Portland’s road to the playoff truly starts in tonight’s encounter with Chivas USA at Jeld Wen Field (8 PM, ROOT SPORTS), with both clubs looking to use the match as a launching pad to the postseason. If the Timbers Scottish manager John Spencer is to get it right, he needs to make bold moves to not only win tonight, but capture the spirit of the club’s maiden voyage in the top flight, when the NASL expansion Timbers made an unexpected run to the league championship match.
One spot above the Timbers in the standings, the Goats come to town with renewed vigor after acquiring Juan Pablo Angel when he was deemed surplus to requirements at the LA Galaxy upon Robbie Keane’s arrival. A reinvigorated Angel scored on his debut for Chivas, and will be eager to contribute more to a team that offered him an open door as one was shut behind him. And while Chivas bring a Latin flair and Mexican heritage to MLS, the Timbers’ history is one current management has been more than eager to tap into, but are a team still looking for its identity in a roller coaster first season in MLS.
In the NASL days, Jimmy Kelly used to delight the home support with his ability, dancing around defenders on the Civic Stadium turf quicker than a sprite and more nimble than a pixie. His flopping hair and weaving style were reminiscent of a player we’d seen glimpses of in 101 Greatest Goals, the irreplaceable George Best, and his boots nearly as potent at creating chances and goals. It was perhaps fitting, then, that the two both hailed from that red club in Manchester, from a club that now holds a manager of Scottish origin as well, the incorrigibly successful Sir Alex Ferguson.
Guided from the touchline by Vic Crowe, and alongside Mick Hoban, Peter Withe, Willie Anderson and Tony Betts, the Timbers and Kelly boasted a creative nucleus that could score goals from all over the pitch. It was this offensive juggernaut that saw an expansion team turn into a title contender in a single campaign. Although ultimately falling short after a loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the 1975 Soccer Bowl, the team lives on in legend, a remarkable feat for a group of players thrown together just days before the season’s curtain raiser.
The quality was on display then, and the players were capable of showcasing finesse and power akin to the best around the globe. The current side playing in the top flight of MLS will surely know their own chance at expansion glory lies at their feet, and whether they take it or let it slip by like a nutmeg, we’ll watch it unfold under the guidance of one man, John Spencer. Possessing players capable of equally dazzling skill such as Sal Zizzo, Darlington Nagbe, and Kalif Alhassan, Spencer has yet to play the three in combination from the start, denying the Portland faithful a glimpse of what this side’s true attacking potential could be.
Spencer’s selection policies may be in question, but his passion most certainly is not. For all that drive, however, there is an obstacle in Spencer’s journey not yet surmounted, the motivational halftime team talk. Too often finding themselves down at the break this season, Spencer must learn to turn a match and rally the Timbers to come from behind to earn all three points. The first Seattle match was an inkling of things to come as Portland rallied for a second half draw in a hostile environment, but it came too early to be the turning point this side would need to propel into the promised land of the playoffs. It is this ambition and league position that puts the Scot on a level with another of his countrymen, the one currently resurrecting the red club on Merseyside, Kop King Kenny Dalglish.
While Dalglish stands as an example of how to inject life into a listless club, former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez also holds a lesson for Portland’s gaffer: the ability to spur on players against the greatest of odds. In 2005 we bore witness to the most epic comeback in the history of the Champions League to date, where practicality overrode preference in the Spaniard’s changes at the interval, while his words inspired the team to claw three goals back to force penalties and emerge victorious. As Spencer holds on to the withering strands of an MLS postseason berth, he must make one last gasp effort to regain his grip on the outcome, and make the changes that offer him the best possible chance to gain maximum points at this critical juncture.
The wee Scot has been a delight this season, the perfect personality to lead the Timbers into the MLS era, his quote-ability instantly endearing him to the Timbers Army, albeit with some missteps along the way. Spencer wears his heart on his sleeve, which can invoke comments as priceless as these following the first Seattle contest in May. “I think if it’s too wet up there for them to play soccer, they may want to move that franchise because it pisses down rain nearly every time I’ve been in Seattle” said Spencer. He followed with this gem, “next time we go up there, we’re going to take plenty of towels so we can dry the field off for them before the game, and take plenty of tissue paper so they can dry their eyes after the game.”
Spencer’s knack for the witty quip has made him a media darling in Portland, and he’s done well to deflect criticism for his players, standing resolutely by them but also cajoling them to improve. He appears an excellent man manager, one able to connect with his players at the individual level, but his tactics have failed to yield consistent results. Should he find the right blend of inspiration and execution, the Timbers are more than capable of going on a late season run to snatch a wild card spot. Once in the playoffs, all bets are off as the Supporters Shield for the best regular season record has proven no guarantee for MLS Cup success, and Spencer must remind his players that there is still all to play for this season.
If Spencer and the Timbers need motivation, they need look no further than the North End to understand the gravity of the situation and the impact the team’s performance can have on the city’s collective psyche. Spencer’s ability to deliver results in his first season in charge will be what defines his legacy for Portland supporters, who live and breathe the ethos espoused by yet another Scottish manager, Liverpool great Bill Shankly: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
Let’s hope tonight’s match reflects that adage, and that Spencer can make his name stand out like so many of his homeland’s counterparts. Here in his newly adopted home, it’s time Spencer seizes the moment and leads the Timbers to glory, writing himself into the annals of history to become the next club legend.