Good Times, Bad Times

Timbers fans who tune in to the Rapids – Sounders match today may see a familiar face as John Spencer attends the game. Spencer’s links to Colorado run much deeper than those to Portland, or Houston.

Portland gave him his first opportunity as head coach, and it was in Houston he had mentored under Dom Kinnear for four years, but the Rapids had been the Scot’s first port of call in the US and it’s a place where he is still held in high regard.

Enough time has passed now for Spencer to have cleared his head and depressurised after an eighteen month run in the north west that had promised much, but had delivered far too infrequently. No doubt he’ll be looking to get back in the game. Soccer is his life, and the States are his home, it seems.

I half expected him to turn up on his half-brother Billy Davies’ staff at Nottingham Forest, giving him a foothold in England where his relative failure in MLS wouldn’t have garnered much attention. A fresh start. Who knows it may still happen, but by all accounts Spencer is still based Stateside, and I’m sure by now the itch is there to get involved in the game again. I don’t think he’d expect another head coach job, and I doubt he’ll want to do it at a lower level, so getting back into coaching seems like a natural move for Spencer who was, by all accounts, a very good coach at Houston.

Colorado would be a natural place for him to find his footing. Oscar Pareja has been in charge there for a year, and from his previous time as player, and then assistant, in Dallas, he’d know Spencer pretty well, and I’m sure the fans wouldn’t mind the return of a club legend.

I don’t know whether Spencer still harbours ambitions of being a head coach in MLS again, but it may be that his strength is in being an assistant. There’s nothing wrong in that; it might not carry the glamour of the top job, but neither does it put him under the microscope and the skill of working with the guys on a daily basis is one that many managers don’t possess.

In almost two years in Blackburn, playing almost 30 games more, there was another coach with a fine reputation taking his first steps into management. Steve Kean replaced Sam Allardyce in 2010, taking over Rovers during a period in the club’s history that is brought to you by the Benny Hill theme. Venky’s, the club’s new owners, tinkered with their new toy, in many ways handicapping Kean, before the situation became untenable last September.

That contrasts dramatically with Spencer’s position at Portland which, if anything, afforded him too much power and a hands off approach. Well, except when giving him line up suggestions.

Kean’s reign ended with a 28.4% (1.07 PPG) win rate, a shade lower than Spencer’s 31.1% (1.2 PPG), but the prevailing sense was that both men were out of their depth.

Kean’s reputation is more poisonous in the UK than Spencer’s is Stateside. There’s a sense that Spencer was just a good, honest coach who gave it a go but, due to a variety of factors, it never worked out for either party. The way Kean got the top job, his drunken meetings with fans and the poor performances of the team he took down have left a sour taste in the mouth, and it’s hard to see any fans warming to the idea of him on the training ground. And what manager would want him standing behind him after what happened to Big Sam…?

But Kean can travel. He’s worked in Spain before, and is a fluent Portuguese speaker, so he could always take his talents to Europe, as Spencer could, or to the UK at least.

If Spencer were to take a job back in MLS, photographers would be ringing the first time he’d be on the opposite bench to Caleb Porter on their calendars. It’s probably a distraction neither man would particularly welcome, but it may be one that’s on the horizon sooner rather than later.

Porter, like Kean, is someone whose playing career is a footnote to their achievements in the coaching sphere but, unlike Kean, he brings to his first “big” job an experience of being the head coach at college and youth international level. In this regard he differs Kean as he has very little in common with his predessecor in the Rose City.

The name that comes to mind when I think of Caleb Porter, in the way that Steve Kean does when I think of John Spencer, is Roberto Martinez.

Injury didn’t curtail Martinez’s playing career as it did Porter’s, but he never played at the top level. The bulk of his career was spent at Wigan Athletic, then in the third and fourth tiers of English football, but he earned a reputation as a big favourite and stand-out player.

His first steps into management were in the third tier, with Swansea City. A straight line can be traced back from team currently playing in the Premier League to what Martinez did in his 28 months in Wales. He left with the Swans comfortable in mid-table in the Championship and took over from Steve Bruce at Wigan in the Premier.

Interestingly, or not, his 29.2% win rate (1.14 PPG) is in the same range as Spencer’s and Kean’s, though if Porter were to repeat Martinez’s 50% win rate at Swansea, he win more games this year alone than Spencer ever did.

