On Wednesday afternoon Merritt Paulson and Gavin Wilkinson held a half-hour press conference to talk about the Timbers’ coaching search and offseason plans. Below are some of the highlights from the postseason press conference with the Timbers brass. Lines indicate where portions on the same subject have been omitted for clarity and brevity.
On Caleb Porter’s departure...
Merritt Paulson: I’d say that five years is a long tenure as a head coach with any pro soccer club, and the Timbers are fortunate to have had Caleb for that time. The club definitely matured and developed over that period and we enjoyed some terrific success. Our thoughts were well-summarized in the release that went out announcing the change, and they’re genuine from all parties. At the end of the day there’s a lot of mutual respect and admiration between us — the Portland Timbers — and Caleb Porter as he departs the club.
On the coaching search...
MP: In terms of next steps, our coach search has begun in earnest and to say there’s significant interest in our position would be an understatement. I can tell you we are going to have some terrific candidates to choose from.
MP: I don’t have a specific timeline to provide other than to say in a perfect world we will have identified the candidate to be the next coach by the end of the year. But the decision won’t be made unless there’s confidence in the fit. In the meantime, this isn’t going to slow down soccer decisions this offseason. In fact, I would even say as we quickly narrow ourselves to a short list of candidates, some of those decisions we’re even going to be discussing with candidates before the final hire decision is made if necessary to get input.
Gavin Wilkinson: We’re in the process of identifying the best available coaches in this country, and that includes the divisions below MLS, it includes some of the coaches that are no longer in MLS that have MLS experience, and it does include the best college coaches. . . . I think with that we will be identifying the best foreign candidates and putting them up against what we consider to be the best candidates within the U.S.
GW: We do want a progressive coach. We prefer a coach that’s bilingual. We prefer a coach that’s managed in different countries. But these aren’t all necessary relative to the candidate and what we see as a long-term fit.
GW: Ideally the coach will have MLS experience or will have MLS knowledge. But that doesn’t limit us to just American candidates within this country.
MP: Having MLS knowledge is in my mind one of the factors that would be hard to compromise on. I think there are some foreign coaches that have it and others that don’t.
MP: I can say right now we’re not evaluating anybody who’s an assistant coach somewhere.
GW: We’ve had in-person and we’ve had phone interviews already with multiple candidates. We will be bringing in several more.
GW: We need to make sure we get the process right. We have identified several already that will be a part of that six [on the short list], and out of respect for them and the clubs that they’re currently involved in we won’t be releasing names. But like I said we will be getting to five or six and then narrowing it down to two and ultimately one.
On player development in the United States...
GW: I think there’s been a massive investment from the ownership in MLS in player development. The academies — especially with the expansion teams — are not that old, so there has been a heavy investment and there has been a great success with players starting to come through to the first team. And what we will start to see, I think, is many, many more players coming through that are talented and that have massive upside.
GW: I do believe we’re on the right path. I do think it’s going to take many, many more years for us to have a plethora of players coming through the Academy and breaking into the first team. I also think some of it is relative to homegrown territories. You may see more — you will see more — homegrown players being developed in the Dallas area that you will in Portland, and that’s purely down to demographics and the size of the homegrown territory.
MP: I would add, just on a macro-level, that people forget that youth development is a long game, and in relative terms MLS hasn’t bet heavily on development in academies for really that long of a period. And on a National Team level we’re just starting to see the benefits of some of those endeavors paying off with the success of the U-17s started to have and some of the younger National Team groups. I actually think that the future of U.S. soccer on the youth side, there’s a lot of positives that are being masked by what happened in Trinidad and Tobago.
On offseason player-acquisition priorities...
GW: I would say in looking at the group there were many meeting that happened as a complete coaching staff, including Caleb — obviously he’s a very knowledgeable coach. There was a plan in place relative to this squad, relative to the group of players and looking at what our strengths and weaknesses were and way that we can get better.
GW: We’re looking to add another attacking piece that can give us flexibility in the attacking half, that can play multiple positions, and still add a layer for the first team. This would be a proven player that has international experience.
GW: We’re also looking to add a central defender. I think we’ve got some very good central defenders and they’re probably towards — not to the end of their careers — but relative to their age we need to bring in a younger central defender as a succession plan and somebody also that we can see being a starter within MLS both this year and moving forward.
GW: And then we start to look at the age in our midfield. We’ve got Guzman who will be going to the World Cup in 2018. We’ve got some good pieces in Bill Tuiloma and Lawrence Olum. When we start to look at another piece in the midfield that could be a six -- potentially an eight — we will start to identify players that are a little bit younger that have a longer timeline within this club.
On evaluating medical and sport science staff...
GW: I think we have to take our fair share of responsibility, as well, and with that there was a careful review done in the sport science and sport medicine departments. That’s not targeting two departments, it’s just relative to the injuries that we suffered. There’s been a lot of discussions and, like I said, a careful review. There will be changes made.
