John Spencer’s term as head coach of the Portland Timbers came to an emotional end on Monday as the Scot paid the price for a poor season. Andrew Brawley penned a good piece on the reaction to the firing that everyone should check out.
Truth is there was little-to-no surprise about the move. Some disappointment, for sure, even some relief, but no shock. The writing was on the wall on Sunday when it was revealed that Monday’s training was closed to media, and sure enough, Merritt Paulson had taken the difficult decision to relieve Spencer of his duties.
John Spencer will forever be a part of Timbers history as their first ever MLS coach, and he gave the fans some great moments to remember. There’s no doubting his passion or drive to succeed, and I’m sure this won’t be his one and only foray into management, though he might be better serving the rest of his apprenticeship away from the glare of a top league where mistakes and deficiencies aren’t quite so conspicuous.
And it was those mistakes and deficiences that ultimately cost Spencer his job. I’d written in the past about how I thought he was starting to lose control and focus under the pressure that the Timbers’ stuttering second season had put him under.
On the pitch, Spencer didn’t show the development or improvement that myself and many other fans had hoped to see. The team failed to find another way to play beyond the old-school kick-and-rush tactics. Even Barcelona, arguably the greatest club side ever, have had to adapt or die, and we’re no Barcelona to rely on a Messi or Xavi to conjure something up.
Even when he did adopt a 0]”>4-3-3 against Real, it was in such a defensive and negative way that the only question in the match was how long the Timbers could hold out. It’d be easy to look back at that game now and see an ultimatum from Paulson delivered to Spencer that drove him to play in such a manner, but truth is I don’t think this was a decision reached over a result or two, especially against one of the league’s leading teams.
Indeed, Paulson made reference to “philosophical differences” in his statement, and that would seem to suggest that the problem wasn’t necessarily that the Timbers were losing (yet, bizarrely, were still within touching distance of the playoffs), but rather it was the way we were losing. The Timbers lost ugly, drew ugly and won ugly, a few exceptions aside.
There may have been a case to stick with John Spencer if there’d been signs that the team were trying to play good football, and players were developing, with young guys coming through. I don’t think either of these three points were being addressed.
The football belongs in another age. Spencer talks a good game, and it’s easy to get swept up with him, but the fact is that either the players didn’t do what he said, or he couldn’t figure out how to implement it. In trying to repeat what Dominic Kinnear has at Houston, where Spencer was assistant, he found out that Kinnear is actually pretty good at what he does. I’d thought Spencer perhaps needed an experienced guiding hand alongside him, but he never got it.
I’m not sure the young guys on the roster will be in mourning for long, either. While Nagbe has been a regular starter for the team, he’s the only player under 22 in the top ten of minutes played. Alhassan might have figured in that group had he not been injured for most of the season.
There’s actually a lot of experience in that top ten, with five bringing previous MLS experience to the table and many having played at international level. It’s not the “young guns” that some would have you believe. I don’t attend the U’23 games or Reserve matches, but those that do assure me that there are excellent prospects coming through.
The problem is that Spencer seemed unwilling to give them a chance, except when given no option as with Jean-Baptiste earlier in the year. When there was a crisis at right-back, Spencer didn’t turn to youth, he gave the job to a 31 year old midfielder. As the goals have singularly failed to flow, the kids weren’t given a shot until youth was bought in by signing Mwanga from Philadelphia.
It seems to have become a vicious cycle – the team weren’t winning so Spencer doesn’t want to risk the kids – but there comes a point when the old heads simply aren’t cutting it. I’d rather have a 20 year old make a honest mistake but learn from it and improve, than have a veteran simply stink.
It’s hard to see how the guys Spencer has been giving a chance to have developed. Nagbe burst onto the scene, but as he’s been leaned on more and more he’s on a Mwanga-esque career trajectory. Alhassan is every bit as inconsistent and mercurial as he ever was. Alexander has gone from the fringes of the national team to the fringes of the Timbers XI.
He’s been over-reliant on trusted players, and this has hurt him. Fitting Jewsbury into any XI, no matter what, is a problem. What Jack did in his first year for this club will live long in the memories of every Timbers fan, but there’s no escaping the fact that his performances have been on a slippery slope for some time now. Yet, he always played. Palmer – a solid MLS player at Houston and a Jamaican international – is arguably the single most frustrating player on the roster, given his poor ball control and almost sisyphean approach to long-range shooting, yet he’s been one of Spencer’s most picked players.