Martinez took over from Steve Bruce, and it would be fair to say that there is a bit of a difference in style between one man and the next. One, the ex-player who plays some unashamedly old fashioned football, and the other younger guy who brings a philosophy on how the game should be played and looks to get his team playing beautiful, but effective football, limited resources be damned.

Sound familiar?

Porter has an advantage over Martinez in that the gap from bottom to top in terms of finances is much less in MLS than it is in the Premier League, and I would hope, and expect, Porter to hiave a higher win percentage than the Spanish manager. We’re just in that period of the season where Wigan attempt a great escape from relegation, though results today weren’t kind to them. Martinez has had opportunities to move away, and up, from Wigan but has stuck with the club, completing his fourth season in charge, in much the same way that Porter stuck with the Zips when DC United came calling.

It’s hard to see how Martinez could take Wigan any further than he has. It’s not a football town in truth, with rugby being a bigger draw. He’ll always lose his best players to bigger, richer clubs, and the best he can hope for is a day out at Wembley now and then, or to go into the last stretch of the season in comfortable mid-table for a change.

The opposite is true for Porter. Portland is very much a soccer town. It’s “Soccer City USA” is more than a catchy phrase, it’s a way of life for many round here. And though the Kris Boyd experiment didn’t work out last year, Merritt Paulson and the Timbers front office have shown themselves willing to bet big on their man, even if there’s a sense that, for now at least, things have been reined in a bit in that regard.

Comfortable mid-table is the least Porter will be looking for. The nature of the playoff system means that mid-table is often enough to secure the silverwear at the end of thhe season, but Porter’s entire system and philosophy doesn’t accomodate settling for “just enough”.

With Martinez I get the sense that we’re only at the start of what will be a fine managerial career, just as I do with Porter. I’m excited that it will be in Portland, and a silverware-laden three or four years would suit both parties just nicely, should Porter wish to take his career on to a different stage. And just as the DNA of what Martinez started in Swansea is clearly evident in that team today, so I hope that what we’re seeing is more than just here and gone when the next guy inevitably comes in at some point. If you spend four years eating sirloin steaks and kobe beef every weekend, going back to Big Macs is going to be a bit of a culture shock.

With Martinez, Spencer and Kean, we can only wait to see what their next move is, but Porter is only at the start of his journey, and it’s one we all get to ride along with. Where it takes us no-one can know, but at least there’s a sense that we have a road map this time.

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3 thoughts on “Good Times, Bad Times

  1. Nice article, Kevin. I really hope Porter stays a good long time. In truth, if Merritt Paulson has the choice of throwing bags of money at a DP, I hope instead he throws it at Caleb Porter.

    Just for argument, though, how do you think Porter would do if he went over to the UK?

  2. wow, nice read. it’s good to get a dose of the state of things on the other side of the pond, even though the US (seattle specifically) invented soccer.

    Thanks!

  3. Kevin,

    I love the website you’ve build and that the columns aren’t written by robots. In regards to Caleb Porter, I think it is important for everyone in Portland to understand what makes him different from every other coach in MLS and how that affects the timbers. Caleb Porter is the ONLY known coach in the United States who executes set tactical work, or choreography, with a high degree if success. Set tactical work, meaning the choreographed movement of players through all phases of a game, is absent from US soccer from youth to pro. When people talk about “Porter ball”, they are refereeing to the patters of play they see in Timbers players under Caleb Porter. Without set tactical work being done, teams rely soling on athleticism, competitiveness, and 50/50 luck. The exact opposite of good set tactical work looks something like San Jose.
    I was thrilled Porter came to Portland and hope he can educate not just our community but the country on how actual coaching works. I have seen him train and he defiantly has the tactical chops that lead to his players executing his vision. However, Caleb’s future success will reley on his ability to learn from mistakes and identify his weaknesses. From his days at Akron to the U-23s, and now with the Timbers it is obvious he needs help in at least one specific area: PLAYER SELECTION. There are an incredible amount of players in this country who can execute his vision more precisely than the players he selects, the problem is, most of them aren’t in the incumbent American soccer community clubhouse. Unfortunately he is either blind to the talent, or doesn’t seem to have the balls it takes to pick up an 18 year old kid from a local Hispanic league or high school.
    Secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, he seems to be somewhat shaky in his philosophy, which is a byproduct of an incomplete vision and/or poorly aligned worldview. My biggest fear, however, is perhaps he came to Portland to do what so many people do… Become a Hipster.

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