Spencer inspires scrappy Timbers
Portland Timbers coach John Spencer stomped through the players' tunnel of Red Bull Arena after losing 2-0 to the New York Red Bulls in early October. Like often this season, his side had been overmatched. But like often this season, the scrappy Timbers had somehow made a game of it. They had even wrested control in the second half, before a controversial handball penalty call and ejection on Portland's goal line sealed the game. It had been one of several dubious calls leveled against the Timbers.
In the tunnel, Spencer spotted a trio of referees about to take the field for a charity game. "You can't do any worse than that performance," he barked at them in his thick Scottish accent, pointing to the field. He muttered some expletives to himself and disappeared into the locker room.
After coming up with Scotland's famed Glasgow Rangers, the 5-foot-6 Spencer carved out a playing career as a striker with a deft touch and a large helping of moxie. In it, he scored 36 Premier League goals for Chelsea between 1992-96; also played for Queens Park Rangers, Everton and Motherwell; and bagged 14 caps for Scotland before bookending his career with four seasons with the Colorado Rapids from 2001-04, scoring 37 goals in 88 games. In 2006, he joined Dominic Kinnear as an assistant coach in Houston, helping the Dynamo's first team win consecutive MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007 while guiding the reserves to their own championship in 2008.
Throughout his career, Spencer was outspoken and often incapable of biting his tongue. As an MLS player, he incurred several fines for criticizing referees. On Kinnear's flank, he made it a habit, speaking his mind liberally and paying regularly, much like he did earlier this season, having taken on the Timbers' manager job in August 2010.
So, surrounded by reporters after the game in New York, Spencer understandably refused to engage on the topic of the referees. "I've wasted enough money in my MLS career talking about these guys," he said. "I'm not wasting another dime."
But the spitfire character that made Spencer's playing career an unlikely success is insuppressible on the sidelines. Spencer, 41, who shaves whatever hair baldness hasn't yet taken from him and describes himself as a "little, old, fat Scotsman," just can't seem to help himself. Dressed in sneakers, track bottoms and a white Timbers polo, he stood for most of the game, orchestrating his squad, getting in a shouting match with Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry after he tussled with Timbers defender Mamadou "Futty" Danso and, inevitably, throwing his hands up in disbelief at the refs' calls. "He always looks like he's one second from coming on and punching the ref, doesn't he?" asked a colleague in the press box.
Yet Spencer's straight-talking nature, while at times costly, very much lays at the source of the Timbers' expansion-season success. Predicted to struggle before the season, the Timbers reeled off five straight home wins after opening JELD-WEN Field and were undefeated in five more heading into the Red Bulls game. And in spite of being in the suffocating Western Conference, Portland has managed to put itself in the hunt for the playoffs, reached by only one other expansion team (the Seattle Sounders in 2009) in league history.
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Spencer has created a sheltered environment for his squad, believing that unconditional support is necessary to thrive. "I treat my players how I'd like my own son to be treated in a professional environment, simple as that," Spencer said in his almost incomprehensibly quick brand of English.
"He's a players' coach," midfielder and captain Jack Jewsbury explained. "During the games he's super intense, but he's a guy you feel comfortable coming to after practice or games. He stands up for you. Even when things are down, he's been positive. I think that's been key, especially for a young team to keep things in perspective in our first year. Everybody wants to fight for him."
"From day one he's really not singled anyone out amongst the team," goalkeeper Troy Perkins said. "He's stood behind every player, and I think that's why every guy on this team is willing to go through a brick wall for him."
But aside from an overt loyalty, what has endeared Spencer to his squad is the honesty he felt it needed to grow into the cohesive, spirited and confident band of overperformers it has become. "I try to be as 100 percent honest with them as much as I can," he said. "When I leave them out of the team, I give them a reason. I don't just drop them and then never speak to them. I try to make everybody feel as important as each other. All you can try to do is treat people how you'd like to be treated yourself."
This is greatly appreciated in professional soccer, where communication among players and staff breaks down surprisingly often. "If I make a mistake, he'll tell me straight up, like, 'This is not good,'" Danso said. "He'll call me one-on-one and tell me what I need to work on."
In the veterans Portland salvaged from the scrap heap, Spencer has managed to rekindle a confidence and sharpness that had gone missing from their individual games, dulling the shine off their careers.
"The day the trade came through, he calls me from Scotland," said Perkins, who was traded to Portland by D.C. United after a hugely disappointing 2010 return from Europe. "He really hopped on board with me and said he was absolutely thrilled to get me and instilled all the confidence that a coach should, and has not taken it away."
After two failed stints in Europe, forward Kenny Cooper found the stability under Spencer that has allowed him to thrive once more. Danso graduated from the Timbers' minor league incarnation, was convinced by his manager that he was worthy and has anchored the back line. Jewsbury, acquired from Sporting Kansas City through a trade, has flourished into an All-Star.
Spencer may be no master psychologist, but he simply understands how to speak to veterans. "If you try and blow smoke up their ass ... these are experienced guys, they see through it," he said. "I just try to speak from the heart and tell them why I've brought them to the club, tell them what I think they can do for the club."
But before all, the Timbers' success should be attributed to the hard work they put in. And this is what Spencer was hired to foster. "Why we brought John on board is we wanted to be an organization known for our work ethic," technical director Gavin Wilkinson said. "He represented what we wanted for the organization -- somebody that displayed a lot of emotion around the game, somebody that wore their heart on their sleeve, somebody that we felt would get the most out of the players."
More importantly, Spencer is a reflection of the city that convinced him to give up Houston where several other offers of head-coaching jobs failed to. "The fan base is from a hard-working city, from a blue-collar mentality," Spencer said. "We've tried to instill that in our players from day one. It doesn't matter in the modern game if you're good enough. If you have the technical ability but you don't have the work ethic, in any walk of life you're not going to succeed."
"He embodies the spirit of the city and of the fans," said Andy Orenstein, one of 200 members of the Timbers Army supporters group that traveled to New York for the game.
Because in a place like Portland, nothing beats a hard, honest day's work.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LeanderESPN.