Has Spencer Lost It?

There will be few of a Timbers persuasion who will look back on the the first few months of the 2012 season with anything other than a grimace/rueful shake of the head depending on how the year turns out. It has not been good. At all.

Midway through May the performances and results have been poor and the team find themselves propping up the Western Conference with almost a third of the season gone.

Such is the atmosphere around the club that Merritt Paulson’s trip to Munich for the Champions League final drew the ire of some. You can guarantee that a winning team’s fans don’t particularly care if their team owner is out of town on a jolly, missing a grand total of one game in a season. But when the results aren’t good…

Many fans are asking hard questions of Paulson and the Timbers front office, or of the players of the pitch. It doesn’t diminish their support, but neither does support mean tough questions shouldn’t be asked.

The question that’s been nagging away at the back of my head for a while now isn’t about Paulson, a guy whose love for the club I do not question, or Gavin Wilkinson, a General Manager with no MLS experience, or even the players, who I think are giving their best under the circumstances. No, the question that’s been on my mind is this –

What the hell is up with John Spencer?

Hiring a manager with no experience of the top job was always a risk, especially without experienced back-up, but I felt that last year Spencer had shown some signs of progress. He’s certainly enthusiastic and engaging. On the pitch there were a few missteps, but as long as lessons are learned, then that’s fine. No-one expected trophies from the get-go.

The thing is that this year it doesn’t seem like the lessons of last year have been learned after all. The team seem to make the same mistakes, over and over and over again.

The last few weeks have been especially concerning for me as Spencer’s words and actions seem to indicate a manager who is, frankly, out of his depth.

Last month saw James Marcelin waived in a move that took many by surprise, but the real headscratcher was a couple of lines in the press release that gave the reason for Marcelin’s dismissal as “non-soccer-related“, and that the club had “a high level of professional expectations for all its players”.

Now, most fans are aware of the rumours about Marcelin, and few would describe the Haitian as a model professional, but quite why the club felt the need to include such a pointed, yet vague, dig at Marcelin is unclear.

Spencer undoutedly had very little to do with the wording of the press release, but Marcelin’s comments since getting picked up by FC Dallas that the Scot “doesn’t let you [play your game]” because “he’s just yelling all the time” probably points towards a personality clash that would’ve certainly hastened Marcelin’s departure.

The thing is, if the Timbers had simply said that Marcelin was surplus to requirements, and they felt the roster spot would be better utilised elsewhere, few would’ve batted an eyelid. Marcelin had never really commanded a place in the Timbers XI, and his effectiveness as a “closer” was questionable, at best. The little petty dig struck me, ironically enough, as rather unbecoming of a professional outfit.

Shortly after Marcelin’s departure, Spencer addressed Eric Alexander’s absence from the team with a very candid spiel on the midfielder’s application.

As he told the press, “[Eric] has been given an opportunity to play and is not playing to the best of his ability that we know how he can play. He needs to realize … that when you get the opportunity to play you’ve got to take it with both hands. Play well and stay in the team.”

This again caused eyebrows to raise among Timbers fans. Alexander, it should be noted, currently leads the club in assists. The last goal scored by a Timber came from an Alexander assist. Alexander isn’t playing, the Timbers aren’t scoring. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

Spencer sees Alexander in training every day – he knows more about him than any of us fans could hope to, so in some respects you have to bow to his insider knowledge. Perhaps Eric isn’t giving enough in training. Perhaps there is more to come from him. I wouldn’t dare to profess any great insight into whether Eric Alexander isn’t doing his best.

My issue is that publicly calling someone out isn’t, to my mind, the way to get more effort from that person. What sort of message does it send to other players as well that a manager under pressure and facing questions about his own performance is going to throw one of his (better) players out there as not doing enough?

There are those who’ll say that Spencer is just answering the question honestly. Hey, I can respect that. The meaningless clichés of football are one of my big bugbears. But I’d say that the place for blunt “honesty” is the locker room, not in front of the assembled press. You can be honest and diplomatic at the same time.

It doesn’t seem that Spencer’s public pep-talk has done much to improve Alexander’s efforts as he’s since been limited to cameo appearances, while Lovel Palmer has settled in at centre midfield. There are some who’d read Spencer’s “play well and stay in the team” line and then look at the team sheet with eyebrows raised so high they’d be halfway down the back of the neck.

The last couple of matches have at least seen the team come together defensively and put in some good shifts at the back, keeping two clean sheets back-to-back. Something to be applauded. A great foundation to build upon.

The problem has been that the team has offered very little in attack. It’s over 7 hours since a Timber put the ball in the net.

John Spencer, speaking to Timbers Insider, addressed fans concerns about a lack of attacking midfielders with a dismissive “square pegs in round holes” dig. “You’re just putting a blindfold on and throwing a dart at a dartboard and hopefully it comes up trumps. We’re not coaching [youth soccer] where you can do what you want. We’re a professional level, you’ve got to play the players in the positions that they’re accustomed to.”

Take that fans. You know nothing. Now run along, there’s a dear.

