By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (July 12, 2012) US Soccer Players -- John Spencer’s hiring as head coach of the expansion Portland Timbers back in the winter of 2010 was one of those decisions that almost made too much sense. Spencer is one of those guys. He knows Major League Soccer. He played here. He paid his dues on the staff of Houston’s Dominic Kinnear, one of the League’s best coaches. He turned down an earlier opportunity to coach the Chicago Fire, willing to wait for the right fit. Spencer was nearly the perfect first-time head coaching candidate.
Was the Portland Timbers job, and the complications built into it by club’s expansion status, beyond the reach of a rookie head coach? Perhaps, but not based on his record. 14 wins, 12 draws, and 19 losses is enough for the benefit of the doubt midway through a team's second season. Portland had its own special set of circumstances, pressures from several angles that ultimately caused Spencer to be shown the door.
Despite his own attempts to explain the move as one not related to the club’s record, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson certainly acted the part of impatient executive. Spencer was learning on the job even while the Timbers were learning how to be an MLS club. The combination of inexperience on both sides of that dynamic contributed to the Timbers’ current standing.
Of course, Portland was an expansion team, and expansion teams just don’t do that well regardless of who’s in charge. MLS history is littered with newly admitted clubs floundering for a few years before finding their feet. Even the early successes normally end up in an adjustment period. No club gets off easy, and expectations should be accordingly muted.
It’s hard not to see Paulson’s decision reflected against a certain Cascadia rival that plays up the road in Washington, however. Seattle made the playoffs in year one. They've made the playoffs every year since. They've won the Open Cup three consecutive times and made the final for a fourth trophy. Only the Chicago Fire did better out of the gate, and that took winning both the Open Cup and MLS Cup in their expansion season.
2012 expansion franchise Philadelphia made the playoffs in year two. Vancouver, Portland’s expansion contemporaries, are threatening to do the same this season. Still, there's the feeling that Spencer was let go too early, that we don't really know what he had in mind for the club. Portland was next-to-last in a mini-league comprised of the recent expansion teams, and that may have been one of the things that did him in.
Conveniently for Portland, but not so much for Spencer, there was an interim head coach-in-waiting standing by to take over at any moment. Portland fired their coach, but spared the architect of the team, technical director and former head coach Gavin Wilkinson. Wilkinson moved from the sideline to the front office when the club got the MLS promotion, so his ties run much deeper than Spencer’s ever could. Having that kind of option in place took away one of the problems when switching coaches mid-season.
There's certainly a different feeling with Portland than there was with Philadelphia. Peter Nowak's ouster and the promotion of his assistant John Hackworth has done what in-season changes are supposed too. Philadelphia is playing better soccer as judged by not losing games. Portland may end up doing the same under Wilkinson, but it's not the same feeling from players or fans.
The only man that seems to know all of John Spencer’s failings as a head coach is Portland investor-operator Merritt Paulson. Paulson’s comments on the decision are vague and evasive, even as he points to reasons other than results for firing Spencer.
"I'm not going to go into details," Paulson said at the press conference announcing the coaching change. "But we have been having candid discussions with John about concerns for some time."
Spencer certainly did (or did not do) enough to earn his walking papers, but you could make that case for or against most coaches in this League. The Timbers have just two points on the road in MLS play. They crashed out of the US Open Cup at home to amateur club Cal FC. Beating the Sounders seemed to earn Spencer a temporary reprieve, and the Timbers won their next game at home against San Jose. Though Portland management tried to move the conversation away from the club's record, that 3-0 road loss to Real Salt Lake looms large.
Whether it was the right time for Portland to make a head coaching change depends on how highly they value continuity over results. As an expansion team, the club would be perfectly justified in letting Spencer hang on, looking for signs of improvement, and buying into the idea that “building” takes time. After a year and a half, the Timbers finally reached the point where results and building switched poles on the scale of importance. There’s no guidebook on how long a new club has to wait before they decide winning matters more than the nebulous idea of “building.” They're not alone.
Accountability for results is on the rise across MLS. Even the playoff safety net doesn’t appear enough to help coaches with questionable records keep their jobs. When the wins and losses fail to match up with expectations, or when the gap between what management views as the best case scenario and the actual results widens too far, coaches lose their jobs.
John Spencer’s pedigree wasn’t enough to keep that from happening.
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