The Termination Checklist: Spencer’s dismissal all over the map

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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.

Verdict: Inconclusive

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.

Verdict: No

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.”

Verdict: No

Organizational malaise

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.

Verdict: No

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.

Verdict: Yes

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.

Money from Wembley replay will ‘support Rochdale for two or three years’

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Worst-case scenario for Tottenham Hotspur: drawing League One side Rochdale in Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round clash; best-case scenario for the Dale: drawing the Premier League giants and forcing a replay at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

For a club the size of Rochdale — 10,200-seat stadium, and never been above the third tier of English soccer — the financial impact of raking in half of the game’s gate receipts “will support the club for the next two or three years,” according to manager Keith Hill — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t know how much it is worth but a lot of money has gone into the new pitch. That was a heavy investment for us. Hopefully the money we make will support the club for the next two or three years. We will cut our cloth accordingly and we won’t be in debt.”

As for Steve Davies’ 93rd-minute equalizer, Hill was adamant that it was nothing short of what they “deserved”:

“It was a feeling of reward, not relief, because the performance deserved at least the opportunity for us to go to Wembley for a replay. I’ve always wanted to do that against a Premier League team and manager. Why not take them on and try to win? It could have been football suicide but I thought we gained their respect and to score the goal we did was tremendous. The players were magnificent.”

Tottenham Hotspur, soccer philanthropists.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

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LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.

Mourinho claiming injury crisis ahead of CL showdown

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The next three weeks will go a long way toward defining Jose Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United, with the Red Devils facing not only fellow top-four aspirers Chelsea and Liverpool, but also contesting their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla.

[ MORE: VAR provider admits incorrect graphic displayed on TV ]

Thus, it’s not exactly the most convenient time for the words “injury crisis” to rear their ugly heads yet again, but that’s the challenge Mourinho claims he faces ahead of Wednesday’s CL clash.

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup victory with a last-minute illness; Marcus Rashford is dealing with a leg injury and remains questionable, as are Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini are all but officially out, according to Mourinho — quotes from ESPN.co.uk:

“I didn’t rest one single player so we had today every player available here. I didn’t rest anyone. I brought two kids that played on Friday 90 minutes [for the under-23s] because I don’t have another player, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problems.”

“Can we recover some of them to Wednesday? I believe so. I think Rashford, Herrera, Valencia — I think they have a chance.

“Paul, I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, Zlatan — I don’t think they have any chance.”

Mourinho dealt with a similar rash of injuries very late on last season, as his side barreled its way into, and eventually won, the Europa League final, securing a place in the CL this season. With a top-four finish all but out of reach at the time, Mourinho opted to rest his bare-bones group of first-team regulars in Premier League action and prioritize Europe’s “other” competition.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

This time around, United sit second in the PL table, just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and the path to winning the CL will prove far more difficult than taking on the likes of Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax.

Serie A: Napoli, Juve hold serve in 1-point title race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona now 31 games unbeaten | Real Madrid 17 points behind ]

Napoli 1-0 SPAL 2013

The battle for Serie A supremacy isn’t ending anytime soon, as Napoli and Juventus continue to match one another (nine straight wins for each side) in Europe’s only remaining major title race.

On Sunday, they even traded 1-0 victories — Napoli at home to SPAL 2013, with Juve triumphing over Torino in the Turin derby.

Brazilian midfielder Allan bagged the only goal for Napoli after just six minutes, finishing off a mesmerizing, free-flowing move that’s become synonymous with Napoli this season. The video-assisting referee came into play just after the hour mark, when Marek Hamsik headed home to make it 2-0 before the VAR wiped it away for offside.

Napoli’s current nine-game winning streak is the longest in club history.

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Juve’s victory came at something of a cost, though, as star striker Gonzalo Higuain was lost to an ankle injury after just a quarter-hour (the injury occurred after just three minutes), followed by a potentially serious knee injury for Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Higuain, in second-half stoppage time. Higuain isn’t expected to miss significant time, with the club calling it a twisted ankle.

In between the injuries came Alex Sandro‘s 33rd-minute winner, a tap-in from close range masterfully set up by Bernardeschi. One additional positive for Juve: Sunday also saw Paulo Dybala return after missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. The Argentine star entered as a second-half substitute.

“Paulo played 30 minutes at a good level,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said. “I’m pleased with his and everyone else’s performance. This is a good result against a well-organized Torino side.”

Elsewhere in Serie A

AC Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
Atalanta 1-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 2-1 Sassuolo
Benevento 3-2 Crotone