John Spencer

A revealing look at the toxic Timbers relationship between Merritt Paulson and John Spencer

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The bottom line in last year’s management collapse around Jeld-Wen Field hasn’t changed; owner Merritt Paulson just didn’t identify good match when he hired John Spencer as the Major League Soccer team’s initial head coach.

The mismatch, parlayed with a team that never found itself and continued to struggle, prompted a change, even though it was so painfully early in the organizational process. Paulson made the change and took the PR blows like a man.

The details are still slowly emerging – and certainly worth a gander. “The Word” series from, longer pieces with far more substance than the usual appetizer portions served up on today’s information trays, has all juicy Timbers details in the latest installment.

Nick Firchau’s careful examination of the strained relationship between Paulson and Spencer has a lot of lessons for MLS executives. Spencer may be a fine coach. And Paulson may be a fine owner. (He is most certainly an engaged one!) But this was clearly oil-and-water stuff from the jump; they defined “bad match.”

Paulson lives in an information-driven world, where things tend to be quantifiable. Spencer is old school, making choices based on hunch and feel. Combined with Paulson’s desire to be a hands-on guy, a remarkably poor match for Spencer’s desire to do as he darned well pleased – well, this one never seemed to have a chance.

Further complicating matters was Spencer’s time as an assistant with Dominic Kinnear at the Houston Dynamo, a remarkably different place. With ownership split between AEG and Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions, Kinnear and his coaches were left alone to operate with complete independence, in a way pretty much no other MLS club is allowed to. (It works for the Dynamo … so good on AEG and the other ownership interests for not being all self-important and meddling about it, for recognizing that what isn’t broke certainly doesn’t require fixing.)

Starting in such a flawed place, the relationship deteriorated steadily, it seems.

Again, all of this should be the lesson. Find a good match for the organization or suffer the consequences.

It’s not like the Timbers cannot recover from this. It’s a new day, and the Caleb Porter era will stand or fall on its own merit – no pun intended. But the Timbers organization lost a valuable year and a half in the interim.

Firchau’s piece is rich with detail, and worth a few minutes of any MLS fans’ time.


Takeaway messages from Portland’s Monday press conference

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Timbers’ owner Merritt Paulson addressed local media Monday afternoon, explaining the team’s decision to move on from the only coach its MLS version had ever known. He was joined by Gavin Wilkinson, who temporarily adds interim head coach to his general managerial responsibilities.

The reason for Spencer’s dismissal: “[F]undamental philosophical differences,” according to Paulson, who initially read from a prepared statement. The duo declined to go into detail, though a few things can be inferred: the decision was not an easy one (Paulson became emotional at one point during the press conference); the team is not meeting expectations (which were to make the playoffs this year); and management feels the squad has the talent to do so (with Wilkinson saying there’ll be no major chances).

Here are the big takeaways from Monday’s press conference:

“I’ve been responsible for signing all the players. I’ve been responsible for bringing the staff on board, and they’re quality people. We all have another level we can go to. It’s a matter of finding that level.”

“I’ve been responsible for bringing all those players here. Now it’s up to me to get a little bit more out of them. ” – Wilkinson

One of the bigger questions surrounding this year’s Timbers is where John Spencer’s input ended and Gavin Wilkinson’s authority began. Spencer had always maintained he had input, and on Monday, Wilkinson affirmed that personnel decisions were a product of a meeting of the minds. Those meetings go out of the window with Wilkinson’s appointment, though Paulson made clear: “I am a strong believer in the importance of separating the coach and GM role …”

“We’ve got, initially, 10 coaches we’ll be assessing,” Paulson said. He’s targeting the off-season, hoping to have a new, long-term solution in place by the end of 2012.

Until then, don’t expect big changes.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a major overhaul,” Wilkinson said. “We’re looking at maximizing the potential, the ability of the players have – getting a little bit more out of them, getting a little more consistent … just strive to make the playoffs.”

“… I think any time you step into this you have high expectations of yourself, and you work for an organization that lives it and breathes excellence. Of course you’re going to feel a little bit of pressure.” – Wilkinson

Paulson and Wilkinson avoided any indictment of Spencer, but with Wilkinson making it clear the current team won’t be blown up, the pressure moves onto his shoulders. Whatever Spencer wasn’t providing, he’s going to be expected to give, particularly since he was one of the cooks in the kitchen. He’s keenly aware of the expectations.

First, though, he has to figure out which is the real Timbers’ team: The one that shows up at JELD-WEN, or the one that can’t win on the road.

“If anything [the players] should feel a little bit more relaxed on the road – a little bit less pressure – and more at ease and be able to express themselves greater on the field. That’s something that we’re going to continue to tick boxes and see if we can work that one out, but that’s one of the major, main tasks that I do have.” – Wilkinson

This home-road schism’s no longer a cute, expansion year joke. It’s clearly one of the issues that’s preoccupying the team, and over the last week, the divide has reached extremes. Portland has beaten San Jose and Seattle at home while losing by an aggregate 0-6 at Colorado and Real Salt Lake.

“I’ve never been in this situation where I’ve seen such a drastic difference from a team at home versus away,” Wilkinson added. It’s his problem, now.

“We can talk about any of these things until we’re blue in the face,” Paulson interjected. “I prefer to actually go out and show it … that’s something I do expect to see development on.”

“Philosophy is today what it was when we kicked off our MLS existence in 2011. The expectations are exactly the same. We talked about building through youth and athleticism. In our second year, we had the expectations of making the playoffs. By our third year, we wanted to have a team that was competing for MLS Cup.” – Paulson

Portland’s not preforming to those expectations, but they’re not too far off. While it’s hard to imagine them making the leap to title contender by next March, they’re still in the playoff picture now.

Multiple times, Paulson stressed Spencer’s dismissal wasn’t a record-driven decision; however, there must have been doubts as to whether Spencer could take the team to the playoffs. It’s hard to see Portland dismissing Spencer if they believed he would keep them on course.

“I want to have a team that does as well as it can possibly do and is a consistenly elite team in this league,” Paulson would later say. “That decision wasn’t made by looking at performance right now, but really just how we were going about certain things.”

However Portland’s going to become a title contender next season, Paulson no longer saw Spencer as the man to take them there.

“You know people talk about, in similar press conferences in sports, what a great person the departing coach is – how much we like him. This is a case where that has the added virtue of being true. There’s nothing I like more in our games than looking down at John when we score a goal, see him first pumping and looking up at me. I like him a lot. This is a very painful decision to make.” – Paulson

It sounds like something out of a “How To Fire Your Coach With Class” handbook, but before recalling Spencer’s sideline enthusiasm, Poulson started to choke up, his desire to push through compromised by a voice tightening with emotion. The words are standard. The delivery was not.

“These decisions aren’t easy,” he later added, asked about the moment. “There’s a human factor to it, and I don’t take that lightly. If I seem emotional, I guess I’m …” He paused to pick the right words. “[It was] a little bit surprising, as I was reading [the announcement].

“It is what it is.”

You only fire your first MLS coach once.

Portland Timbers’ fan blog Stumptown Footy has video of today’s press conference, in which you can see Paulson struggle toward the end of his prepared remarks.

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

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source: Getty Images


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.