I don’t want to beat Spencer up too much though. He’s gone, and I’d prefer to see him off with a shake of the hand for his work. He made mistakes, sure, but he made them honestly. I wish him all the best for the future, but this was a decision that had to be made, and it’s as well to make it now.
When it became clear that Spencer wasn’t going to turn the ship around, there was no sense in keeping him here till the end of the season. It’s hard seeing how results would improve significantly, and having a lame duck manager does no-one any good. Better to make the call early, and give the next guy a chance to plan ahead for next season without coming in at the end of the year and finding himself months behind every other MLS club in preparation.
At Killie there was a manager who was stuck-in-his-ways, and played old school football. He’d gone stale. When he left midway through the season, the club hired an interim manager to see it out. He kept the club up on the last day, but was cut from the same cloth as his predecessor. He went, in came a completely new managerial team, who brought with them a revolution in style and methods, and led the club up the table and to a cup win. I can only glean hope from the parallels with the Timbers.
Speaking of interim managers, Gavin Wilkinson, the general manager, will take over from Spencer until a permanent replacement is found. Who that man will be is going to keep the rumour mill going for a while. I suspect it’ll be a manager with top flight experience this time. I’m not sure MLS experience is a must, but it may be that Paulson will want to “play safe” with this appointment and get a guy in who has managed here before.
But back to Wilkinson… His new role wasn’t met with a great deal of enthusiasm. I’d asked a while ago for thoughts on Wilkinson, and it seems apposite to finish this by posting one of these now.
By John Lawes
Watched from the North End during Gavin’s tenure as coach during the last of the USL years – and that’s all; no closer connection then that of a supporter in the stands. So anything I can provide is purely subjective. That said –
Gavin always seemed fairly hands-off on matchday. He wasn’t a shouter, like Spencer, much less aggro. He seemed to have a similar problem with substitutions, tho; his subs often seemed to let in more trouble than they solved.
He seemed to get on well with certain players, and those guys would play – in my opinion – often well past their sell-by date. That seemed especially true of his forwards and attacking mids. He stuck with several strikers, both in terms of minutes and in his adjustment or lack of same to the way their skills/styles fit into his tactical setup, after it was fairly obvious that other coaches had figured them out and had developed tactics to counter them.
As for his tactics, they were…ummm…a bit on the crude side, IMO. He seemed to like to play pretty direct, hoof-it-up, Route 1 style football. We always figured that this was a Kiwi thing.
And in particular, he seemed to have little or no interest, or patience, for Latino players. I don’t recall any Hispanic player getting significant minutes or having any particular success during his tenure.
His single honor during his tenure was winning the league in 2009. But this is deceptive on two counts; first, because this being American soccer the actual “winning” the USL-1 meant nothing other than a first round bye (and then a speedy exit at the hands of our old enemies Vancouver), and, second, because even with the unbeaten streak Gav’s team fell apart at the wrong time. Going into September the team had four losses. Over the next four weeks the side managed to win two, draw one (the final match against Vancouver that, with the Timbers down 2-1 from the first leg, meant elimination), and lose five.
Overall, Gavin’s coaching seemed, well, like a decent club- or lower-division professional-level level; never particularly brilliant but typically never disastrous. Cautious would be the word I’d use. Befitting a former defender his backline was usually solid. His midfield and forwards, not so much. And the Timbers of Gavin’s time never seemed to be able to find a way to beat the teams they needed to beat. For all that his payroll was never immense Gav never seemed to find a way to use the attacking players he had to their best advantage; he tended to find a formula – a lineup or a tactic – and stick with it even after the results began to fade. He muled his striker Keita in 2009; the guy scored a league-high 14 goals in the first half of the season, but after July? Nada. The next year, the last USL year, Gav did the same thing with Ryan Pore; fed him the ball and enjoyed the results in the spring and early summer…but by August and September the guy wasn’t scoring – everyone else in the league had figured out how to put a body on him and mark him out of the match – and Gavin never adjusted. Sounds a little familiar?