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Transcript: Wilkinson Press Conference

Portland Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson spoke to members of the media Tuesday on a conference call, covering a variety of topics, including Paul Riley's status with the team, what steps they will use to make decisions regarding next season, what they are looking for in players, and league infrastructure issues.

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On Riley's future.

Paul is currently out of contract at the end of this season, which is now, and I think the one thing that Paul has stated and I will state is it has to be right for both Paul and the organization.  It's a decision that we're evaluating, to be honest.  It's a situation where we had clear objectives over the last two seasons, but especially this season, that need to be met and also need to be met moving forward.   The Thorns need to be recognized as a team that has a style and a system and this year did present many challenging aspects to that.  We think nothing but the world of Paul: tremendous work ethic, tremendous knowledge of the game and the league in general, and it's some that we will continuing to be evaluating as a decision will likely be made in the near future.

Timetable for decision on Riley and details of that decision.

It's his decision because it has to be a mutual decision, and like I stated he has a lot of respect from us as an organization, and we do understand that there were a lot of variables that happened this year that could not be foreseen.  I'll address the first part, the foreseeable future is really depending on how the conversations go over the next couple of days, the next week, and beyond.  In the near future I'm alluding to, we predict it should be three weeks to a month to have a firm decision because have many decisions that do need to be made leading into next year.  We have a draft to get ready for, we have players to re-sign, all are released, and a lot of that is dependent on the head coach.  Now, when I say that it's both, it sincerely is both parties.  Paul left his wife in New York this year, and it was trying at times for Paul.  I think coaches like the support network off the field as well, and being away from home and family for that long is very, very trying.  So, obviously we're going to be empowering a coach to be successful, everything else has to be in line and they have to feel wanted as well and they have to feel that the club has a definite direction.

On the national team players

With the national team players, we currently have 9 with the group.  I can tell you right now that all 9 will not back next season, and we will be having individual meetings with the players in the next couple of days.  There has to be a little bit of a balance and this year we had 9 players that were in the World Cup quarterfinals, and while that's tremendous for game and tremendous for the Thorns and Thorns fans in ways it did have some challenges that presented on the field.  We have to make sure that when we prepare for next season, going into an Olympic season or year, that we balance the roster accordingly and the players that will be gone with the Olympics are durable and able to return fit and healthy.  What I would say is we will reconsider carrying that many internationals again and we believe it was right for the Thorns and right for the game in general.  Each player will be sat down with and we'll be going over every single player's situation with them individually and there will be an announcement in the near future as well.

On the evaluation process being used and how much weight is given to fan reaction.

I think with the Thorns it's very, very similar to how the club is run.  The fans are our foundation and we respect their opinions and we value their opinions.  I think in my situation there is accountability from all sides.  I have to take accountability and Paul has to take accountability, assistant coaches, the players, we're all in this together.  To pin everything on Paul, while some may believe that's fair, I disagree, and it's a collective effort with everybody involved and that would be going through every individual player and asking every player: did they perform to their capacity and did they perform as expected.  Some of the variables that I've spoken about and some of the things that we've evaluated and Paul agrees.  The realistic goal is that we have to be a perennial playoff team that challenges for the title and looks to host a playoff game and hopefully hosts a championship game.  When we start with that, then we start to look at the system of play and we went into this year with very different expectations on how the team would play, the formation that the team would use and principles that would be evaluated on the field itself, and for a lot of this year we ended up playing with three in the back and I think Paul was being honest in saying that was never the vision of this club or never the vision of Paul with three in the back.  However, with the roster of only 20 players, and with some of the injuries that we had, it was a challenge that we faced and a system that Paul believed would get us results.  There were some games it definitely did work for us.  When we start to look at what is evaluated, you have to look at the whole picture.  Do players want to play for Paul, and I think the answer is yes.  Does he understand the league?  Does he have a great knowledge of the game?  There is many, many positives.  Some of the variables that were also just mentioned.  Of all the players that returned from the World Cup, between Alex Morgan, Jodie Taylor, Steph Catley, and Rhian Wilkinson, that group was only able to play for a combined total of 15 games, 894 minutes.  Yet you look at Steph Catley personally, and I believe Paul agrees, rates Steph as one of the top left backs in the league.  Then we have Alex Morgan, who's a household name within the sport that is a phenomenal player, and I do believe one of our top players, was only able to participate in 4 games due to injury.  The other player in her position, Jodie Taylor.  It goes on and on.  Some of the challenges we faced this year, we never expect the club to deal with ever again.  Some of the challenges that Paul had, the inability to field the same lineup on a regular basis.  I think we only had the same starting lineup in three games, and some of that was relative to performance, however some of this is relative to international call ups and injuries that players sustained on international duty.  So, in looking at Paul's position with the club, it really is a holistic view.  As I said, the fans are important, but we take everything else in to consideration as well.  Just like I've said, it's Paul's opinion as well.

