Spencer's language trouble wasn't an accent
“To fasten your seatbelt, you take this little fiddly bit and insert that little fiddly bit and how you drove to the bleedin’ airport without knowing this, I will never know.”
No matter what happened on the field, John Spencer will be remembered as a man who had the gift of gab. Whether in a commercial for a corporate sponsor, a post-game press conference or an interview with national media, Spencer had a way with words.
But, words don't make for a successful tenure as a coach. While Spencer’s final record with the club is a respectable 16-22-13, winning just two of his 25 away matches spelled doom for the Scot.
In his season-and-a-half in Portland, Spencer was never able to meld what he said with the performance of his team on the field. Here is a look back at some of Spencer’s words and whether or not they were able to translate to his squad.
Spencer at his introductory press conference on August 11, 2010
“You can’t cross the line, but you can’t back down. You can’t give any ground. You’ve got to match and you’ve got to fight fire with fire.”
While as a player, Spencer was known for never backing down to anyone. His team didn’t always seem to have the same attitude on the pitch. During the 2011 season’s final home game, Mike Chabala received a nasty elbow from Houston’s Danny Cruz. None of Chabala’s teammates went after Cruz either physically or verbally.
When Fredy Montero shoved David Horst to the pitch last month, Timbers were quick to go after him. However, most players can get up for rivalry games. Portland seemed to lack its aggression when taking on opponents that didn’t merit “special” notice.
Spencer in interview with Simon Evans of Reuters Sports, published January 21, 2011
"For me, I was a small striker and there was nothing worse than if the ball was being knocked long to you and you have got to try and get up and challenge big central defenders. Obviously there are times in the game that you have got to do that if you are under pressure but our philosophy will be to go out and pass the ball and try to entertain the fans.”
Despite the previous quote, the Timbers rarely used on-the-pitch strategy that showcased stringing passes together on the ground. Long balls from defenders and in-the-air crosses from the wing have been a hallmark of the Timbers since their MLS debut.
There have been stretches when the Timbers look like they could be a team that could entertain fans through beautiful passing (this year’s home game vs RSL, 2011’s home game vs New England), but those moments were few and far between. The beautiful football that Spencer preached was never a calling card for the play that was seen on the field.
Spencer to StumptownFooty.com on February 29, 2012
“I think that we’re definitely stronger this year. We’ve got more strength and depth.”
While Spencer is certainly not to blame fully for the roster, he certainly had his hand on every player signing the Timbers made. Both Spencer and general manager Gavin Wilkinson had say in which players the Timbers brought in during Spencer’s tenure. And the players were never able to deliver the so-called depth Spencer believed he had.
The best offseason acquisition this season has been central defender Hanyer Mosquera. Unfortunately, centerback was already a position of depth for the club. Heading into the 2012 offseason, Portland’s positions of need seemed to be striker, attacking midfield, and fullback. One of those positions was addressed (Kris Boyd), two of them were not.
When it comes down to it, it is entirely possible that Spencer thought his players were better than they were. He certainly would not be the first coach who got axed for realizing his players too late that his players weren’t good enough.
Spencer on MLSSoccer.com’s ExtraTime Radio podcast on March 13, 2012-
“I try to get the guys ready and motivated for every game, it's important when you are a new club like us to get a winning culture, to build a winning culture. I don’t think you can pick-and-choose your games, when you’re going to play and when you’re not going to play.”
“Last year was a huge learning curve. I don’t think this league gets enough credit for how difficult it is to play on the road. The only way we can crush the doubters’ minds is by producing away from home.”
Spencer to StumptownFooty.com on March 19, 2012-
"You keep mentioning this last year thing. The last year thing is in the past. I keep telling you - that was the first half of the season last year. You know, we're a more mature, experienced group now.
"So as I say, you keep hashing back to things that aren't there anymore. Hopefully they aren't there anymore. I don't think that they are. I think we're more mature as a group.”
At the beginning of the season, Spencer honestly believed his team’s road woes were a thing of the past. He also knew if there was no change in road form, his team would never be able to get over the hump. And that is exactly what happened.
The disparity of home-and-road success is greater than any team in recent MLS memory. While Real Salt Lake struggled mightily in its first two seasons on the road, its home success did not match the Timbers. Even Wilkinson said he has never seen anything like it.
"I've never been in a situation where we 've had a drastic difference in home and away,” Wilkinson said at the press conference to announce Spencer’s firing. Wilkinson also said there has been many discussions on why the Timbers haven’t been able to have any success on the road. No matter who the long-term coach is, he must find a way to win on the road.
John Spencer on MLSSoccer.com’s ExtraTime Radio podcast on June 21, 2012
“At the end of the season, your stats and what you’ve won and you haven’t won will define you as a player. It’s the same at the end of your career.”
“So to win games and be a good player, you gotta produce. All I want to see, all the owner wants to see, and all the fans want to see is not us talking about it, they want to see us do it.”
Just three weeks before his firing, Spencer talked about how quotes mean little without production on the field. For both players and coaches, stats and winning mean more than the type of person you are. It means more than if you have potential or have a good upbringing or look great on paper.
While you can be fired for many things, it's never sound strategy for a coach to not produce meaningful victories. To say John Spencer is to blame solely for poor performances in Cup ties or away performances would be completely unfair. However, it is easier to fire a coach than 30 players. Fair or not, it was Spencer’s job to get results with the team he was given and he knew it.
If MLS coaches were judged on their ability to hold a thoughtful, witty conversation then Spencer would be considered the best coach in the league. Unfortunately for Spencer, it's victories and not quotes that let coaches keep their jobs.