On Monday, April 1st, an article was published on mlssoccer.com detailing why John Spencer was sacked as manager of the Portland Timbers almost eight months ago. mlssoccer.com senior editor Nick Firchau delved into the machinery of the Timbers, dug up sources, kicked up old rumors, and painted the picture of Spencer’s sacking, as part two of a three-part piece on magnetic Timbers owner Merritt Paulson.
It was fantastic reporting and writing, and especially charming to see on the league’s official website. Firchau’s account is the best we have in understanding why Spencer was fired last July, but the article was considerably slanted towards Paulson’s perspective, seeing as the three-part series is about Paulson, and the sources and stories that composed the slant of the column were from the Paulson camp. Spencer refused an interview request for the story, and no associates of the departed coach were interviewed for the piece either.
According to the article, the main reasons Spencer was sacked centered around his inability to coexist harmoniously with Paulson and Gavin Wilkinson. While Paulson and Wilkinson favored an analytical approach, Spencer wanted to make decisions based on gut instinct. Spencer felt Wilkinson and Paulson were meddling with the team, and that Spencer knew best what was right for his side. Spencer also didn’t like Paulson’s level of involvement and hands-on leadership style.
In addition to those problems, Spencer was accused of being volcanic and volatile as the Timbers started losing in 2012, spreading rumors about Paulson, telling his team they wouldn’t be paid if they didn’t start performing better on the road, and even verbally abusing Kalif Alhassan. As things got worse and worse, Spencer shut out Paulson and Wilkinson, and his position soon became untenable.
Spencer’s side of the story isn’t told as clearly. If however, Spencer was interviewed for the piece, he might have said something like this:
Spencer might have said that from the moment he walked into Portland in 2010, Merritt Paulson and Gavin Wilkinson didn’t let him do his job. He might have said that Paulson, trying to learn the game of soccer on the fly as a first-time owner, was counter-productive, and that he denied Spencer the autonomy he needed to effectively manage his team.
Spencer may have pointed out that he’s from Scotland, and a European soccer fraternity where even the most demanding owners – the Roman Abramovichs and Silvio Bursculonis of the world – don’t meddle with team selection, or undermine the manager’s power with analytics, statistics, or exponentially hiking expectations through Twitter.
Spencer may have pointed out that things were working the way he was running the team – the Timbers massively overachieved in 2011, their inaugural season in MLS, with a team built in Spencer’s image: Gritty, gutty, scrappy, tough, and full of spunk. He may have said that things were working out well even though Wilkinson – using the numbers Spencer detested – built him a poor team by MLS standards.
Spencer could have rebutted the allegations of him not getting along with his players and abusing Kalif Alhassan, by pointing to the well-known fact inside the Timbers organization that Spencer’s players loved him, his style, and played hard for him each time of asking. Spencer could have mentioned that things only totally fell apart in Portland after he was removed, at which point Wilkinson managed the team to general player apathy and unhappiness.
Spencer could have taken the criticism of Wilkinson to another level. It was Wilkinson who was always in Paulson’s ear, giving him blow-by-blow analysis the way the owner wanted. Wilkinson cultivated a working environment of cooperation and treating Paulson like a soccer equal in a way Spencer was never going to follow. Wilkinson, with his analytics, worked much more closely with Paulson than he did with Spencer. In fact, Spencer could have said Wilkinson stabbed him in the back, then took his job.
John Spencer may have just pointed to his resume: With names like Rangers, Chelsea, and Everton on his CV, caps for Scotland, 136 career club goals, Spencer knew what it took to be a player, and could relate better than Wilkinson or Paulson. He knew MLS as a player and as a coach – prolific years at the end of his career with the Colorado Rapids spoke for themselves, as did his MLS coaching tutelage, which was comprised of two championships with the Houston Dynamo, where he learned under one of MLS’s best managers, Dominic Kineaar.
What right did Paulson, who never played the game, and Wilkinson, who had much less success in both coaching and playing than Spencer did, have to order him around?
Spencer could have admitted that he wasn’t an astute tactical manager, but pointed to his record and said, do you want to know how the sausage is made, or do you want to know how it tastes? Spencer could have ended his interview by saying, look at the numbers. I am the most successful manager in Portland Timbers history.
Spencer-Wilkinson-Paulson was a triangle headed for Bermuda before the losing started. When the losing did start, it just magnified the already existent problems.
Spencer and Paulson clashed as two headstrong, successful individuals who didn’t see eye-to-eye on too much to ever easily get along, while Wilkinson factored in, as he usually does, to complicate things and cause trouble without the benefit of contributing to any success.
It is Paulson’s right to want to be involved in personnel decisions and anything else he wants to be involved with at the club. After all, it’s his money, it’s his company, and he’s the owner. I, along with almost every other sports fan – and Paulson certainly is a fan – would want to be involved hands-on with a sports team if we ever owned one.
Spencer, on the other hand, had every reason to believe he was the smartest soccer person working at Jeld-Wen Field, and that he should have been left to run his soccer team without interference from the bumbling bunch in the front office. Spencer didn’t do everything right – he was poor and unimaginative tactically, and if he verbally abused Alhassan, who Spencer was perpetually frustrated with, he should have been fired for that offense alone. Yes, he made some mistakes, but Spencer is a good coach. Players loved him. And he’ll be back, sooner rather than later.
Paulson, meanwhile, has found a coach who does want to work with him and Wilkinson, a coach who is borderline obsessed with analytics and tactics. The Timbers got the Caleb Porter hire right, not just because Porter is a talented soccer coach, but because the former Akron manager’s personality jives with the higher-ups. Spencer found out what many coaches and GM’s do – as hard as they may try – you cannot shut out the owner.
John Spencer’s reign in Portland was doomed from the onset. Considering the circumstances, Spencer did well with the Timbers, but he had to go. He was a volatile match for Portland, the anti-Porter. Spencer was sacked after just a year and half in charge of the Timbers last July. In part, everyone is to blame. And really, no one is.