It appears we should get some clarification on the new manager of the Timbers tomorrow. Here are a couple of questions I think the manager will have to resolve quickly in order to be successful. It would be better if the fans learned the answers to these questions but as long as they're addressed I think it would be a positive development.
For purposes of this post, we'll work on the assumption Caleb Porter will be the man.
First, whose team is this? If you answer Merritt Paulson it's not only glib but also possibly the most dangerous answer. I've seen arguments both here and on Twitter over the last couple of weeks featuring comparisons of MP versus Al Davis, Mark Cuban and Jerry Jones. Each of them famous/infamous for being hands on owners rather than businessmen managing an asset, but I think there's a clear division that can be made among these types of owners: do they voice their opinion and then let the staff do their job or do they overrule staff? Al Davis was, for lack of a better word, a meddler. Mark Cuban articulates a philosophy, gathers information, makes resources available and then gets out of the way. Which one is MP going to be?
I believe one of the chief impediments to the Timbers success in 2011 was the lack of a clear identity for the team. Gavin has always voiced his philosophy that his teams, and championships, were built from the back. Hold a clean sheet and at worst you always walk away with a point. Merritt, who has admitted to being more hands on than may have been good for the club, has been equally vocal about an attractive, attacking team to please the fans. Doing both simultaneously is a Herculean effort for established franchises, much less an expansion club and I believe we suffered for it. If Porter is given absolute free reign to mold the team as he sees fit, I believe we have a better chance for success than if he has someone breathing down his neck.
Second, whose staff is this? Will Porter be compelled to retain Magee and Knowles? Adding McAuley was a very nice move by the club, and I think Porter could be boosted by adding someone with a similar level of experience, especially someone with MLS history. I don't think it's a terribly controversial opinion to say that Amos and Cameron were Gavin's guys. That's not to impugn their integrity or say that they're bad guys, but I don't believe they were ever John Spencer's first choices for the job. Maybe that means Spencer didn't think his assistants were important or maybe accepting them was a condition of accepting the position, but if we're going to go through the trouble of sacking a manager after 18 months and hiring a guy with little experience at this level, we should do him the solid of allowing him the ability to choose his own assistants. Whether or not you see any movement in this area during the offseason should go far in determining whether or not this is Porter's team or still Gavin's.
In this area, I'll relay an anecdote I heard after John Spencer was hired but before the 2011 season started. I had a private chat with a knowledgeable employee of the Timbers and I asked very pointedly whether or not MP would back Wilkinson or Spencer if the crap hit the fan. I was assured that everyone within the organization knew that Gavin got the position largely out of a sense of loyalty but Spencer was the guy with the experience, credibility and was the proven commodity among MLS franchises. To paraphrase, but nearly a direct quote was that Spencer could leave Portland and walk into another position but Wilkinson would not get the same respect. MP would protect Spencer. We saw how that worked out. So what happens if this reclamation process takes longer than Paulson would like and Porter is working with one hand tied behind his back because he cannot even choose his own staff?
Third, which brings me to time. "Philosophical differences" or not, Spencer was given the sack after only 18 months. That's a pretty short amount of time for someone so thoroughly vetted to veer of course from the person you initially hired. Teams can be turned around virtually overnight. KC did it last year and San Jose is in the process of doing it this year. But it's not an absolute and there are no guarantees. The draft pool is still shallow and getting shallower as more kids are claimed by academy systems. Foreign free agent acquisitions are high risk and not always high reward options. There were grumblings in the fan base prior to Spencer's leaving but it seems that the FO were more impatient than the fans. So how does Porter ensure that "philosophical differences" don't separate him from this position before he has a chance to truly remold the team?
Last, is specific to player scouting and acquisitions. It's no secret what I personally think about Gavin's ability to cast a wide net, adequately scout talent and sign them to MLS contracts equal to the shreweder teams in the league. They have a scout/negotiator in Colombia who also contracts with other MLS teams. They have an agent who works in Oceania and a guy in Africa. He loves his diamonds in the rough. It's no accident that our current trialist comes to town virtually on the same day Seattle signs Mario Martinez. They share the same agent, only Seattle gets an international and we get a guy currently out of work. Part of Porter's success has been successfully recruiting top talents to come and integrate into his system, but college recruiting and pro evaluations are not the same thing. We need a significant upgrade in our ability to go out and find top-tier talents to fit his system rather than comb through the nickel ads looking for players on the cheap. I trust in Porter's ability to spot quality but someone is going to have to work significantly harder to open a wider network of available players for him to evaluate. How do we develop an international network to find talent before other clubs get to them, rather than feed off of the leftovers and pretend it's a feast?
Just so it's not all doom and gloom, here are some reasons why Porter or anyone else should jump at the chance to come here.
1) Paulson at his best is passionate, committed and will make resources available if he believes they will be utilized properly.
2) The cement is still wet. We are still, more or less, an expansion team. It's an opportunity to come in and stamp your personality on a squad almost instantly rather than work your way through another guy's players and plan for the future.
3) The TA. They love to love. Succeed here and you'll win every award open to fan voting. That's not for nothing either. As atmosphere turns an average game into compelling viewing, fan engagement can help a coach raise his profile and public perception quickly even if the results aren't there yet.