On Christine Sinclair's health status and whether recovery will take place in Portland or with the Canadian National Team.

I would love to keep every player in town and Sinc especially.  It's something that we would like to monitor.  I think she is also.  I don't think, I know, she is highly valued by the Canadian National Team.  Our hope is to keep SInc in market, especially with the healthcare system that we have within the organization and also our partner with Providence, and one of the things that sets us apart from any other NWSL team, in a positive way is the health and facilities we have to rehab players.  So, I'm sure the Canadian team and John Herdman know this, and will hopefully keep Sinc in market so we can continue to work for her.  But ultimately, we have the same ambition, and that is to get her back on the field, as heathy and strong as possible, as quickly as possible, but I couldn't give you a definitive answer, I apologize.

On Michelle Betos and filling the goalkeeper position.

I think Michelle has shown she is capable in goal and she's quickly become a fan-favorite as well.  So, I think the hope is to put Michelle is a position to be successful moving forward, but also sign a goalkeeper who can push and challenge Michelle to make sure she continues to earn her #1 spot, with having Nadine here. We're also in discussions with Nadine, as a side topic, to look to bring her back to the club in some capacity.  She's a tremendous ambassador to the sport, she's been a tremendous role model for all the players that we have coming through the Thorns Academy system.  She's a fantastic person to keep involved in the club.  So, there's also that side of it. I'm sure Michelle can continue to learn a lot from likes of a Nadine Angerer.  But, in short, we'll be looking to sign another quality goalkeeper that can fight for the #1 spot, but also look to push Michelle Betos.

On the impact of the Olympics, attracting international talent, and standards for the league.

I think, honestly, the result of the U.S. National Team this year, shows the quality of players.  Good players want to play with good players or better players and I think the U.S. had the success that they had has helped drive the league and also validates the league.  The NWSL is looking for ways to become more professional.  Have minimum standards in place, and I know the players are on board with something that the Commissioner Jeff Plush is pushing and we're hopeful that they continue to push that, to drive the standard within this league.  I think your question had several parts for the full answer.  I think the league continues to improve, as I believe it will, I think if we continue to raise the standard within this league, I think we will continue to attract quality foreign players.  One of the other challenges is the window of opportunity.  Right now, quality players have to choose whether to play in Europe or in the U.S.  I'm hopeful that the Thorns are a good flag-bearer for what this league can become.  The Thorns are respected worldwide as being one of the leaders in women's soccer, and it's important for us as a league to continue to grow and drive the attendance and drive the quality within the league.  I think all of these play a part in attracting foreign players as well as us figuring out timing issues with the calendar.  We have a share in some of the best players in the world.  We had one in Vero, that unfortunately we lost because she wanted to play in Europe and she wanted to play in different competitions and we couldn't make the calendar work for her.  We will look to continue to bring her back, but it's a challenge for all of us to continue to attract international players, and it's one that each club will tackle individually.  I think luckily, with the any player that doesn't want to play in front of 15,000 passionate fans probably shouldn't come to the league or shouldn't come to the Thorns.   We face some challenges, one of them being a salary cap that we have to make work and I think it's important for this league to grow slowly, to have a strong foundation and to continue to look at ways to grow realistically within this country.

