Expectations are a funny thing. There's obviously an upside, especially when it comes to professional sports. The expectations are what sell tickets in the offseason. Build up the hype and energy around the team. Apply pressure when simply showing up might be enough.
But there's another side to that coin, something the Portland Timbers have discovered in a very real way this year.
A season removed from their debut in which they were roundly greeted as the belle of the MLS ball, they have dipped deep into the dreaded sophomore slump. They've limped to the second worst record in the league, fired their once-extremely-popular coach and pissed off a good chunk of their very loyal and vocal fanbase. Now, the supporters want their pound of flesh, and it appears general manager and interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson is a perfectly sized 16 oz.
This prompted owner Merritt Paulson to vehemently defend Wilkinson on Twitter the other day, using some very pointed language, although the entire episode appears to have been deleted. He did, however, repeat the basic theme of those comments in a conversation with The Oregonian.
"Gavin is not going anywhere," Paulson said. "More big changes is not what this team needs right now."
Paulson went on the state that he felt the Timbers had played much better under Wilkinson's guidance, and gave clear indications that he felt the team was heading in the right direction.
I can't pretend to be an unbiased observer here -- just check out my profile -- but I do have an appreciation for Paulson as an owner. His willingness to engage with fans in a public way -- even if he often thinks better of it later on -- is indicative of an owner who feels passionately about his team and wants to succeed. That's really all you can ask of owner, as writing checks and fueling interest are about the extent of what they can reasonably be expected to do.
Despite this appreciation for Paulson, I can't help but wonder what Wilkinson has done to deserve such praise and job stability.
Even discounting this year, Wilkinson has done precious little to show he's qualified for what could be one of the premier jobs in North American soccer. His playing career was relatively nondescript, as he never played in a league even as good as MLS, although he did pick up 33 caps for New Zealand.
After moving from player to coach of the Timbers, he proved to be a good, but not necessarily great coach. The Timbers finished with the top regular season record in the USL in 2009, but also were 11th in 2008. Perhaps more telling, the Timbers have produced precious few notable professional players during Wilkinson's time in charge of the USL team.
To be fair, Wilkinson has filled this year's team with some intriguing talents. Khalif Alhassan was a player he brought to the Timbers through their U23 team; Mamadou Danso was identified during the USL days; David Horst and and Eric Brunner were both picked up in the Expansion Draft; Diego Chara was found in Colombia. You can go down the list of players on this team and find any number of guys that show some serious promise.
But maybe that's the problem. This team seems far too caught up in potential, rather than performance.
Look at the situation that has unfolded at goalkeeper. Troy Perkins was considered one of the team's leaders and arguably the player fans most liked. He was sent packing in exchange for an older, injury-prone Donovan Ricketts, who had been struggling with the Montreal Impact. The reason? Apparently to make room for the promising, yet totally unproven Jake Gleeson, a 22-year-old goalkeeper, who history suggests is at least two or three years away from being able to lead a team to the playoffs.
During his conversation with The Oregonian, Paulson noted that the team has improved statistically under Wilkinson's guidance. The numbers suggest the exact opposite.
In seven games under Wilkinson, the Timbers have gone 0-5-2 while playing just two teams currently in playoff position. Even more telling, they've been outscored 18-8 in those games.
It should be said that there is a sliver of positivity in those numbers. But while the 1.14 goals scored per game figure is an improvement over the .94 the Timbers scored under Spencer, it would still qualify as just the 13th best scoring figure in MLS even if it had been sustained all season.
Of much greater concern is the 18 goals the Timbers have allowed under Wilkinson, which average out to 2.57 per game. Just how bad is that figure? If the Timbers managed to do that over an entire season it would set the record for the worst figure in MLS history, eclipsing the 68 goals in 27 games the Tampa Bay Mutiny allowed in 2001. It's worth noting that the Mutiny were contracted the following offseason.
Wilkinson is not vying for the permanent head-coaching job, so maybe judging the Timbers based on performance is unfair. He's openly there as a mere caretaker, while looking for his replacement. Presumably, the Timbers are playing the "style" Wilkinson envisioned, which seems to be the big reason Spencer was canned.
The Timbers are playing a more fluid, attacking game, it should be said. Players like Darlington Nagbe are being given more freedom. The recent 3-2 loss to the Red Bulls was, at least, entertaining.
But conceptualizing how you'd like a team to play and finding flashy players is not the hardest part about building a squad. Finding the right mix who can actually win games on the field and not just look good on paper is what separates great GMs from "Football Manager" experts.
Paulson must have known the potential downside of raising expectations this year. It's now time to wonder if they were based on faulty information all along.