If any fans had eyebrows left, reading that has probably shot them off into near-Earth orbit. “Play the players in the positions that they’re accustomed to.” Really, John? You’re actually using that line?

I suppose you mean guys like Diego Chara, the winger? Or Jack Jewsbury, the attacking midfielder? Or Rodney Wallace, the footballer winger?

Either Spencer is forgetful, or he’s a hypocrite. He’s the guy that’s been playing players out of position, consistently. That’s the problem.

There are few who believe that Nagbe’s rightful position is up top. His best work has come from deeper positions, when he can get turned, get his head up and run with the ball. Yet he’s found himself leading the line, or even out wide.

The passive-aggressive tone of Spencer’s reply is that of the age-old defence – if you’ve not done it yourself, you can’t possibly be qualified to talk about it. Yeah, I don’t get paid to do this (I actually pay for the privilege with hosting costs), nor do I have coaching badges or experience of playing beyond school’s level, but don’t insinuate that I don’t know what I, other fans, don’t know what we’re seeing.

I don’t have to have directed a blockbuster movie to know that Battleship is a steaming crock of shit. I don’t have to have written and performed a Top 10 hit to know that Justin Bieber is the greatest single threat to humanity since the invention of the A-Bomb.

And I don’t have to have managed a professional team (or youth soccer – hey youth soccer coaches, you suck too!) to know that this isn’t good enough, and you haven’t shown anything to suggest that you have any idea how to fix it.

To the list of unprofessional players, players who aren’t working hard enough, and an overabundance of square pegs, you can add “too many young players” to the list of reasons why the Timbers are underachieving this year.

“”I think we are underachieving when it comes to getting good service [to the attackers],” Spencer said to OregonLive.com. “We are inconsistent in that department. But that comes from having young players. They’re going to have inconsistencies.”

Well, I for one am glad that’s been sorted out. We’re not scoring because we have too many young players, not because we lack an attacking midfielder, or we’re benching our leading assist creator. It’s the young players!

Which is, quite frankly, horse shit. Freshly laid, steaming equine manure.

Let’s look at the numbers. The average age of the Timbers starting midfield and attack in the last tow matches is over 25. Only one player, Nagbe, could reasonably be tagged as “young”. Rodney Wallace, the next youngest at 23, has over 60 MLS starts to his name.

Meanwhile, at DC United – a team that have scored 22 in 13 matches, compared to the Timbers 9 in 10 – four of their most used midfield and attackers are 22 or under. The average age of their 7 most used midfielders and attackers comes in at a full year younger than the Timbers “kids” (a little over 24) – and that includes Dwayne De Rosario, a player so old he still remembers when everything was black and white. Take DeRo out of the mix and the average age crashes below 23. Nagbe is a veteran in that set up.

I’m not buying it, John.

Now, you could certainly make the case that Spencer had little or nothing to do with the Marcelin press release, and argue that Spencer’s comments about Alexander are just a sign of the man’s honesty and willingness to give a straight answer but the last two examples are the most worrying to me.

These are the words of a manager who either doesn’t realise the problems the team faces, or doesn’t know how to right them. The passive-aggressive obfuscation of the fans legitimate concerns is getting old, fast.

It seems that whenever the pressure is on the manager, and questions are asked, the answer is the same: it’s the players. They’re not doing enough, or they’re inconsistent or too young. There’s always someone else to blame. Luck, referees, conditions. The list of excuses is as long as it is fatuous.

I might not know the answer of who to put the Timber back on track, but then it’s not my job to. It’s John Spencer’s, and if he doesn’t even understand the question in the first place, that’s not just worrying, it’s downright terrifying.

Tomorrow the Timbers face Chicago and have a chance to lay a marker down for the rest of the season. The rot stops here, and the goals will flow. No-one will be happier to see John Spencer turn it round, you might be surprised to hear, than me. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I’m starting to lose faith in the man in charge.

I firmly believe we have the players to go out and play a creatively attacking game, while remaining defensively responsible. Whether Spencer will let his young square pegs go out and do it is another matter.

#RCTID through the good times and, especially, the bad.

16 thoughts on “Has Spencer Lost It?

  1. Thank you for so eloquently putting into words what I’ve been feeling since Marcelin was released. Hopefully all turns out well, and the irritant nature of Spencer’s statements will fade. Otherwise they may prove to be a poignant indication of a manager truly out of touch with reality.

  2. Lots of eyebrow raising going on. The first one that pushed my receding hair line back was the dismissal of Trevor James. He was the only one that had substantial MLS experience. The cryptic note on his dismissal and his replacement made me think John’s looking for yes men. Is that why Lovell is in there every game, regardless of performance? Great analysis. If they’d just let us play a 4-4-3, we could take the league. Young square pegs and all.

  3. I understand a lot of your concerns but you taking the eye off Wilkinson is where I differ. For example the Marcelin stuff. That’s classic Wilkinson toss the player under the bus type of stuff. Everyone around in the USL days is well aware of how Gavin runs the club. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gavin is telling Spencer how to coach and I’m not even kidding.

