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.

Report: Alexis Sanchez growing impatient with Wenger, Arsenal

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 21:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal is watched by James Chester of West Bromwich Albion during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion at the Emirates Stadium on April 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Alexis Sanchez is frustrated, and that doesn’t bode well for Arsenal or its manager Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: Stoke announces partnership with MLS side Orlando City ]

The attacker and his coach have had several spats in the Chilean’s two years at the Emirates Stadium, however, their rift was quite evident over the weekend when Sanchez was substituted off against Norwich City. Sanchez reportedly exited through the tunnel without shaking Wenger’s hand and left the stadium directly after.

[ MORE: Ben Afra being targeted by Barcelona after stellar season with Nice ]

According to the Telegraph, Sanchez is miffed about the inconsistent amount of playing time that he has received this season. In 26 league appearances during the 2015-16 campaign, Sanchez has totaled 12 goals, which is tied for first on the team with Olivier Giroud.

Being that the 27-year-old is arguably Arsenal’s most important attacking player, the feud between Sanchez and Wenger certainly isn’t ideal for the French manager. Gunners supporters protested prior to the team’s match against Norwich due to the club’s lack of success over recent seasons.

Sanchez still has two years remaining on his contract with the London side, and even though it isn’t likely that he’ll move this summer, a few teams have expressed interest in the talented winger. Pep Guardiola could make a swoop at Sanchez as he arrives at Manchester City this summer, while Guardiola’s soon-to-be former side Bayern Munich have also made their wishes known.

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Nadim’s path: From Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to Portland

HALMSTAD, SWEDEN - JULY 13:  Raffaella Manieri (R) of Italy and Nadia Nadim (L) of Denmark battle for the ball during the UEFA Women's Euro 2013 group A match between Italy and Denmark at Orjans Vall on July 13, 2013 in Halmstad, Sweden.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Soccer is the one constant in Nadia Nadim’s life since fleeing the Taliban as a young girl.

[ MORE: Stoke City announces partnership with MLS side Orlando City ]

She first learned the game from her father, an Afghan military general who was tragically killed. Later it gave her a sense of belonging as a refugee, and then national pride when she donned the jersey of her adopted Denmark.

Now it’s a career in Portland, Oregon, thousands of miles from where she started.

“I kind of feel it was meant to be, like destiny,” she said of her current career with the Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League.

Nadim is new to Portland this season after spending the last two in New Jersey with Sky Blue FC. Sitting in the warm sunshine after training at the team’s downtown stadium, Nadim wore a Los Angeles Lakers jersey (she’s a Kobe Bryant fan) as she reflected on her journey.

At 28, she’s at a break in medical school studies back home – a good time to see how far the game she loves can take her.

“When that time came I thought I could go and play in a European League, but that would be still so close and similar to what I was used to back home,” she said. “So I wanted to try something different and away from home. Plus, I wanted to play in a league where some of the best players in the world play.”

Nadim’s love for the game started in Kabul, where she grew up. Her father was a big sports fan and when he wasn’t working he’d take his five daughters to play at the local fields. But the Taliban seized control of the country in 1996, and Nadim’s childhood quickly slipped away. Girls were not allowed to go to school, let alone play soccer.

One day when she was about 10, Nadim’s father was summoned to meet with the Taliban leaders. He never returned. The family later learned he was killed.

“Most memories I have are nice ones – until the last year when everything was chaotic,” she said. “Before that, before the stuff that happened with my dad and the Taliban coming to my country, I remember having a really safe childhood where my parents tried to protect us and we had everything we wanted.

“But yeah, that changed really, really drastically after they came to power.”

In an Islamic state, women were not allowed to have jobs or even leave the home without a male relative. That made life untenable for her mother, who faced raising five girls on her own. They fled.

“It happened really quick,” she said. “It’s not like anything you can plan for.”

The family made it to Pakistan, where they paid a smuggler and got to Italy. The group had hoped to make it to England, but a driver dropped them off in “the middle of nowhere.” It turned out to be Denmark.

The family was in a Copenhagen refugee camp for six months before they were granted asylum. Nadia was able to go to school, but more importantly, play soccer. It was there she learned that she actually had talent for the game.

