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.

Asian FIFA executive pleads guilty to bribery charges

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A guilty plea was entered early Friday by senior Asian Federation (AFC) official Richard Lai to bribery charges, leading FIFA to suspend the 55-year-old indefinitely.

Lai has served as the head of the Guam FA since 2001, and is a member of the FIFA audit and compliance committee. He was also formerly a member of the AFC executive committee, and currently sits on the AFC marketing committee. Lai is a United States citizen.

The guilty plea confirms more than $1 million in bribes accepted by Lai, including those from Kuwaiti officials looking to increase their influence over FIFA voters in the confederation. Two unnamed AFC executives, including one Kuwaiti, were also named as co-conspirators.

“One of the functions the defendant Richard Lai performed for Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 in exchange for the funds they sent him was to advise them on who was supporting which candidates in AFC and FIFA matters, including elections, and who Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 should recruit to support their chosen candidates,” a Department of Justice document published on Friday said.

That wording seems to indirectly implicate Qatari executive Mohamed bin Hammam, who was banned for life by FIFA in 2011 for bribery.

“I would like to thank the American authorities for their continued efforts to stamp out corruption from football,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a statement following the plea. “I am happy to confirm once again, that FIFA will provide whatever assistance is needed by the U.S. and any other authorities around the world.”

Lai has also been provisionally suspended by the AFC.

Argentina closes in on Sampaoli, according to FA boss

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The Argentinian FA is hoping to convince Jorge Sampaoli to abandon Sevilla and take the opening in his home nation.

President Claudio Tapia confirmed that Sampaoli is their top target, calling the 57-year-old their “chosen one” in an interview with ESPN.

“We have chosen a coach that has a contract,” Tapia told ESPN. “We want to be respectful and wait because he has a release clause which is once the tournament ends. We will communicate it to the club and we will sit down and negotiate his departure and release clause. We want things to go well in the final games he has left.”

Argentina dismissed coach Edgardo Bauza after the country fell to fifth in CONMEBOL World Cup qualification following defeats to Paraguay, Brazil, and Chile over the past six months.

Sampaoli is under contract with Sevilla until the summer of 2018, but has a $1.6 million release clause, to which Tapia was referring. Sevilla sits in fourth position in the La Liga table, level on points with Atletico Madrid but behind significantly on goal differential. The club finishes its league season on May 21st against Osasuna, and Argentina’s next game is a friendly on June 9th at home against Brazil. The next World Cup qualifier is in August against Uruguay.

Samapoli has been with Sevilla since since last summer in his first European club job, but the Argentinian has ample experience to take over for his home country. He managed Chile for four years, winning the 2015 Copa America in Chile. He resigned in early 2016 due to a contract dispute, paying a heavy price to do so as he gave up bonuses to wriggle free of his contract.

Argentina’s desire to secure Sampaoli as coach is nothing new, as the man himself confirmed an offer for the job a week ago, but said he would not consider it until the end of the season. It appears now that a deal is likely, and he will have a very short turnaround to get his first look at the team against a fierce continental rival.

MLS Power Rankings — Week 8: FC Dallas back on top

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FC Dallas relinquished the top spot in the Power Rankings last week. Their response? To beat the team that jumped them.

A number of teams grabbed much needed wins, including Seattle, Toronto, and Orlando City. The Galaxy and Real Salt Lake slipped up. See below where each team sits going into Week 8.

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[ MORE: Last week’s MLS Power Rankings ]

TEAM RANKING (Last Wk)

22 (22)

 

21 (20)

 

20 (19)

Philadelphia Union: After Montreal’s 3-goal comeback, Alejandro Bedoya said it’s “hard to stomach” what feels like another loss. It’s only April, and the aura is already discouraging.

Colorado Rapids: Since beating New England, they’ve scored four goals in their last five. Losing to Minnesota is painful.

Montreal Impact: A crazy comeback and a rescinded red card have netted Montreal four points over their last two, but the big picture still screams struggles.


