Just two-thirds of the way through their expansion season, the Portland Timbers have already zoomed to dizzying heights and plummeted to depressing lows along with their raucous, rabid fans. Through it all, their excitable head coach, John Spencer, is always in the moment yet with one eye on the long-term.
The bloom may be off the Rose City’s soccer team, but Portland head coach John Spencer warned his team months ago the tough times would come.
After blasting out of the gate to win their first five MLS home games, as crowds roared and sawdust flew at Jeld-Wen Field, the Timbers couldn’t scratch out a win anywhere. From May 21 to July 30, a bleak run of 11 league matches, they left their rambunctious, rowdy fans disappointed.
In most cities, in most sports, expansion teams get a lot of slack. Not so in Portland. Passion is not sated by participation, or even perspiration. If there’s one MLS coach who can match the zeal of his fan base, it’s the 39-year-old native of Glasgow, a city forged in the game’s history and often seared by its darker side.
“With the following that we have, they expect you to win every game, home and away, so there’s pressure there for us to produce every week,” says Spencer, who as a smallish (5-foot-6) player reveled in the the love and endured the torment that roils matches in England and Scotland. “But it’s a good pressure.”
Road woes are to be expected, yet Portland also labored through six straight home games winless prior to thrashing Los Angeles, 3-0, a week ago Wednesday. They followed up with a road point last weekend in San Jose to gain some momentum heading into a brutal stretch of five games in 14 days that starts Sunday in Houston, where Spencer worked 4 1/2 seasons as an assistant coach prior to getting the Portland job last summer.
“The LA game was a great result,” said midfielder and captain Jack Jewsbury. He’s called “Captain Jack” in a city that also knows defender Mamadou Danso as “Futty” and roars lustily when “Timber Joey” – the team’s official lumberjack, armed with a chainsaw -- hews off a slab of yard-thick, raw redwood after every goal. “Now, it’s just about consistency.
“At the start of the season, obviously with the five wins in a row, we had consistency and an air of confidence that we weren’t going to lose when we stepped onto the pitch at home. Growing as a team, you realize that during the season you’re going to hit some tough times, and it’s how you bounce back from those, and as of late we’ve done well.”
Portland’s next match is a case in point. The Dynamo sits just two points ahead of Portland in the overall standings, right in the maw of the wild-card race, yet is burdened by a 0-7-4 road mark. This is a team that won two consecutive league titles (2006 and 2007) and reached the playoffs the next two seasons before stumbling last year. Spencer, who ended his playing career with Colorado before moving into the coaching ranks, rode those highs and lows alongside head coach Dominic Kinnear.
“It’s a difficult league to play in because of the travel and the heat and the time zones,” said Spencer after the 1-1 tie in San Jose last Saturday. “It’s the same for everybody, not just for us. There’s weeks and months when you’ve just got to get your head down and dig deep, physically and mentally, and try to get results. It was one of them games tonight.”
The point improved Portland’s road record to 1-6-3; not good, but after just two ties in the first seven away from Jeld-Wen Field, there are signs of improvement. It’s been a rough season for road teams; seven, including Portland and glamorous New York, have one or zero away wins in 2011.
“You’ve got to pick up points on your travels,” says Spencer. “People say, ‘You’ve only won one game on the road.’ Well, there’s not many teams that have won five, six or seven on the road, either. We’re still two or three games short, home or away, of being a playoff team. We’ve just got to keep focused.”
From the first day, Spencer charmed the press and public in Portland, jiving and joking at training sessions, chewing gum and blowing bubbles as cameras rolled and reporters babbled. His TV commercial for jersey sponsor Alaska Airlines, in which he berates a man yakking on a cell phone and befuddles the other passengers with his accent, is a classic. His players seem enchanted, too, even when the feisty Scotsman lashes them.
“He’s a real fun coach to play for,” says winger Sal Zizzo, who came to MLS last season after years of struggling to find a place with German club Hannover. “He’s always joking but when it comes down, he’s real serious. A lot of the guys feed off that. He’s a great motivator.”
He confesses to some mixed feelings heading back to Houston, where he led the reserve team to the 2008 title in his first head coaching gig. Three weeks ago, he swung a trade to get two Dynamo players – Mike Chabala and Lovel Palmer – onto his roster in an effort to get into the playoffs, perhaps at the expense of his former employer.
“To be honest, I still feel very strange watching the team play on the field and on television and not being a part of it,” Spencer said to mlssoccer.com. “They’re the first result I look for every weekend -- it’s going to be a hard thing for me coming [back].”
Nothing can match what he feels in Portland, which he likens – in a much more civilized version -- to what he experienced playing for Rangers against their bitterest rival. “It’s a little bit like a Celtic and Rangers game every week,” he says, with a qualifying clarification. "The tension’s there.
“Obviously it doesn’t have the same hatred, but it has that pressure. You had to be a special character to play there or coach there because the fans expect nothing but the best, and expect you to win every game, so it’s a good place to be.”