[MLS Q&A] After five seasons as an assistant coach in Houston, John Spencer is heading into his first season as a head coach with expansion team Portland. About two weeks into preseason he took time discuss the transition for him, his players, and the organization in an interview with Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney.
SOCCER AMERICA: You were in the running for several head coaching jobs before landing this one. Are you disappointed not to get this chance sooner?
JOHN SPENCER: I’ve been waiting for the right o pportunity to come along. I’ve been tipped for a couple of jobs and for whatever reason it never worked out, and that’s fine. It wasn’t a massive problem because I had a great job in Houston with [head coach] Dominic [Kinnear].”
SA: Timbers owner Merritt Paulson and technical director Gavin Wilkinson brought you up to Portland last year. How did they convince you that this was the right thing to do?
SPENCER: Just the way they sold the club to me and the plans they had for the club. After having spoken to a number of people who played in Portland against the Timbers in the A-League and the Open Cup and stuff like that, they all said the city is soccer-crazy. I just felt it was the right time to move on and the right city to go to.
They showed me the drawings for the renovation for the stadium and the plans for the training facility, which is just outside the city. I went to a couple of games there and the atmosphere was electric. We’ve had a great fan base in Division II and now in MLS it can only get bigger. It’s a great part of the country for soccer, with Vancouver and Seattle and ourselves, and then the teams in California. It’ll be a very interesting place to play this year.”
SA: In many of its markets, MLS is still trying to establish a presence. In the Northwest and a few other pockets, there’s already a tradition not only of soccer but intense rivalries ...
SPENCER: Like you said, it’s not something that we’re trying to create. It’s a culture that’s already there and we’re just trying to revive that whole Cascadia mentality from back in the NASL days. I think it’s going to be a very, very exciting place to play, but our mentality is going to be the same as Vancouver and Seattle.
We have to beat more than two teams in Major League Soccer to be successful. That obviously adds that little bit of spice, which is great, but we’re going to have to beat a lot more teams than those two to get to where we want to be.”
SA: Seattle is more than a regional rival; it has reached the playoffs in both of its seasons and also won the U.S. Open Cup twice. Doesn’t that set the bar incredibly high for expansion teams like yours?
SPENCER: Of course it does. But the bottom line is, you can talk about the teams that have been in the league, but we just have to concentrate onourselves. Seattle are the big neighbors and their fans don’t like the mention of our name, but looking at Seattle along with other teams, they’ve reached theplayoffs and won a couple of Open Cups, so you have to give credit where credit is due. They’ve done a great job.”
SA: There are more than a dozen players in camp who are holdovers from the Timbers’ days in the second division. How many of them can reasonably expect to contribute consistently in MLS?
SPENCER: It’s up to them to take that opportunity, to make themselves better and better and better every day in practice. It’s not a big gap from Division II, but at the end of the 2011 season we’ll see if these guys can handle the stepup on a consistent basis, week to week, month to month, and year-in and year-out. It’s up to them, to their ability and desire levels.
There’s a lot to be said for guys who’ve played in the league year-in and year-out. I keep telling the young guys here that scoring 20 goals in one season doesn’t make you a great player. It means you’ve had a great season, but the reason the [Dwayne] De Rosarios and the other great players are at the top oftheir game is that they can produce year-in and year-out.
You can have a great stretch in the league for a month or two, but can you sustain it? That’s the big question mark hanging over guys.”
SA: Colombian forward Jorge Perlaza is in your camp after some outlets had reported him headed to Philadelphia. Is he one of the players shopped by MLS to various teams?
SPENCER: No, to be honest with you, he was never going anywhere else. We identified this player back in 2010 and obviously someone got wind of it, and that he was going to MLS and maybe it was Philadelphia, but he was our target. He was one of the ones we discovered on a scouting trip down there. He was always coming to Portland, there was no doubt about that.
We watched a couple of games down there [in Colombia] and we watched one game which he played ever so well in, and we want back and watched him three or four times again, myself and Gavin, and he stood out like a sore thumb. At the end of the day it’s always a gamble when you bring foreign players in, but as you well know, with foreign players we just try to help them acclimate as quickly as possible and get them off to a good start.
We have no doubt if we can get him settled into the culture and a differents tructure he can score goals in this league.”
SA: Has helping foreign players adapt to MLS changed much from when you left British soccer to play for Colorado in 2001?
SPENCER: It just depends on what attitude you come with. My mentality was to be the hardest-working guy in practice every day and lead by example. I think players respect that.