Chicago Fire v Portland Timbers

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.

FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup 2016 — Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders

KANSAS CITY, KS - DECEMBER 07:  The Philip F. Anschutz trophy is seen on the field before the start of the match between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City in the 2013 MLS Cup at Sporting Park on December 7, 2013 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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279 days after First Kick, it’s all come down to this: MLS Cup 2016, between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, a pair of first-timers in MLS’s postseason title decider.

[ FOLLOW: Live score and updates from MLS Cup 2016 ]

Fighting out of the red corner, it’s Sebastian Giovinco (4 goals, 4 assists in five playoff games in 2016), Jozy Altidore (5 goals, 4 assists) and Michael Bradley. Fighting out of the blue (and Rave Green) corner, it’s Nicolas Lodeiro (4 goals), Jordan Morris (2 goals, 1 assist) and a suddenly stout Sounders defense (3 goals conceded).

[ MORE: TFC, Sounders present unique tactical challenges for each other ]

PST’s very own Nicholas Mendola will be reporting live from a frigid, frozen BMO Field (gametime temperatures expected to be in the low-20s), so make sure you follow him on Twitter, right here, and check back to PST for live updates, full-match recap, and post-game reaction from every angle.

Who: Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders
What: MLS Cup 2016
When: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
Where: BMO Field, Toronto, Canada
Why: To crown a champion

Deadly twin-bomb attack strikes police outside Istanbul stadium

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - DECEMBER 10: Ambulances arrive at the scene after explosions near the Besiktas Vodaphone Arena on December 10, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. According to reports, at least 13 people were killed after explosions believed to have been targeting riot police were set off near to the Besiktas Vodaphone Arena. (Photo by Getty Images)
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ISTANBUL (AP) Two explosions struck Saturday night outside a major soccer stadium in Istanbul after fans had gone home, in an attack that caused fatalities and wounded at least 20 police officers, Turkish authorities said. A private television channel put the wounded at nearly 70.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a statement saying “unfortunately we have martyrs and wounded” but did not specify the number.

One of the blasts was thought to be a car bomb and the second appeared to have been caused by a suicide bomber.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top ]

Police cordoned off the area as smoke rose from behind the newly built Vodafone Arena Stadium, known colloquially as Besiktas Stadium after the local team and neighborhood. Witnesses also heard gunfire after the explosions.

The first and larger explosion took place about 10:30 p.m. after the home team Besiktas beat visitor Bursaspor 2-1 in the Turkish Super League. Erdogan said the timing of the attack aimed to claim as many lives as possible.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who gave the initial casualty toll of 20 police officers, rushed from Ankara to Istanbul.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. This year, Istanbul has witnessed bombings attributed by authorities to the Islamic State group or claimed by Kurdish militants.

“It is thought to be a car bomb at a point where our special forces police were located, right after the match at the exit where Bursaspor fans” had earlier left, Soylu was quoted as saying by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency. “We have no information on the number of dead. God willing, we hope there won’t be any.”

[ MORE: La Liga — Real Madrid go 35 games unbeaten, set new club record ]

Speaking later to reporters in Istanbul, he said the first explosion took place on a hill adjacent to and overlooking the stadium. The second explosion struck Macka Park and was believed to be a suicide bomb.

The private NTV channel reported that the target of the first attack was a bus for riot police and said nearly 70 wounded were taken to hospitals.

Television images showed more than a dozen ambulances on a street hugging the stadium and a police helicopter flying overhead with its searchlights on. The window glass of nearby buildings was shattered by the blasts and coated the pavement. Investigators, including Istanbul Police Chief Mustafa Caliskan, were quickly on the scene.

The Besiktas sports club “strongly condemned” terrorism and the attack in a statement posted on its website.

[ MORE: Bundesliga — Bayern Munich back on top; RB Leipzig finally lose ]

Bursaspor said none of the wounded were fans and issued a statement saying “we wish a speedy recovery to our wounded citizens.”

Turkey’s radio and television board issued a temporary coverage ban citing national security concerns. It said “to avoid broadcasts that can result in public fear, panic or chaos, or that will serve the aims of terrorist organizations.”

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin were also notified about the attack, Anadolu said.

La Liga: Real Madrid sets club record with 35 games without a loss

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 10:  Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid scores their 3rd goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and RC Deportivo La Coruna at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 10, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Real Madrid set a new club record after a 35th consecutive match without a loss by beating Deportivo La Coruna 3-2 on another Sergio Ramos stoppage-time winner on Saturday.

Ramos, who scored an injury-time equalizer at Barcelona in the last round, headed in a corner kick after 90 minutes were up to maintain Madrid’s six-point lead over Barcelona atop the Spanish league.

Madrid appeared to have the milestone well in hand after Alvaro Morata gave the hosts the lead with a strike from distance, but former Madrid youth player Joselu Sanmartin went on for Deportivo and scored twice in a three-minute span to force Madrid into fight-back mode.

With Cristiano Ronaldo and several other first-choice players unavailable, Madrid needed little-used Mariano to level at 2-2 in the 84th before Ramos snatched the winner.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top ]

Under coach Zinedine Zidane, Madrid hasn’t lost since April 6 when it fell 2-1 at German side Wolfsburg in the Champions League knockout rounds. Madrid recovered from that setback to win its record 11th European Cup.

The previous unbeaten streak for the club founded in 1902 stood at 34 games from 1989, set by a side coached by Leo Beenhakker. Barcelona holds the mark for all Spanish clubs of 39 games in a row without a defeat which Madrid ended last season.

With Madrid set to travel to Japan to play the Club World Cup, Zidane opted to leave Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric off his squad. Gareth Bale was also missing while he recovers from a foot injury.

