No Vision, No Plan, No SpencerPortland Timbers make difficult but correct choice in letting John Spencer go
by Chris Enger | Tuesday, July 10, 2012
You have to hand it to the few souls on this planet that want to coach professionally, as there is no other job that is as demanding and potentially causes more ulcers than the position of leading any team.
I am fascinated, however, that few of these people who want to manage appear to be born with the necessary skill set to coach. There’s a handful of coaches that can take over any program and from what appears to be nothing create a group that will fight for one another.
On Monday, Portland Timbers FC made the right choice in letting John Spencer go one-and-a-half years into his tenure as head coach of the club. After TFC’s Aron Winter and Union’s Peter Nowak were dismissed, Spencer was on the hot seat if the club didn’t show signs of improvement.
Regardless of Spencer’s team beating Seattle on national television it seemed like enough was enough. So after PTFC’s dismal performance at Real Salt Lake, Merritt Paulson pulled the trigger and now Portland, who occupy the basement of the West’s standings, are left with half a season and little hope. Will the new coach see success like the resurging TFC and Philadelphia are experiencing at the moment or are the pieces just not there?
No one can fault Spencer’s grit and fight. The coach wears his emotions on his sleeve. During in-game sideline interviews you could see his utter disdain of having to do the interview because his mind and focus were always on the match at hand.
Unfortunately though emotion and fight don’t always translate into good coaching. What makes a good coach?
It’s not just fire and feeling, or else Spencer would continue coaching with success in Portland. Equally if you look at RSL’s Jason Kreis he rarely is animated during the match with the rare emotional outburst.
It can’t be just experience either. Look at the difference at DC United under Ben Olsen in his first full year, or look at the time Bruce Arena had at New York versus his time in Los Angeles. If experience was the main factor, there wouldn’t be the recent wave of MLS clubs hiring players who immediately turn in their cleats for a clipboard and their decent early successes.
What about knowledge of the game? If knowledge was a factor, Thomas Rongen (CD Chivas USA), Fernando Clavijo (Colorado Rapids) and Schellas Hyndman (FC Dallas) would have a plethora of MLS trophies right now.
From a distance I knew Spencer wouldn’t be the right fit in Portland (and not just because of his incongruent style of play/roster selections for the tight confines of Jeld-Wen Field), but I never saw Kreis being the coach he is.
So again, what is it that makes a successful coach?
A lot of it has to do with the players of course, but what makes a great coach is how he is able to push the right buttons with the players he does have. He has to find the right balance of being the coach but also someone that can and must be respected as well as someone the players can talk to.
When the Timbers were beginning their MLS voyage, there were video clips and articles mentioning how Spencer liked to keep things light for the players, was a jokester and was very friendly with them. That always sounded more like a team captain role, than a coach. It slowly went away, but the die had already been cast. Coaches like good managers and leaders cannot get too close to players, otherwise respect erodes, even inadvertently.
What it really takes to be a good soccer coach is creating a vision and resulting system to implement it that the club’s front office supports and the team believes in.
Spencer lacked that vision. Just look at three of his player personnel decisions this year:
Kris Boyd, why bring the Scottish target forward into a situation where the home field has absolutely no width to send crosses in and play to his strengths, as well as no other player on the team to send in said crosses?
Darlington Nagbe, why the constant tinkering of his role in the midfield? Find the role you want him to fill and place him there, consistently.
James Marcelin, no one really knows why he was forced off the team but he’s now filling a spot with conference foes FC Dallas.
Spencer seemed to have lacked a vision and a plan as a head coach and that is why Portland made the correct choice in letting him go despite his affable and passionate nature.
I’ll always support giving a coach time to implement his plan, however, if it’s clear there is no plan, a change has to be made immediately in order to keep the support of the fans. And in Portland there are none better in MLS, now they just need to be rewarded with an equal caliber of coaching sophistication.