Portland Timbers Postmortem: Firing John Spencer

Victor Decolongon

In the fourth installment of our 2012 postmortem series, we remember the decision, on July 9, to fire John Spencer.

By that point in the season things were looking pretty bleak for the Portland Timbers. With 17 matches played the Timbers under John Spencer had earned just 19 points -- a bit better than the 1.0 ppm they finished the season with. (That's not including the USOC loss to Cal FC.)

Cue incessant ALL-CAPS rants from Stumptown Footy community members with single-purpose usernames.

Of course, the team's performance to date was not the reason Merritt Paulson expressed for Spencer's dismissal -- rather, that "fundamental philosophical differences exist," presumably between Spencer on the one hand and Paulson and Gavin Wilkinson on the other.

But saying performance wasn't the reason for Spencer's dismissal is kind of like saying slavery wasn't the cause of the Civil War. Yes, there were cultural and philosophical differences that led to the separation, but ultimately all those other factors distilled to one thing.

Performance.

That Paulson made his decision immediately following a 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake and not, for example, after a 2-1 win over Seattle, was a clue that poor performance was behind at least the timing of the firing.

And indeed, Wilkinson said during the press conference that it would be up to him as Interim Coach to "get a little more out of them" -- more, say, than Spencer had been able to get.

Performance.

And when Paulson announced the decision to hire Caleb Porter, his word choice in describing the new leader -- "cerebral," "tactical," "reflective" -- seemingly betrayed his true thoughts about all the things John Spencer wasn't.

As the naturalization examiner might have told Apu Nahasapeemapetilon before he went on too long about alternative explanations, "Wait, wait. Just say [performance]."

Performance it is!

The Timbers' season took an immediate dive after the decision, hemorrhaging goals and getting just two points out of their next seven matches. But after that initial hiccup, Portland finished the season with a 3-3-4 record -- 13 points -- over their final ten games. Just one point better, as it turns out, than Spencer's last ten matches as the Timbers' coach.

Now, all the various ripple effects aside, how do you assess both the decision to sack Spencer, as well as the timing of that decision?

Stacey Neve: B

John Spencer and the Timbers were probably going to have to part ways sooner rather than later, no matter what. It seems highly unlikely that Spencer would have managed to turn the season around, so the firing probably would have happened around now, at the latest. It most likely would have been a good choice. After two decent games to start the season, the Timbers then had a run of mostly bad results and disappointing play, culminating in the loss to Cal FC.

The Timbers need a coach who is tactically smarter than Spencer, who showed off his version of tactics by playing an extremely defensive line-up against Sporting Kansas City. When that lineup managed to eke out a very lucky win, he then played the exact same lineup against Montreal, leaving the Timbers unable to create anything on offense against one of the league's worst defenses. Additionally, Spencer clearly had favorites on the team and sometimes seemed blind to the instances where what was best for his favorite guys wasn't what was best for the team.

However, firing Spencer mid-season was a mixed bag. Not even giving him a chance to finish out the year and firing him on the heels of two big road losses in quick succession seemed to betray Merritt Paulson's claim that the decision was not based on bad results. It also seemed to further derail the team, as the first games after Spencer's departure were a string of humiliating losses. But fans did get to see some players shine more in the second half of the season, largely due to formation and line-up changes. While the Timbers still struggled to put together a full 90 minutes of good soccer and they still suffered a painful defeat up in Seattle, there were also halves and pieces of games where the soccer was better and more fun to watch than at almost any point in the first half of the season, due again to a formation that better suited most of the players.

Ryan Gates: B+

Firing John Spencer was the right call. The players may have liked him, but his inability to change tactically really hurt the team. When asked why he wasn't playing a certain style, he almost always responded that the team did not have the players to play that style, specifically the 4-3-3 formation. Yet when the players were then switched into that style after his firing, they played some of their best soccer. Admittedly the pressure placed on John Spencer by the FO to get to the playoffs in his second year could have been a major factor in his inflexibility and the lack of tactical changes. Sometimes people stick to what they know in times of trials and don't try something new -- this is what happened with John Spencer.

Portland's roster is young. If Gavin and Merritt wanted to see who had the ability and the skill to play with the first team a change needed to be made mid-season and not at the end of the season. If they let John Spencer finish out the year we would have seen the same 4-4-2 lineup with the same game day 18. Darlington Nagbe would still be out on the wing having his potential stifled. Captain Jack Jewsbury would still be our attacking mid and sitting in front of Diego Chara. Bright Dike would most likely still be loaned out or sitting on the reserve bench instead of being called up to the Nigerian National Team. The change needed to happen for Portland to move on and find out more about the pieces on this team.

Geoff Gibson: C+

I think it was clear from about June that John Spencer simply wasn't working with the types of players that were currently on the Portland Timbers' roster and that he had a knack for changing stuff when he probably should have allowed things to settle a bit more. There's no doubt in my mind that his time with the Timbers was over once the results started going from bad to horrific. That's hard for me to say because I really liked Spencer's fiery attitude.

As for his firing in mid-season. It was a difficult call, and one that I'm certainly happy I didn't have to make. Were the Timbers any better off with Gavin Wilkinson leading the team? Absolutely not. In fact, they were probably worse. I 100% believe that Spencer could have gotten the Timbers at least a few more points than they ended with. Still, you can't really have your current coach hanging around while looking for a new one can you? At least not without a whole lot of awkward. Had he not been fired mid-season, the 2013 coach could have been somebody else. Whether that proves to be a good or bad thing, we don't know.

William Conwell: B

Spencer was clearly a player's coach, seeming immensely popular among his players and getting them to give their all (at home at least). Unfortunately, he was not the tactician that Timbers management wanted, as we saw time and again in the team's failure to adjust to their opponent's game plan. "Philosophical differences" may be at the core of Spencer's firing, but in the end he just was not what the team hoped they were getting. Regardless of how you feel about the players signed by Gavin Wilkinson, Spencer's favorites were the guys he brought in specifically to run his system, including popular players like Lovel Palmer, Mike Fucito, and Rodney Wallace, and they are indicative of just why he had to go.

While getting rid of Spencer so early on gave the season a wait-for-next-year feel far too early on, I would have to agree that if he was not the coach for the team going forward then getting rid of him as soon as possible made sense. If the firing was driven by the team's results, then getting rid of him while things were not yet dire was a mistake (things didn't exactly turn around after his departure, after all), but if philosophical differences, whatever they may have been, were to blame, then this was the only course of action that made sense.

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