PORTLAND, Ore. –
John Spencer’s job had been on the line for weeks, if you believed reports. That certainly seemed to be the case on June 24, when a home win over Seattle brought word the then-Timbers’ head coach had thanked his players for saving his job.
If true, the thanks seemed more like a joke than a confession. Why acknowledge the rumors? There was no feeling of besiegement around the Timbers – the kind of environment you see as relationships between ownership, staff, players (and sometimes, media) break apart. Take a man from L.A., drop him at training in Beaverton, he wouldn’t have been able to sense anything was wrong.
The home-road results might have had something to do with that. When Portland were in town, they were a happy team. Putting up a 5-2-2 (W-L-T) record at JELD-WEN Field, the Timbers always had reason to give the locals a happy face. Away from home, the Timbers were 0-6-2. Still, most of that frustration seeped out on the plane. Add in an off day after returning hope, and then next face the Timbers showed was one of determination: We’ve got to stop being Edward Hyde on the road.
The duality meant Spencer’s termination was always going surprise, even if the move had been rumored. With players content and the Timbers Army scarves up on Morrison Avenue, there was sense of Portlandia-irony to the circling vultures circling. They seemed out of place. Maybe vultures are a thing in Portland now?
The checklist, however – the mental list you go through when assessing whether a coach might be in trouble – didn’t single out Spencer. Results, ideas, attitude, relationships – Spencer wasn’t failing on all fronts.
Usually, by the time an organization decides to change coaches (often making the hard admission that they were wrong to hie him in the first place), almost all of these boxes need to be checked. Coaches have to leave their teams no outs, but with Spencer, most things seemed business as usual:
Dipping/flat lining results
The home-road schism had become worrisome. When Portland beat Seattle and immediately squandered the momentum by being routed in Colorado, the issue took center stage. After the mid-week win over San Jose, the reoccurring theme to everything post-game: How do we do this on the road? As evidenced in Sandy, Spencer still hadn’t figured it out. If anything, the Timbers were regressing, giving one of their worst performances of the year Saturday in Utah.
The broader picture was more promising. The Timbers had scraped their way back into the Western Conference playoff picture, even if they sat on the periphery. They were generally trending upward, and having played some of their best soccer of the year against San Jose (particularly in the first half), the silver lining on Spencer’s cloud was thickening.
But in that game, Portland again had troubles closing out the match. They looked shaky and desperate as they tried to hold their one goal lead. Most teams have looked the same against San Jose late in matches, but for Portland, it brought back early season memories of late match gaffs that pushed them to the Western Conference basement.
Lack of ideas
It seemed Spencer was trying to find the right combination. Darlington Nagbe has played everywhere in attack. Jack Jewsbury went from central midfielder to right back. Rodney Wallace went from left back to left wing. Everybody in the organization was a potential solution to the team’s width issues.
When the team showed improvement and started climbing the standings, Spencer’s tinkering slowed down. Until then, Spencer never stopped trying.
The roster’s very limited, having very few natural wide players. Kalif Alhassan has been injured for most of the season, and until his strong showing against San Jose, Frank Songo’o had given mixed results. The lack of options meant there was only so much tweaking Spencer could do. No matter how he lined his team up, the weaknesses were going to be the same.
Lost the players
If a team goes into a slump, that’s a problem. If the players don’t believe they can recover, that’s a crisis. A coach can’t lose the dressing room in the best of times. When the team is struggling, it becomes a clear reason to move on.
Portland didn’t seem to have those problems. The players attitude toward Spencer hadn’t change. The respect was there. Occasionally a player would implicitly question a decision, but it rare, and there were no rebellions.
Troy Perkins’ comments after Saturday’s game were as strong as you’ll read, but there’s no singling out the coach:
“There were times we did what we wanted to do, and there were times when we completely had the blinders on. The first hour was okay. I felt the second half we were just chasing the game. We didn’t hold the ball up enough to get guys out and when we did we were too slow to get up.”
“It’s great when we’re at home, sure. At some point, you have to draw the line and say enough is enough. Everyone’s got to say it, do it, believe it, and whether or not we win at home doesn’t matter. At this point we’ve got to win on the road.”
Perhaps the Timbers front office wasn’t as openly supportive of Spencer as they’d been in the past, but given how the team’s performed this season, it would have seemed overcompensating if owner Merritt Paulsen trumpeted Spencer’s virtues on Twitter. Given the team’s expectations, the tone was appropriately reserved, and if there was conflict created from above, Spencer hadn’t given any hint.
That’s not to say everything was perfect, but the kind of cracks you normally see when a relationship deteriorates weren’t there. Every struggling team has tensions. Portland’s weren’t profound.
Verdict: Maybe, leaning toward no
Coach behavior showing cracks
Behind the scenes, who knows, but John Spencer’s public face always reflected his team’s struggles more than his own. When they improved, he expressed support. When they struggled, he criticized. Nothing seemed disproportionate. There were no meltdowns, shutdowns – nothing out of the ordinary. He led with the same direct, honest intensity that he’d shown all year. At no point did he tense up, start pointing fingers, or otherwise throw people under the bus. If he was fighting for his job, he didn’t take that fight public.
Failure to meet expectations
Coming into the 2012 campaign, competing for the playoffs was expected. The subtext of those expectations: We’re going to the playoffs! It was something that was constantly mentioned at the beginning of the season, the optimism surrounding last season’s strong finish carried over into the new campaign. Now in mid-summer, it only occasionally comes up.
Setting aside the fairness of those expectations, they were there, particularly after Kris Boyd was inked to a big money deal. If Portland competed for the postseason with a misfiring Kenny Cooper, surely Boyd will push the Timbers into the playoffs. At least, that was the logic.
Portland’s still in the playoff picture, but they haven’t performed like a playoff team. They probably have not performed like ownership envisioned. That vision undoubtedly includes a consistent, upward trajectory. Expansion teams don’t want to level off in their second season. The first season is a baseline upon which you have to improve. Unfortunately, the results say the Timbers were still in expansion mode.
That the checklist paints a mixed picture explains why the move’s been met with mild surprise. Were it not for last month’s rumors, Spencer’s dismissal may have caught everybody off guard. You sit down and think about it and say Yeah, I guess Portland is struggling, but there was little in the day-to-day happenings that suggested Spencer would go. No fan discontent. No curious leaks in local media. No tension around the club.
Those my be symptoms of an idyllic existence: A new MLS team with a reverent, gregarious support capable of weathering these storms. That might not be good enough for an ownership group that paid high price to enter Major League Soccer.
If Spencer’s termination does nothing else, it at least sends a message to the entire organization: 2012 has not been good enough.