Portland seemed to have made a shrewd choice when it hired John Spencer as its head coach two years ago, but after a promising 2011 expansion season a run of poor results sent him
packing to join a rather extensive list of men cast off in the last few years.
The firing of Spencer confirms once again that the formula for picking the right head coach probably will never be formally documented, particularly when it comes to expansion teams.
Starting up an MLS expansion team has its good and bad points. You get a lot of allocation money, a decent starting base of 10 Expansion Draft selections, and top pick in the SuperDraft. You’re usually not expected to win right away -- a notable exception to this is Seattle, more on that later -- so there’s often time to test and experiment and tweak and occasionally, rip it apart and start all over again.
In the case of Portland, Spencer had also been dropped into a ready-made soccer market and a renovated stadium that within minutes of its first league match had at least a few other teams envious. Yet that frenzied interest, naturally, cranked up expectations of results, which the Timbers did a reasonable job of meeting last year even though they fell short of the playoffs.
Spencer is a man of strong convictions, and strong words as well. As a player in Scotland, England and MLS, he relied on effort and ferocity. As an assistant coach, that fire helped drive to the Dynamo to a pair of league titles in 2006 and 2007, and as a head coach of the Houston reserve team he won another title in 2008.
A glance at the choices made by expansion teams during the past five years shows results up and down the scale. Propping up the list is Toronto FC (2007), which has employed more head coaches (seven) than its years of operation (six) in the league. Vancouver, which entered MLS along with Portland last year, is already on its third coach, but it’s also snugly entrenched in the playoff chase. Portland ’11 gave the postseason a good run before falling out of contention, but Timbers ’12 is languishing well short of a Western Conference spot, thanks to a miserable road problems (0-6-2) that Spencer couldn’t solve.
San Jose (2008) and Seattle (2009) went with proven commodities, men who had not only MLS head coach experience but had already won multiple titles. Though their fortunes on the field have differed greatly, Quakes head man Frank Yallop and Sounders’ boss Sigi Schmid are still in charge. Yallop has San Jose atop the Eastern Conference, and Schmid -- who has won three U.S. Open Cup crowns the past three seasons -- has fielded another competitive team as he seeks the franchise’s first MLS Cup appearance.
Philadelphia (2010) just gave Peter Nowak the boot. Like Spencer, he energized his players in a promising expansion season that fell short of the playoffs. Nowak got the Union into the postseason last year, which raised hopes for 2012, but a series of bizarre player moves and lousy results -- along with his brusque, grating personality -- prompted his departure. Montreal’s Jesse March just started his tenure in March with the league’s 19th team, however, it can be pointed out he’s already lasted longer than Teitur Thordarson, who coached the Whitecaps in the lower divisions and was dismissed just 12 games into his MLS tenure.
Portland could have followed the same formula as the ‘Caps by “promoting” Gavin Wilkinson, the Timbers’ head coach in its USL incarnation. Instead, it took the same route as Seattle and dipped into the MLS ranks, though as noted, Schmid had a long track record as a head coach and came to the Northwest fresh off winning MLS Cup 2008 with the Crew. He’d also won with the Galaxy in 2002. (Wilkinson served as the Timbers general manager when they moved up to MLS and is now interim head coach.)
I see a few similarities between Spencer and Nowak, though Nowak won MLS titles as a player and a coach and their intense demeanors came in different shades. Both were excellent players, good enough to represent their national teams without rising to the level of stardom. Both were tough men, not just in the rugged, physical nature of their play but also the extreme demands they placed on themselves and their teammates. And their brazen, bold confidence can certainly be persuasive.
Unfortunately, a coach can’t rely too heavily on his force of will to constantly drive his players, and along with their ineffective tactical decisions and personnel management, both Nowak and Spencer relied on their powerful personalities too often. A coach may believe it’s so because he says it’s so, but as the confused, sporadic play that typified the struggles of the Timbers and Union this season demonstrated, they and their players weren’t connected.
The Union won’t look for a replacement for Nowak this season and the job is John Hackworth’s for now. Toronto may be grooming assistant coach Jim Brennan to take over for Paul Mariner eventually, or it may start over again in November.
The Timbers are actively searching for a replacement, so do they go after a current assistant coach on another team with head coaching experience, such as Dave Sarachan of the Galaxy or Denis Hamlett of Montreal, seek a former U.S. Soccer employee (Bruce Arena, Marsch), give a former assistant coach his first MLS top job (Robin Fraser), look overseas, or find someone in the lower divisions as did Vancouver with Martin Rennie?
Since there’s no guaranteed formula, Portland owner Merritt Paulson -- whose agonized comments during the press conference announcing Spencer’s dismissal revealed how difficult the process can be -- has to first decide on a method before he makes his ultimate decision. For reasons the team would rather have avoided, a lot of eyes will be watching the self-proclaimed SoccerCity USA.