We’re looking to bring in a different head athletic trainer. We’re looking to bring in a proven, experienced physical therapist — we’ve never had a physical therapist on staff and it’s another addition that we’re looking to make.
On the head coach’s role in hiring assistant coaches...
GW: The first thing is I think the culture within the club is extremely, extremely important, and having some consistency is important, but not necessary. I also think the key decision here is we have to do what’s right to make sure the head coach is successful and with that I think we have to empower our new coach and give him the ability to make key decisions on his staff.
MP: There’s never been a scenario with any coach where we’ve said: “These are your assistants.” The head coach is empowered here to figure out the assistant staffing that makes sense for him. So there has been some consistency on the assistants, I get that, but that’s not been a top-down mandate by any stretch of the imagination.
On balancing responsibility between a coach, general manager, and owner...
Question: There’s been a good amount of talk in the wake of Caleb’s departure about the organizational separation of powers, so to speak, between the coach, the general manager, the owner, and all that kind of stuff. What is the organizational statement of that philosophy? Is that something that’s subject to negotiation with a potential new coaching candidate?
MP: First of all, in terms of the working relationship with Gavin and Caleb — at the risk of speaking for Caleb — it was extremely good. We’ve always subscribed to the theory, and I’ve strongly subscribed to the theory that a head coach shouldn’t also be a GM, be negotiating salaries, etcetera. So I think it’s important to have a standalone GM or technical director and a head coach. In terms of a head coach who’s empowered to make all coaching decisions, whether it’s lineup changes, input on acquisitions, etcetera, we’ve had an extremely, extremely empowered head coach in Caleb in all those aspects.
In terms of me, as an owner more specifically, people forget I’m the CEO who’s running the team on a day-to-day basis and have both Gavin on the soccer side and Mike Golub on the business side. I have a weekly lunch with the coach and the GM remove from games when we talk about all things soccer and just let me understand the thinking, but my involvement is relatively minimal on a daily basis relative to the coaching.
GW: The job of the GM is to give the coach the players that he needs to be successful on the field. Everything here is a collective decision with collective buy-in. I absolutely loved working with Caleb. I felt the culture in the club changed, it developed for the better. I felt the success on the field ultimately was a reflection on that, and also a reflection of great coaching and good players being on the field. So we’re judging a five-year tenure with two Western Conference titles and an MLS Cup. I’m not sure anything’s wrong relative to that. But, again, as far as I know I’m still the GM and —
MP: By the way, we’re not exactly cutting-edge and avant-garde with an owner, a CEO, a GM, and a coach. It’s not like we’re doing something really out-of-the-box with that setup right there.
Follow-up Question: Looking forward as you get into the coaching search, then, is that something that if a candidate comes back and says “Yeah I’m interested, but I want to have a little bit more control over player-personnel decisions,” just as an example, is that something that you think is not negotiable from your end or do you think that is something that you can always work with a candidate on?
GW: A coach has to have the ability to have the players that he wants. That is the way of this club. We have a process that we go through, but there will never be a player signed for this club that the head coach does not want.
MP: And there’s almost an inference in that question, I think, that — and I’m not going to get into it — but that wasn’t the issue the last five years. So, again, I think there’s a premise that’s maybe a faulty premise that you might be getting at.
On the process of signing players without a head coach in place...
GW: I think obviously a head coach is a leader within any club. They’re very integral to every decision that’s made. Ultimately there’s some decisions that still need to be made relative to opening of transfer windows, the timing within MLS, making sure that if we’re signing a foreign player that we’re getting them signed early enough to get the visas in place so we can have the full runway of preseason, to integrate the player and also culturally for the player to adapt.
So there are pros and cons to it, the negative being is the head coach going to love the player that we sign? I think what we’ve identified are key characteristics and elements of players that we need in this club, and they were identified previously with Caleb’s help. I don’t think the philosophy of this club is going to change. We still want to be a proactive, possession-based team that looks to pressure and play in the game in the opposing half. So some of the characteristics define the players that we’re going after.
I think we also have a gentleman on board in Ned Grabavoy who’s running the scouting department and overseeing a lot of the player acquisitions. I think he’s been a tremendous hire, and he’s currently overseas, and he’s also heavily involved in this. There are regular meetings throughout the year — you know, on a weekly basis at some times throughout the year — identifying players and identifying key needs. And while the head coach may have a slightly different opinion, we still have to look to fill some of these voids and continue to get better.
On the rumored wave of targeted allocation money...
GW: I may have an idea, but officially I may not be able to tell you I have an idea. We will find out in the next week, I’m sure. But from what I’m led to believe, we may have a little bit of flexibility.
On the state of Timbers 2...
GW: I think we want the head coach coming in to be very, very involved in the development of T2. I see it as an important part of this club, a necessary part of this club, and I think this year was abysmal. There’s no hiding from the truth and it did not achieve what we needed it to achieve, and that is providing players for the first team. I think last year we were able to bring three [or] four players in, and they were by-and-large well-integrated into the group and deserved to be in the group. But I think this year we missed on a lot of opportunities and we missed as an organization with that program.