Chicago Fire v Portland Timbers

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

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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.

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern, Hertha 1-2; USMNT’s Pulisic stars again

Bayern's Douglas Costa takes a selfie after scoring his side's second goal during the German Bundesliga soccer match between FC Bayern Munich and Borussia Moenchengladbach at the Allianz Arena stadium in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
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Bayern Munich’s weekend went pretty well, with the Bavarians leading longtime rival Borussia Dortmund by six points after a win over Borussia Monchengladbach on Saturday.

Bayern has a three-point lead on the field, with John Brooks’ Hertha Berlin second after another win.

[ MORE: Bob Bradley on Swans draw ]

And it was another great day for the career of young American winger Christian Pulisic. More below…

Ingolstadt 3-3 Borussia Dortmund

Paraguay’s Dario Lezcano and the hosts looked prepared to cruise to a 3-1 win when he netted his second goal of the day, but there was still a half-hour left at Audi-Sportpark.

Adrian Ramos scored in the 69th minute, opening the door for the latest big moment for American teenager Christian Pulisic. The diminutive attacker scored his second Bundesliga goal of the season in stoppage time to propel BVB to a point.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had BVB’s other goal.

Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, right, and Lukas Pisczek cheer over  a goal during the German Bundesliga soccer match between FC Ingolstadt 04 and Borussia Dortmund   in Ingolstadt, Germany,  Saturday Oct. 22, 2016. (Andreas Gebert/dpa via AP)
(Andreas Gebert/dpa via AP)

Hertha Berlin 2-1 Koln

Anthony Modeste and Koln had less than 10 minutes to celebrate their equalizer, as Niklas Stark’s 74th minute goal lifted Hertha to all three points. USMNT center back John Brooks went the distance at center back.

Bayern Munich 2-0 Borussia Monchengladbach

What looked like a potential onslaught in the first half hour settled into a final score line, as Arturo Vidal and Douglas Costa goals were enough for Carlo Ancelotti’s crew at the Allianz Arena. Gladbach managed just two shots, none on goal, in the loss. USMNT mid Fabian Johnson went 90 minutes in the loss.

Hamburg 0-3 Eintracht Frankfurt — Another 90 for USMNT’s Chandler
Freiburg 2-1 Augsburg — Nils Petersen nets winner.
Bayer Leverkusen 0-3 Hoffenheim — Early red card for hosts.
Darmstadt 3-1 Wolfsburg — Three different goal scores in win.
RB Leipzig vs. Werder Bremen — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Schalke vs. Mainz — 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday


Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 8 6 2 0 20 4 16 4-1-0 2-1-0 20
 Hertha BSC Berlin 8 5 2 1 14 9 5 4-0-0 1-2-1 17
 1899 Hoffenheim 8 4 4 0 16 10 6 2-2-0 2-2-0 16
 1. FC Köln 8 4 3 1 13 6 7 3-1-0 1-2-1 15
 RB Leipzig 7 4 3 0 12 5 7 2-1-0 2-2-0 15
 Borussia Dortmund 8 4 2 2 20 10 10 3-1-0 1-1-2 14
 Eintracht Frankfurt 8 4 2 2 13 8 5 2-2-0 2-0-2 14
 SC Freiburg 8 4 0 4 10 12 -2 4-0-0 0-0-4 12
 FSV Mainz 05 7 3 2 2 14 12 2 1-1-1 2-1-1 11
 Mönchengladbach 8 3 2 3 10 12 -2 3-1-0 0-1-3 11
 Bayer Leverkusen 8 3 1 4 11 12 -1 2-1-1 1-0-3 10
 FC Augsburg 8 2 2 4 7 11 -4 1-1-2 1-1-2 8
 Darmstadt 8 2 2 4 8 15 -7 2-2-0 0-0-4 8
 Werder Bremen 7 2 1 4 9 18 -9 2-0-2 0-1-2 7
 VfL Wolfsburg 8 1 3 4 5 11 -6 0-2-2 1-1-2 6
 FC Schalke 04 7 1 1 5 7 11 -4 1-0-2 0-1-3 4
 FC Ingolstadt 04 8 0 2 6 7 17 -10 0-1-3 0-1-3 2
 Hamburger SV 8 0 2 6 2 15 -13 0-1-3 0-1-3 2

Confirmed: Knee ligament damage for Andres Iniesta

VALENCIA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22:  Andres Iniesta of FC Barcelona reacts injured on the pitch during the La Liga match between Valencia CF and FC Barcelona at Mestalla stadium on October 22, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Andres Iniesta’s footballing career has defined for an entire generation the words consistency and professionalism.

