On the morning of July 9, Timbers fans were whipped into a frenzy of anticipation, as news started to leak that head coach John Spencer would be fired later that day. That anticipation abruptly turned to, well, something else entirely at about 10am, when Geoffrey C Arnold reported that Gavin Wilkinson would be serving as interim head coach until a replacement could be found.
The team promptly went into a tailspin, and fans experienced their lowest moments of the MLS era, including an epic 5-0 defeat to FC Dallas, as well as the inexplicable transfer of fan favorite goalkeeper Troy Perkins. To make matters even worse, despite the team's continued losses, Wilkinson continued to trot out many of the same cast of characters that Spencer had relied on during his tenure -- most infuriatingly against Seattle in the biggest match of the season, the second of three chances the Timbers would have to clinch the Cascadia Cup.
The result was a torrent of resentment from the Timbers faithful -- a fury not seen since the second-to-last-place finish under Chris Agnello in 2006. The unrelenting discontent prompted a series of misguided tweets from Merritt Paulson in which he lambasted angry fans, at one point using the words "idiots" and "morons."
From a short-term public relations perspective alone, the decision was a catastrophe.
The season ended on a relatively positive note, with the Cascadia Cup win in Vancouver and a hard fought draw against the Supporters Shield winners in the season finale -- with some prospects in the lineup, to boot. And the post-season release of one of Spencer's least popular acquisitions suggested that perhaps the reason Wilkinson was giving some of those unpopular players so much time on the field was to give them a chance to increase their value in the transfer market (a failure, but, still, it was worth a shot -- just not against the Sounders).
So, all things considered now, how do you assess the installation of Gavin Wilkinson as Interim Head Coach?
And keep in mind that this is a controversial and emotional topic -- please be respectful of differing opinions.
Ryan Gates: C
If the goal was results the obvious answer would be an F. However the reason Gavin Wilkinson was out in as the Interim Head Coach was to install a system which could be easily manipulated once a head coach was chosen. Once it appeared, to Gavin and to Merritt Paulson, that Caleb Porter was going to be the head coach the switch to a 4-3-3 to see who could and could not function in that style was put into place.
One negative part of Gavin's reign was the lack of young players -- of course young is relative, as a few of Portland's starters could fit that category. The silver lining in all of this is that he was able to win the Cascadia Cup and win the last road game of the season and without those Portland's season would have been a lot more dismal. Overall the outcome had just as many positives as negatives and therefore deserves an average grade C.
Stacey Neve: C
Immediately prior to the announcement that John Spencer had been fired--before the press conference actually happened but when everyone knew what was coming--I expected Amos Magee to be named interim head coach. I still think that giving the interim job to Magee, or to Sean McAuley when he arrived, would have made more sense. Gavin Wilkinson already had an important and time-consuming job as GM; making him head coach too, instead of passing the job off to one of the assistant coaches, was nonsensical. Additionally, if the FO was really serious with their talk about not wanting to stir things up any more after Spencer was fired, Magee seems like a more logical choice since he, unlike Wilkinson, had already been working with the players as their coach.
However, as Ryan noted, it seems that the main job of the interim coach was to start laying the foundation for what next year's Timbers will look like in terms of formation and style, and I think Wilkinson certainly started moving the team toward what they will look like under Caleb Porter. I just think that Magee or McAuley could likely have done that just as well.
Will Conwell: D
It was emphasized over and over again that Sean McAuley was not a candidate for the head coaching job. Of course, it seemed almost too perfect that a guy who had successfully served as the interim manager for two English clubs should sign on with the Timbers just as John Spencer headed out the door. So why did they not just name McAuley the interim head coach? Why put that on Gavin in addition to his duties the GM?
My best guess is that the Timbers, both players and the management, knew what they were getting with Gavin and, with the season not yet written off at the time of Spencer's firing, the organization wanted to keep the changes to a minimum in hopes that the team could still make their way into the playoffs. If not for that disastrous run after Spencer left it could have happened too. Did using Gavin as the head coach work out for the team? Not really. Was it worse than letting Spencer finish out the year knowing he was a lame duck? Again, not really.
Geoff Gibson: D
It wasn't difficult to judge the John Spencer firing. I think most people knew that had to be done. I'm also not on the Gavin Wilkinson hate-train that seemed to crop up after the Troy Perkins trade. Still this was a bad move by the Timbers FO.
Why in the world did they opt to have Gavin Wilkinson perform two jobs when McAuley could have just as easily taken over as the interim head coach? Hell, I think any of the assistant coaches could have performed at least as well as Wilkinson did in the position. It probably would have saved everybody a lot of grief to just hand the keys over to one of them rather than go through the slugfest that was Wilkinson coaching the team. Wilkinson should do what he does best: find players that the head coach wants. That's it.
Andy Wheeler: D
It appeared that the main qualification for interim head coach that Paulson and Wilkinson were looking for was a complete disinterest in taking the job permanently. And that was probably a good thing for everyone involved -- the second half of the season was unlikely to go much better than the first half, so pinning an up-and-coming coach to a sinking ship wouldn't really help with future employment prospects. And besides, the last thing the team would want after a lost season is another power struggle between an assistant and the head coach (going out on a limb and assuming that was the deal with Trevor James).
At the same time, though, what the Timbers still need, and what they still haven't got, is experienced, major league leadership. What I see more than anything in this debacle is another missed opportunity -- to bring in a more seasoned MLS leader, whether as an interim or in some other role, to help reassess what it will take to win in MLS.
I personally still hold out hope that the current leaders can learn from their mistakes and become the example future struggling teams strive to emulate, but I think they would get to that point better and faster if they would simply accept that they could use a little help.