A standout for her club team, Nadim got the attention of Denmark’s national team. She was allowed to train with the team but could not play until she got her citizenship at 18. She was the first naturalized citizen to play for the senior team when she made her debut in the 2009 Algarve Cup against the United States.

Her first task? Mark Abby Wambach.

“I wasn’t even supposed to play but the striker got injured in the first 15 minutes,” she said. “I wasn’t even warmed up when they said, `Nadia! Go!”‘

When not on national team duty, Nadim played in Europe while also going to school. She is currently studying to become a plastic surgeon – not the cosmetic type but the reconstructive type. She has one year left.

Nadim first ventured to the United States in 2014 when she played six games with Sky Blue while on loan from Danish club Fortuna Hjorring, scoring six goals. The next year, she started in all 18 games for Sky Blue.

Nadim was traded to Portland in a draft-day deal before the season. Already she has made an impact off the ball, which is what the Thorns have asked of her, new head coach Mark Parsons said.

“Her game is winning games and scoring goals, but we’ve needed her in different role. I think that sums her up. She’s a winner, she’s a great character and she’s willing to do what it takes for the team,” Parsons said.

Nadim is still getting comfortable with the Thorns and her new, albeit temporary, home. The NWSL streams all her games live so her mother Hamida can watch from Denmark.

“I hope to make some more great memories with the Portland Thorns,” she said. “We have a really, really special team here with a lot of quality players. I feel really fortunate to be here and I enjoy playing, and I love the way we play.”

Stoke City announces partnership with Orlando City

during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Chelsea at Britannia Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Stoke on Trent, England.
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Americans have been heavily involved in Premier League management, including John Henry at Liverpool and the Glazer family who own Manchester United.

[ MORE: LAFC is one step closer to joining MLS, after finding home for stadium ]

Friday marked a dawn of a new relationship between the PL and MLS though, when Stoke City announced a strategic partnership with Orlando City SC.

[ MORE: Rapids-RSL highlights Week 10 action around MLS ]

The goal of the agreement between the two sides is to advance player recruitment and development, as well spark fan engagement in both leagues.

Potters Chief Executive Tony Scholes:

“It’s an opportunity for us to share best practice with Orlando in a variety of areas, primarily in player recruitment, marketing and development, but also to give both clubs chance to grow in each other’s markets,” said Scholes.

“A large number of our fans already regard Orlando as their MLS side and I know that Stoke City are already followed by many Orlando fans.

“As an established Premier League club we are always looking at new ways to develop our profile overseas and our strategic partnership will help us to develop in the United States.”

NBC’s recent coverage of the PL has sparked massive interest in the United States, giving fans various opportunities to watch matches over the course of a weekend. As MLS continues to grow as well, you can surely expect interest abroad, specifically in Europe, to grow too.

Phil Rawlins, Founder and President of Orlando City, is excited with the relationship building between the two clubs.

“It was very clear that we’ve always had a good relationship with Stoke City and it came down to us wanting to reignite that synergy and bring our brands closer together. This will be our only partnership in England, and we hope to ignite passions for both our clubs in each other’s markets.”

The pursuit of MLS to become a top league has a ways to go, but a move like this will surely only benefit commissioner Don Garber and the rest of MLS.

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Gareth Bale, Keylor Navas injuries present challenge for Real Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 18:  Gareth Bale of Real Madrid controls the ball under pressure from Joel Matip of Schalke uring the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, second leg match between Real Madrid and FC Schalke 04 at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on March 18, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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After narrowly escaping Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal against Manchester City, 1-0, Real Madrid is facing a bit of difficult news.

[ MORE: Ben Afra drawing interest from Barcelona ]

The club has confirmed injuries to both Gareth Bale and goalkeeper Keylor Navas, despite each player going the full 90 minutes midweek. Bale has reportedly sustained a knee problem, while Navas has suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon.

The extent of the injuries is not yet known, although Bale’s appears to be less severe. With Madrid down a goalkeeper, reserve team keeper Kiko Casilla will likely take over in net for Real while Navas recovers.

Madrid will host Valencia on Sunday in La Liga, with both players expected to miss the match. Bale could reportedly return for Real’s match against Deportivo La Coruna on May 14, their final league game. The team can then turn its attention to the Champions League final against rival Atletico Madrid on May 28.

Real currently sits one point behind La Liga leader Barcelona and second place Atleti with two games to play.

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