The Portland Timbers fell 5-3 to the Los Angeles Galaxy this past Saturday night, an ignominious MLS introduction for newly appointed interim manager Gavin Wilkinson.
Assuming the dual role of general manager and now head coach following John Spencer’s dismissal the Monday prior, the New Zealander’s approach varied little from what sent the Scot packing, an intentionally congested midfield doing little to stop the onslaught from the club with the league’s second highest payroll.
The Galaxy’s three biggest stars shone brightest at the venue that has become a media darling in its own right, JELD-WEN Field and its ever present atmosphere of the Timbers Army overcome by braces from David Beckham and Robbie Keane bookending a penalty kick goal from Landon Donovan.
Timbers striker Kris Boyd did his best impersonation of a world class star, netting a pair of goals to both start and finish the scoring in the match, newly signed defender Kosuke Kimura notching the other goal in an eight goal festival of football.
An enjoyable game for the neutral, Wilkinson will not be enjoying the result after his side shipped five goals, the highest goal tally conceded at home by a Timbers team since a 2005 loss to the Rochester Rhinos, when the Kiwi was still a player for the then 2nd division edition of the club.
If there’s any consolation the once and current gaffer can offer his players in the aftermath of his disastrous debut in the top flight, it’s that he’s experienced worse, given that Timbers team were also shut out in that lower division defeat, and against much lesser opposition than what his side faced at the weekend.
The former Timbers defender was seen a liability in that match with the team down 3-nil at the break, removed at halftime for another club legend in Scott Benedetti. Wilkinson made his first foray into management as player/coach a couple of seasons later, and he would have liked the option of substituting himself off at halftime against the Galaxy, first half goals from Boyd and Kimura not looking near enough to surmount LA’s formidable lead at the interval.
The match, which had started so brightly as Kalif Alhassan picked out Boyd for the opener in the 3rd minute, was soon doomed to failure for the hosts in a ten minute stretch where LA simply dismantled the Portland defense with four goals.
For a team playing under a new manager known for his defensive qualities and tactics from his time as a player, coach, and general manager in the lower level era of the club, this was hardly the sort of change owner Merritt Paulson was hoping for when he relieved Spencer of his duties only a week ago.
Unsurprisingly, Beckham was the star of the show, notching the equalizer in the 19th minute as multiple midfielders sat back and watched in awe at the Englishman’s technique, a curving blast from outside the area giving Troy Perkins no chance as it tucked into the side netting after passing just below the crossbar.
What was surprising was the time and space Beckham was afforded in the buildup, no one taking responsibility to close him down before he launched a rocket similar to the one he scored against the Timbers in LA back in April. For a team that brought a similar defensive setup to the 3-nil loss at Real Salt Lake, no transfer of knowledge was apparent as lessons went unlearned in another shambolic display of defending.
Newcomer Kimura, who looked serviceable in his road debut a week before as one of few positives from that match, was unfortunate to give up a foul on Donovan in dangerous territory, which offered Beckham the chance to give the Galaxy the lead. Perhaps inspired by his recent omission from Great Britain’s Olympic squad, he wasted no time dispatching another trademark free kick over a wall that appeared miniature in the replay, putting LA in front in the 24th minute.
The night got worse for Kimura just three minutes later when, caught napping on a throw in, he clumsily bowled over LA’s Michael Stephens to earn Donovan the opportunity to pad the visitors’ lead, which he subsequently did with a direct effort from the penalty spot.
That advantage gained added insurance just a minute later, a rampant Donovan steamrolling David Horst at the sideline and then bursting into space down the flank. Left alone to his own devices, the captain’s eye was as astute as ever, picking out the barnstorming run of Keane who tapped in from close range.
Kimura was thankful to make some amends before the break, a Boyd set piece shot bobbled by former Timbers netminder in the Galaxy goal giving the Japanese defender just what he needed as he brought Portland back within two with a tally in the 34th minute.
In need of offense, Wilkinson made his first change when he removed the ineffectual Lovel Palmer for first year player Brent Richards, the lively forward offering a speedy alternative alongside the poaching style of Boyd.
And while Kimura’s goal provided some measure of hope, things looked forlorn again a half hour later in the match, Keane notching his second and LA’s fifth in the 64th minute after the Irishman was put through by Sean Franklin, who was released down the wing by the influential Beckham.
The goal appeared to be a death blow to the home crowd, yet the resilient Timbers kept fighting as Boyd was again the man behind the ball when a set piece opportunity arose, Danny Mwanga entering the fray for Alhassan as the Scot lined up his shot. The setup was a repeat of the first, only this time a charging Galaxy player deflected Boyd’s ball just enough to wrongfoot Saunders and breathe life into Portland’s chances as the ball hit the back of the net in the 70th minute.
That sliver of hope soon became a festering wound, however, Wilkinson rearing the ugly head of Spencer’s conservatism in a game with nary a chance of recovering. The manager waited until the 90th minute to offer Portland another offensive outlet, inexplicably bringing on Sal Zizzo late on for the visibly listless Darlington Nagbe.
What purpose a last minute substitution would serve a team down by two in the late going was befuddling to observers, the move deemed too little too late when the earlier inclusion of Zizzo’s crossing caliber offered at the least the inherent benefit of fresh legs.
Wilkinson gamely took the brunt of the criticism for the loss on his shoulders, saying the team endured a lot of change during the match buildup, yet the major change in the coach’s box did little to instill confidence in anyone involved with the club.
While it’s only one game, and against the West’s most affluent team and defending champions to boot, the Timbers showed they have the attacking qualities, particularly at set pieces, to challenge the best in MLS. While the Galaxy are struggling defensively in the absence of Omar Gonzalez, three goals conceded to Portland the most recent evidence, they resort to offense to curb their woes at the back.
The win was a measure of revenge for LA, who were run off the park when Portland won 3-nil last year at this same stadium, one of former manager Spencer’s most famous wins. For the dejected Wilkinson, three goals was not enough to save him from what will certainly go down as one of the club’s most infamous losses.
Given the chance to steer the Timbers in a new direction that might highlight the team’s strengths, instead Wilkinson trodded out a tired old formula that produced predictable results. Whether Spencer was fired for philosophical differences or lack of results, it’s Wilkinson who co-assembled the team’s talent and is now charged with realizing its potential under a different doctrine.
Based on the defeat to the Galaxy, he’ll need to realize that for all of Paulson’s patience, losing badly is not the way to curry favor with one’s employer. If he wants to retain his position in the front office in the offseason, he’d do well to begin the interview for a long term manager now to take himself out of the glare the Galaxy put on his managerial inadequacies in his first division debut.
Facing a two game road stretch with matches away to Chivas USA and FC Dallas this week, Wilkinson needs to show he won’t follow in Spencer’s footsteps on the Timbers’ travels. To do so, he must face the challenge of turning a team that gets homesick into one that can sleep as soundly on the road as they do in their own beds, and quickly put to rest the nightmarish start to his temporary tenure.