On addressing any internal factors facing the Thorns this past season

No, I wouldn't say anything else within the Thorns organization. I think collectively we agree that we have to play a certain way and we agree that when we are starting to build out a roster that we should be playing a certain formation, which you need to do in order to prepare for a season.  Some of the challenges are that we only carry 20 players on the NWSL roster, and when you sustain injuries to four or five quality players that are perceived, or in my opinion, are starters; it's tough to replace those players.  We have salary cap that we're up against to carry those 20 players, so there's very limited mechanisms which you can use to replace a starter or to replace a quality player when you have lost them to injury.  This year we went through 26 players, and some of those were amateur players.  I've already alluded to the fact that how many different lineups we had.  Now a coach, especially Paul, wanted to settle on a lineup earlier and was unable to.  I think the challenges that we faced, are the ones that we had to deal with last minute, in terms of we didn't anticipate all 9 players going to the quarterfinals of the World Cup, and maybe that's poor management on my behalf, but it's also tremendous for the organization to be working with these players, developing these players to be successful on the world stage.  So, you can take that as a positive.  We didn't anticipate four of those players coming back injured, and being unable to help us for the push into the playoffs.  Some of those can't be helped, and so what we need to do right now is: was our depth good enough?  Even with those players being lost to injury, were we able to do a better job in our scouting, to do a better job in our recruitment, and make sure the depth within the group is of a higher standard.  Do we have the right succession plan built in within every single position?  Some of those are internal, some of those are league driven, but it's just the challenge of the sport that we love.

On building the roster going into another year of international competition and what type of player they are looking for.

I think so.  I think mentally a strong, strong player who loves the challenge of playing in front of a very loud fanbase that turns in week in week out.  I think when you start to look at it how  we say is a #6, a specialized player looking to hold in front of the backline.  Somebody that's strong, somebody that's mobile.  Somebody that can allow some of the more creative players to play, instead of working both sides of the ball as often they do.  That was one of the challenges we thought we solved coming into this season and we didn't.  I think it was very obvious.  We would also like to add another quality central defender as a leader and like I said a #6.  I think we do have enough talent though on this team to be successful, and I don't think when you look at it we performed at the level that our roster showed it could be.  For us that comes back to addressing a couple of issues, it comes back to addressing the individual performances, the collective performances, the coaches performance, my performance, and coming to a conclusion and building the ambition for next year and also start to build the plan moving forward.  This is all part of it.  I'm just giving you two examples of players we would like.

On infrastructure issues facing the league, the Thorns influence on the league, and what chances can be made.

I think we have a tremendous infrastructure.  I think it's tremendous for any NWSL team, or any professional team in general on how to structure it in partnering with MLS.  Having staff that crossover and having the infrastructure, having the stadium, having the ticket staff, and quality people in those positions sets us up for success.  Those are quality people in those positions work very hard, and I think that is shown to be the case in Houston.  I think everyone is extremely happy with the level of professionalism in Houston, and I think that expansion for the NWSL will continue to look very bright for the future and I think the MLS clubs will play a big, big part in that.  I think when you start to look at minimum standards, I think the league is aware that they need to be addressed.  It's also the third reincarnation of the league.  The first two failed.  So what we need to do as a league and member club is to make sure that the foundation is strong.  The more that we continue to raise these minimum standards the better the players should be able to perform on the field, the happier the players will be off the field and traveling.   I know that we dealt with some situations this year that got a lot of media coverage and those aren't healthy for us as an organization and they're not healthy for the NWSL.  It's important that they do get addressed and it's important that these players, some of the best international players in the world that play in this league, continue to want to play in this league and continue to help move this game forward.  I think that it is important for everybody.  We'll continue to help from our end and continue to drive that and we hope that every team coming into Portland experiences a game at a different level, which is also where we need to be as a team.  That pays back on the group, myself included, that pays back the organization for the level of professionalism.  Makes sure that our fans are rewarded by a team that's challenging for championships and in playoffs.  So, it's easy to point the finger with what we have in Portland, we should be able to perform a lot better on the field.  We should be able to get more results on the road, knowing that our players are being taken care of.  We should be able to drive the game a little bit more  It's always easier to do that being a champion rather than looking from the outside in.