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.