19 (21) Minnesota United: It came against hapless Colorado, but a win is a win is a win. Seven points in the last four. A solid defensive record. A chance to build further comes against San Jose.
18 (15) LA Galaxy: The transition away from Bruce Arena is an obvious excuse for a truly bad start, but the squad also looks porous. Questions may be asked soon.
17 (13) Vancouver Whitecaps: With a tough immediate schedule ahead, Vancouver could be headed for a second-half fightback just to make the playoffs. Can’t dig too deep a hole.
16 (17) New England Revolution: This team’s all over the place. A lot like DC United in that they seem to have good moments and bad moments each week.
15 (16) DC United: Positives and negatives taken from the draw with New England. Sums up the season so far.
14 (14) San Jose Earthquakes: No matter the home form, winless in five is very concerning.
13 (18) Seattle Sounders: Well. They certainly needed that. Soundly trouncing the Galaxy is promising, and games against New England and Toronto are a huge chance to truly turn the poor start around.
12 (9) Real Salt Lake: Oops. Maybe last week’s leap of faith was slightly premature. Falling in to Atlanta’s fantastic start isn’t the end of the world, but losing momentum from a 2-game winning streak hurts.
11 (11) Houston Dynamo: Great at home. Not a single road point. Will we learn anything more about Houston when they visit Toronto? They’re still hard to gauge, but seem more dangerous than not.
10 (6) Columbus Crew: Road travels are tough no matter where you go in MLS play, but the Crew cannot turn two straight road losses into a bigger habit.New York Red Bulls:
9 (12) New York Red Bulls: Soundly beating Columbus means they get to jump the Crew on this list, and a win over Chicago next time out would see them climb further up the Top 10.
8 (10) Toronto FC: Their table position is still slightly unnerving given the team’s talent, but a win Friday over defensively challenged Houston would give Toronto a much more deserved location.
7 (7) New York City FC: All 3 of NYCFC’s losses have come by 1 goal. It’s early, and those are correctable. Moving up after a loss is rare, but this team is well-managed and dangerous.
6 (5) Chicago Fire: There’s little shame in losing to a pair of Giovinco goals on the road, but the manner of the loss is somewhat startling. Outpossessed Toronto, yet obliterated 9-1 in shots on target.
5 (8) Atlanta United: After forever on the road, Atlanta returns home in fantastic position. The one concern has to be discipline – they picked up four more yellows in the RSL win.
4 (4) Portland Timbers: A home win over a Cascadia rival goes a long way towards putting a bad four-game stretch to bed.
3 (1) Sporting KC: A lack of goals has been mitigated this season by a fantastic defensive unit, but that proved their downfall against FC Dallas, and could be an issue going forward against better attacking teams.
2 (3) Orlando City: Jason Kreis emphatically put to bed the thought that Orlando City couldn’t win on the road. Cyle Larin is absurdly good. But can they survive shouldering the entire goalscoring responsibility on one man?
1 (2) FC Dallas: After dropping to #2 last week due to a lack of marquee results, they promptly went out and became the first team to beat Sporting KC this year. Welcome back to the top spot.

Premier League Preview: Crystal Palace vs. Burnley

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  • Palace unbeaten in 10 vs Burnley at home
  • Burnley has 1 goal from open play in last 6
  • Burnley has just 4 points on road all season

The old 40 point target is within grasp.

One more win for Crystal Palace would put them over the cusp, as Sam Allardyce leads his Eagles into battle against Burnley at Selhurst Park on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Palace’s recent form suggests they’ll do just that, with a massive surge of six wins in their last nine to boost them out of the relegation zone and into a push towards the table’s top half. Their last three wins have come against Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool. However, they’re depleted in central defense, with Mamadou Sakho, Scott Dann, and James Tomkins all out injured.

Burnley, meanwhile, could get to 39 points with a win, a big boost in their bid to outrun those below them in the table. The Clarets are looking to buck the league’s worst road record, with just a single win and a single draw away from Turf Moor. They’ll be without Joey Barton, whose career could be over after an 18-month suspension for gambling. That’s a big miss for the Clarets, as Barton has played all but 10 minutes of their last 12 matches. Scott Arfield could be a candidate to replace Barton, with the 28-year-old a regular in the side before Barton’s arrival midseason.

What they’re saying

Allardyce on Burnley“I think he has built a very good football club from top to bottom on stability that he has brought to Burnley, he has made Burnley’s owners and directors look at the financial side of their club and they now see one that is financially secure. That money has been brought to the club by him getting them promoted to the Premier League, evolving at a nice, steady pace and as a club they have not panicked and been patient, which is a word that doesn’t happen in football anymore. If you look at the football dictionary, the word patient you can’t find anymore because there is none. But there is at Burnley.”

Burnley manager on survival“We have more points than we did ever in the Premier League and it’s now about taking it all the way. It’s now about everything we’ve learned over the season and delivering performances in these last four games. We, as a club, without a shadow of a doubt are in really good shape going into this last bunch of games. But we aren’t naïve enough to think it takes care of itself, because it doesn’t. We have to go and step on and take care of what we need to.”

Prediction

Burnley has been horrid away from home this season, and while they should stay up given the poor squads below them, Crystal Palace is playing too well to fall to lesser opposition at Selhurst Park. Christian Benteke will continue to feast as the Eagles win.