John Spencer: Taking The High Road

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?

5 thoughts on “John Spencer: Taking The High Road

  1. I just wanted to point out that the 2009 team fell apart because Cameron Knowles, our starting CB, broke his leg very late in the season and the team was not the same heading into the last few games and playoffs

  2. This seems like much the same opinion I have of Gavin’s coaching. I don’t know about him having any problems with Hispanic players and has been responsible for signing many Hispanic players to the team since becoming GM. The first thing I said to my friend was we should bring Dike back so we can play Gavin’s offense. I read today that he is back and I just hope there is a three foot rule in practice. Gavin’s offense is kick the ball downfield and have Dike take everybody out near the ball and the goal. If you didn’t think Spencer was nimble with tactics then Gavin
    is a nightmare. I do love watching the opposing defenses bounce off Dike I just hope Boyd can teach him how to finish. Spencer was definitely a better coach than Gavin but I hope I am wrong. I just hope a fire was lite under this team and we hustle for the full 90. RCTID

  3. I posted this (edited here), on Stumptown Footy, and thought it might provide an alternative view.

    I’ve met Gavin on occasion earlier in his career here, through mutual friends. He really is a nice person. I’ve been watching the Timbers since opening day 2001. Not every game, and not as a TA and rabid consumer of Timbers tidbits until last year, but I’ve had plenty of time watching Gavin develop. His wife and kids used to hang out during the games, in one of the suites that was once dedicated as a kids play area…truly lovely people.

    Enough personal stuff… IMO you don’t become a player/Assistant Coach, move on to Head Coach, and continue to improve by stringing a record number of wins together in a season and doing very well in a professional league, by stagnating or not improving . The fact that he was chosen as GM in the first place shows me how impressed Merritt was with his resume, and potential for growth. He has shown an ability to learn and improve in every situation he’s been in. True he’s never coached at this level, but he wasn’t a GM at this level before last year. His record there isn’t perfect, but he has brought in some great players, and worked very hard to improve the team, as Kevin has recently pointed out in a previous post regarding player trades and acquisitions.

    He’ll get plenty of locker room support as the dust settles, and he won’t kamikaze the team in the remainder of the season. He’s a defense first kind of guy, being a former defender himself. I for one, don’t mind building from a strong defense, especially if we can avoid 3-0 losses at any further away games.

    He might have a chance of turning the ship a wee bit if we give him a chance, Merritt thinks he’s fit for the interim job, I’m on his side and agree with those who don’t understand the tide against GW. Some have mentioned in Stumptown Footy posts his throwing players under the bus, I didn’t follow the players that closely previous to the MLS era. Perhaps they can elaborate on which players and what happened.

    As for me, GW is in a crap position, and got dealt a crap hand. He’s been tasked to coach the team, and isn’t in a position, even if he does well, to gain the role himself, even if he wanted it. He still will have GM duties overlapping regardless of the assistant coaches. If the team does worse for the remainder of the season his GM position is potentially at risk. So I see huge downside for him with very little upside IMO. I for one like him, and support him and hope he can keep things moving in a better direction.

  4. One thing I’ve noted over the past couple of seasons is that Dike hasn’t had the same success taking on MLS-size backs as he did in the USL. Still love the guy, but not sure if pushing the ball to him and expecting him to crash the defense will work like it did for Gav when they did it in USL.

    And I’ll agree that losing Cam was a big factor in 2009, but another was that by that time we had stopped scoring, as well, and just as with losing Knowles from the backline there was no Plan B; could have been simply the fact that then, as now, the team was thin and once past the regular starters the quality fell off considerably; “Bobcat” Goldthwaite was no Cam Knowles. But whatever the reason the results were pretty dire.

  5. Style? It should be called “no style” futbol. I’ve been a victim of such Anglo-centric coaching as a youth in Oregon. No creativity, no flair, no ball skills, just boot and run and foul every chance you get. Sounds like OSU and OYSA under Jimmy Conway? The Latino and the larger immigrant (especially African) communities of Oregon were kept from participating for three reasons. One, language/cultural barrier. Two, Economic barrier to playing high level youth soccer. Three, xenophobia at the management level.
    Woodburn high school winning the 5a state title two years in a row is a testament to the struggles of the Latino community for recognition. I watch a lot of high school soccer and it seems like some coaches in rural cities with large Latino communities just won’t play Latinos or have one token Latino guy on the team. These teams seem to languish in the bottom of leagues, while coaches who have integrated their teams are having much more success. And that’s what Futbol is all about.
    We need leaders to start integrating soccer communities in the NW not further divide them like they have in the past.

    I want to see more Latinos on the team who reflect the large communities from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.

    Its my guess that Gavin will also be let go at the end of the season. And that Spencer was in the way of getting rid of Gavin.
    I nominate Claudio Reyna for coach of the Timbers.

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