When he took over as coach and general manager of the Portland Timbers in September, Gavin Wilkinson inherited a franchise in chaos.
After a 2006 season with only seven wins in 28 games and three shutout losses at the finish, first-year coach and general manager Chris Agnello had suddenly resigned. Attendance was stuck at 5,575 per game, about the same as the previous season. And a simmering dispute with the fan group known as the Timbers Army was approaching boil.
So for its third coach in three seasons, the minor-league franchise turned to Wilkinson, a six-year Timbers player and coach who calls himself "the one consistency" since the team's rebirth in 2001. With the Timbers' season-opener in the 12-team United Soccer League First Division Saturday, April 21, at PGE Park against Puerto Rico, the players say they have bought into Wilkinson's rebuilding plan.
"Things are going to be way different from how [Agnello] ran it," says midfielder and Beaverton native Andrew Gregor. "Everything's organized, planned out and disciplined. It's a good environment right now, which has made things a lot different from last year."
Midfielder Tom Poltl agrees. "It's night and day as far as organization and competitiveness," he says. "Gavin has everyone on the same page. Last year it didn't seem like guys were competing for spots, or like you had to compete for spots."
At the park, fans will notice two major changes. One is a 13-by-26-foot video replay screen at the field's south end. Acknowledging that the money could have been spent replacing the stadium's aging field, Wilkinson says there's a plan for that, and besides, "We're in the entertainment business. The field has passed all the testing requirements."
The other difference is the Portland Timbers Official Supporters Club. With its official ties to the team, code of conduct, team-approved songs, dues and regular meetings, Wilkinson says it's an organized, family-friendly alternative to the large, loud and occasionally profane Timbers Army that has loyally supported the team.
"While we love the Timbers Army, we'd like to refine some of their behavior," says Wilkinson, at age 33 starting his first coaching job. "I pose that the language they're using is limiting the potential to bring in more and more kids. There are 60,000 kids playing soccer in Oregon, yet we're not getting many of them at the games."
So how will that behavior be refined? More police and security to enforce PGE Park's code of conduct, which specifically prohibits "abusive, threatening, vulgar language or gestures."
Some in the Army have bemoaned the team's attitude. The message boards at soccercityusa.com have rumbled with talk of boycotts, silent protests at games, and other reactions to PGE Park's decision to limit flagpoles to 3 feet.
Wilkinson insists the Official Supporters Club is not a "counter" to the Army but an alternative for families with kids.
Wilkinson doesn't think recent talk of Major League Soccer considering Portland for future expansion will hurt the Timbers. In fact, he believes the Timbers can almost triple their attendance to average as many as 15,000 people at PGE Park, whose capacity is just under 20,000. In part, that hope is based on the "Beckham Factor." English superstar David Beckham signed a five-year, $250 million contract to play for MLS' Los Angeles Galaxy.
Despite similar hype in years past over the import of soccer saviors (anybody remember how Pelé was going to spark a long-term attendance boom in the '70s?), Wilkinson thinks Beckham's accompanying hype can only help the sport in America beyond MLS.
"If he comes in and is successful, the hype will get bigger,'' Wilkinson says. "And with international teams, MLS may be taken more seriously, and you may get better exhibition games."
Speaking of which, the Timbers announced last week they'll play Necaxa, a league-champion team from Mexico, on May 9 at PGE Park.
Whether all of this will lead to bigger, happier crowds and a better record for the Timbers, as well as a path out of the chaos, will start to be apparent Saturday.