  4. Well said. Funny thing is we said all of this about Gavin when he was manager as well who seemed to positevly enjoy throwing players under the bus. So is Spenny his own man or merely reflecting the personality of his boss?

    Regardless the players and Spencers comments today about service into the box shows an alarming lack of any sophistication : “Lump it in there from wide positions and something will happen”. Does central midfield not even exist in Spennys world?

    1. That was a bit odd. Putting it into dangerous areas and letting strikers attack it is fine if you’re head down and under pressure out wide, but if you can get your head up you really should be picking someone out and delivering it for them to attack. It’s little wonder the teams successful cross percentage is embarrassingly low.

      1. I agree. The crossing is awful, simply because nobody picks out a target. Look at Rosales’ cross for one of Seattle’s goals yesterday – he picks his head up and chooses where to put the ball. There’s a reason why our crosses seem to be “inches away from contact”.

        Also, I’m bookmarking this so I can read it over and over. The first thing I thought about when I read the “square pegs” quote was everything stated here.

      2. Zizzo last year seemed to be picking his crosses. Hope he starts getting more playing time and keeps that going. Cross (your fingers) and hope is not doing us much good. Find out more in a few hours.

  5. Also if you noticed in Spencer’s comments that you changed to “youth” clubs. In the original comment before you changed it he said Eastside United. If you didn’t know that’s Gavin’s personal youth program he started. I suppose I might be reading into that but I sort of saw it as a dig. He meant, “I am being given square pegs to fit into round holes by Gavin and that’s not how it works at this level.”

    1. Hadn’t caught that little nugget to be honest. I often wonder about JS/GW. It seems Spencer has his idea about what sort of team he wants, and GW has his and they don’t always seem to be on the same page.

  6. honestly, the last five weeks have given me more faith in spencer, not less. in mls particularly, when your team is clueless the first step is to get organized defensively and string a few draws together, build confidence, then figure out how the hell to score goals. its what bruce arena did when he took over for gullit (i think they drew something like 9 games in a row right away).

    i think spencer checked his pride big time in the mtl game (not so much in skc but it took balls to play for a nil nil draw in mtl) and i think he knows the timeline is behind what’s advertised (playoffs!). we deserved a draw in mtl, skc and chicago played well enough to earn draws – so that’s 5 of the last 5 where we deserved draws – got lucky on two, not so lucky on one. its pretty clear spencer wants to play a flat 4-4-2 but he doesn’t have the horses.

    he has a lot of faults in my mind (lack of tactical flexibility, anointing jewsbury our captain for life, etc) but i think he does deserve some credit for recognizing that he doesn’t have the right players and shoring up the defense to buy the FO time.

  7. Couple of notes after the Chicago match;

    1. I thought it was interesting to see who was wearing the armband. No Cap’n Lovell? Hmmm…

    2. Why do Spencer’s wingers (and I’m looking principally at you, Songo’o) constantly drift through the middle? It’s not like we are playing many passes THROUGH the middle…

    3. I would have brought Zizzo on at the half hour; Songo’o’s inability to track back meant that Chabala was getting hammered.

    4. I love Wallace’s energy and the fact that he will shoot from distance; I hate his wastefulness – damn it, if you’re going to shoot, put it on frame!

    5. Palmer is where passes go to die.

    6. I thought that Zizzo and Perlaza played some damn smart ball late in the match; Zizzo would gain possession, throw a long ball behind Chicago’s pressing backs down the touchline, and then Perlaza would burn across and pressure their keeper into kicking away into touch. I don’t usually associate this squad with “smart”, so that was nice to see.

    7. Why does it seem so difficult for anyone on this Timbers side to shield the ball? I wish I had a nickel for every time we get a “tackled – possession lost” in the attacking half.

    OK, enough whining. Great, gritty match, two goals off set-pieces (finally!) and some tough defensive play for the three points. Onward, Rose City!

  8. Another tidbit I found: Chabala confirmed he is left-footed on Timbers in 30, while Spencer justified his RB substitution because he was right-footed. Another case of playing out of position or simply not knowing his own players? I know we didn’t have another option at the time, but Spencer’s incorrect comment got to me.

  9. This weekend has probably put the general public’s interest in this problem on the back burner. But even this match left me with some questions about Spencer’s ability to read a match.

    Why did he let Songo’o wander about for an entire half? It left Chabala badly exposed and the entire right flank open defensively. He seems to be busy all match shouting at people – why doesn’t this seem to take the form of directing traffic or, if it does, why doesn’t it seem to have any visible effect? The Zizzo substitution was effective, but why not earlier?

    And the overall questions remain; why does Spencer seem unable, or unwilling, to address weaknesses that are so visible that pretty much every outside analyst that looks at the team sees them? This season’s problems don’t seem to be a “whodunnit”. There are pretty obvious ways to deal with them, but Spencer seems to want to insist that he’s right and everyone else is wrong. That’s fine if you’re doing some seriously arcane footy genius, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

    Mind you, there’s a history full of precedent for a certain type of Scot preferring to be right rather than successful…

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