And if it weren’t for another dose of Ramos’ heroics, the decision to rest so many of his best players would have cost Zidane a setback at the Santiago Bernabeu. Instead, Ramos added to his reputation as Madrid’s stoppage-time savoir just a week after earning a valuable draw at Camp Nou.

[ MORE: Bundesliga — Bayern Munich back on top; RB Leipzig finally lose ]

Lionel Messi scored twice as Barcelona halted its skid of three consecutive draws in the league.

But first, Messi helped set up Luis Suarez for the 59th-minute opener, when he threaded a pass between four defenders to meet Jordi Alba’s run into the area. The left back squared the ball for Luis Suarez to tap home.

In similar fashion, Alba set up Messi to side-foot in his first goal in the 73rd. Messi got his second goal in stoppage time, when he took on three defenders, picked his spot and rifled home a left-footed strike.

Messi went to the top of the league scoring table with 11. Suarez pulled level with Madrid’s Ronaldo with 10.

“We knew that once we scored the first goal the match would open up for us, and thankfully the goal came soon enough,” Suarez said.

Promoted Osasuna remained bottom and winless at home since its return to the top tier.

In-form Real Sociedad climbed into fourth place and the Champions League positions after striker Willian Jose scored two early headers to take his tally to nine goals on the season.

After Dani Parejo pulled one back for Valencia from the spot in the 36th, Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves saved Carlos Vela’s penalty. The Brazilian goalie has saved 20 of 43 penalties he has faced in league competition.

The only drawback for Sociedad was Willian Jose leaving injured shortly after halftime, but his replacement Juan Jimenez added a third goal in injury time after Valencia lost Joao Cancelo to a second booking.

Valencia substitute Zakari Bakkali scored a solo goal in the final moments.

PL Sunday preview: Man United-Spurs; Chelsea, Liverpool in action

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 08: Christian Eriksen of Tottenham Hotspur reacts after missing a chance during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on August 8, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Four of the Premier League’s top six sides are in action on Sunday. Chelsea would go top of the PL with a win, while Tottenham Hotspur could climb as high as third, if Liverpool fail to go within a point of Arsenal for second. Manchester United, on the other hand, are falling away from the top-five pack with each passing week.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Chelsea’s eight-game winning streak is on the line when West Brom visit Stamford Bridge. Having won those eight games by a combined score of 22-2, Antonio Conte‘s side has hit its stride since the Italian manager switch to a three-man defense after losing to Arsenal on Sept. 24. Diego Costa is tied for the league lead in goals scored (11, alongisde Alexis Sanchez), and Eden Hazard (8 goals) looks much more like his 2014-15 self than the 2015-16 version on display last season. The last time West Brom won away to Chelsea in league action, the date was Sept. 30, 1978.

INJURIES: Chelsea — OUT: Oscar (illness), John Terry (leg), Kurt Zouma (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: David Luiz (knee) | West Brom — OUT: Saido Berahino (fitness)

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top ]

Manchester United vs. Tottenham — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After winning two in a row at Old Trafford, in 2012 and 2014, Tottenham are without a point (or a goal) in their last two trips to the Theater of Dreams — something Mauricio Pochettino‘s side will be looking to rectify and strengthen their case for a top-four finish this season. Spurs bounced back from their first defeat of the season, to Chelsea two weeks ago, with a 5-0 thumping of Swansea City, a game in which Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen each scored twice. As for United, who are three PL games without a win (all 1-1 draws), a return to the UEFA Champions League is quickly slipping away for Jose Mourinho’s side, now six points back of fifth-place Spurs, and nine back of third-and fourth-place Liverpool and Manchester City.

INJURIES: Man United — OUT: Chris Smalling (toe), Luke Shaw (undisclosed), James Wilson (knee surgery) | Tottenham — OUT: Vincent Janssen (ankle), Erik Lamela (hip)

[ MORE: La Liga — Real Madrid go 35 games unbeaten, set new club record ]

Southampton vs. Middlesbrough — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com

With their Europa League campaign put to rest prematurely this week, it’s time for a strong reaction by Southampton with 16th-place Middlesbrough visiting St. Mary’s Stadium. Currently 12th in the PL, Saints have just one win three goals to show for their efforts in their last six games (never scoring multiple goals in a game during that time). On the other side, Boro are four games unbeaten away from home (all draws), against the likes of West Ham United, Arsenal, Man City and Leicester City, though much of Aitor Karanka‘s top attacking talent could be unavailable on Sunday.

INJURIES: Southampton — OUT: Matthew Targett (hamstringe); RETURNING: Dusan Tadic (nose) | Boro — QUESTIONABLE: Alvaro Negredo (hamstring), Gaston Ramirez (foot), Jordan Rhodes (groin), George Friend (knee)

[ MORE: Bundesliga — Bayern Munich back on top; RB Leipzig finally lose ]

Liverpool vs. West Ham — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After throwing away a pair of two-goal leads away to Bournemouth last weekend, Liverpool could use a bounce-back of their own, otherwise they could be seven points off the PL’s top spot by weekend’s end. With wins over the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal already in the bag this season, the Reds’ two losses have come at the hands of Bournemouth and Burnley, two sides presently residing in the bottom half of the table. West Ham will visit Anfield as the 18th-place side in the PL with just two points from their last five league games, having dropped into the relegation zone following Swansea City’s victory over Sunderland on Saturday.

INJURIES: Liverpool — OUT: Philippe Coutinho (ankle), Daniel Sturridge (calf), Danny Ings (knee surgery), Sheyi Ojo (fitness), Joe Gomez (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: Sadio Mane (knock), Joel Matip (ankle) | West Ham — OUT: