d finished his fourth year with the Timbers in 2010 when the team moved up to MLS, but after moving back to the USL with the Montreal Impact in 2011, Knowles saw his career end far from his adopted home.
It wasn’t long before the Auckland-born defender was back in the Rose City, though, embarking on the path that’s led him to T2. In 2012, Knowles returned to Portland to join the Timbers’ technical staff under then-head coach John Spencer. He stayed with the club under Spencer’s replacement, Caleb Porter, and has now assumed this, his first head coaching job with T2, as the club’s brought another coach to lead the first team in Giovanni Savarese.
Along the way, Knowles’ identity shifted. Though he’s only 35, he’s long stopped considering himself a player at heart.
“Aw, listen, I’ve sat on the sidelines for far too long to see myself as a player,” he says.
“It’s been really exciting and challenging,” says Knowles, about his move to the touchline. “There’s still, every day, different things [to learn] because of the skillset I’ve had to develop over the last six years as an assistant coach.”
He is the longest tenured person on any of the club’s coaching staffs, and with isolated exceptions through the organization, Knowles’ connection to the Timbers is among the deepest of anybody else at the club.
That connection makes him the perfect candidate to solve T2’s identity challenge. In its third year in USL, Timbers 2 suffered through a difficult three-win season.
Amid those difficulties, Portland has reaffirmed its USL vision, planning to use the first team’s depth more freely in the second-team. The resources offered the USL team have been increased nearly across the board, something that’s reflected in the recent signings of youth internationals Darixon Vuelto (Honduras) and Marvin Loría (Costa Rica).
Now, with the improvements that have been made to both the first- and second-team squads, Knowles knows where the vision for T2 is supposed to fit within the rest of the club.
“The expectation is to win,” he says, plainly, while acknowledging the complications of managing a USL-affiliated squad.
“Our goal here is not to put a completely different stamp on T2 but to provide and environment where the first team players coming down, it’s a seamless transition. The most important thing is that [when first-team players] come down, they get quality minutes, and they’re in an environment that makes sense for them.”
“On the other side,” Knowles continues, “we’ve got Academy players coming up, and we need to give them their first taste of professional football with the Portland Timbers. It needs to look like the first team, so they go through that pathway to get to the first team, it’s not just, ‘Oh, what’s this? Flip me on my head.’”
Then there’s another reality of coaching in USL, one that involves players like Lamar Batista, Harold Hanson, Andre Lewis and Renzo Zambrano. Their return to T2 helps form a core of USL-level talent that’s been augmented by not only Vuelto and Loría but also U.S. youth international Christian Enriquez and former New York Cosmos starter Jimmy Mulligan.
“With [the squad], we’ve got the USL players that are signed to us that we need to prepare and develop for the first team,” Knowles says, “and we’ve also got to create a stable environment for all that other movement.”
Those differences, as well as adhering to the vision outlined from above, may not even be Knowles’ biggest challenge. While trying to meet the team’s new, higher standard, Knowles will have to deal with the coming-and-goings between the first team and T2; the challenges of an increasingly multicultural squad; and the demands that the culture around the second team leaves in 2017’s results in the distant past.
“I think it’s a big challenge … but that’s the game,” Knowles says. “You’ve always got different cultures in the locker room. You’ve got different challenges to navigate. I think the club does a really good job of integrating guys from different cultures, different countries … We’ll get around those problems, like every club sort of navigates around them.”
The optimism is both matter-of-fact and born from a man who, over the last six years, has been steadily building to this point and forged from a direction that came almost immediately after injuries took him from the playing field.
“I was committed to coaching licenses when I was still playing,” Knowles remembers. “One of the first things I did as soon as I got injured, as I took the U.S. Soccer ‘B’ License … I’ve been committed to continuing education, trying to see other coaches, trying to read, trying to talk to people, trying to just ask questions … I went back to school and I’m doing a psychology program because I thought that would be interesting to learn how people learn …
“The world that we live in is completely different. The attention span of players is completely different. I’m just trying to learn and expose myself to as many opportunities to get better.”
Now, for the first time, Knowles is both the teacher and a student, and while improving on T2’s unforgettable season is mandatory, 2018 should be the first of many steps the long-time Timber.
“I need to remind myself that there needs to come patience,” he says, “you’ve got to figure out what works and what doesn’t work, and I think the opportunity the club has given me, in that regard, is exceptional. They’ve created an environment, and I’ve been able to develop and get better, find out who I am, as a coach, and what that looks like.”