[ MORE: Messi scores late winner vs. Valencia; Neymar hit with a bottle ]

Now 32 years old and Barcelona’s longest-tenured servant, Iniesta has played more than 40 games (all competitions) every season since the 2003-04 campaign, back when he was a 19-year-old La Masia product quickly breaking into the first team. Part of a run like that is down to unparalleled talent and an unwavering commitment to craft, but, of course, a stroke of good luck on the serious-injury front.

It’s looking quite unlikely he’ll extend his 40-games-played streak to a 13th season in 2016-17, however, after the club confirmed fears on Saturday that Iniesta suffered knee ligament damage during a heavy challenge by Valencia midfielder Enzo Perez early in the first half of Barca’s 3-2 victory — statement from Barca’s official website:

The first team player Andres Iniesta has injured the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee. When he arrives in Barcelona the player will have more tests to find out the exact extent of the injury.

The Blaugrana also lost Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique to injuries during their Champions League triumph over Manchester City, as well as Rafinha and Arda Turan, who picked up knocks of their own in training during the week. Injury crisis at the Nou Camp.

Klopp: “Would’ve been kind of a joke” if Reds tossed away lead

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool applauds the fans following their team's 2-1 victory during the Premier League match between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion at Anfield on October 22, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
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It’s kinda funny that Liverpool nearly threw away a dominant hour by taking its foot off the gas pedal on Saturday at Anfield.

The Reds took a two-goal lead but had to hold on for their three points, eventually exhaling with a 2-1 win over West Brom.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

How would manager Jurgen Klopp have felt if his dominant side, one that failed to put away maybe a dozen chances versus the Baggies, drew?

“We had to finish the game much earlier,” Klopp said. “It would have been kind of a joke if we drew or lost today. We were unbelievable. We wasted a little energy in the second half. … Performance, really good against a team like this that were here to get somehow something.”

He’s right, of course. The Reds need to learn to kill teams off, even if star West Brom goalkeeper Ben Foster deserves plenty of credit for another starring role against a top team.

Liverpool 2-1 West Bromwich Albion: Reds hold on for all three

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22: Loris Karius of Liverpool celebrates his sides first goal during the Premier League match between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion at Anfield on October 22, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
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  • Mane opens scoring
  • Reds second with 20 points
  • WBA scores late

Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho scored first half goals worthy of admiration, and Liverpool beat West Brom 2-1 at Anfield on Saturday.

Gareth McAuley scored the Baggies’ lone goal, as West Brom took Liverpool’s day from comfortable to uneasy over the final 30 minutes or so.

The winning margin pushes Liverpool level on points Arsenal but behind the Gunners on goal differential. Man City has 19 points and would retake the table lead with a draw or better versus Southampton on Sunday.

The Baggies are 13th, ahead of West Ham and Burnley on goal differential.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The Reds went ahead when Roberto Firmino‘s spinning cross was belted past Foster by Mane in the 21st minute.

A poor Ben Foster clearance fell to Mane in the 35th minute, and the Senegalese attacker quickly found Coutinho. The diminutive winger cut into the box, working a near-post shot by Foster to make it 2-0.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Liverpool’s pressure continued in the second 45, with Foster flying across goal to palm away Dejan Lovren‘s strong header.

James Milner sprung Coutinho after the hour mark, but Claudio Yacob blocked the produced chance of Emre Can. The winning margin was seemingly the only question for Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds.

West Brom had the next true chance of the match, with Nacer Chadli blazing high and wide off a corner kick.

But hold on: McAuley was in the right spot to push a pinballing orb past Lorius Karius with 10 minutes to go. The Reds were able to hold on despite missing so many chances to put the thing to bed.