I returned from a beautiful two day sojuourn into the heart of Timberlandia Tuesday, exploring the idyllic alpine lakes in the foothills of Mount Hood. Out of the woods and back on the grid, the peaceful serenity of that scene was soon rudely interrupted with a flurry of texts and voicemails, news of John Spencer’s dismissal the day prior by Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson making the campfire tales of Bigfoot seem more believable than the news staring back from my smartyphone.
Sitting stoically aside Paulson in the press conference announcing the Scot’s departure was general manager Gavin Wilkinson, the former New Zealand international now taking over the reigns as interim manager for the remainder of the season.
The official statement from now former gaffer Spencer was both praising and pristine, the paragraph as prepared as Paulson’s but with phrases lacking the usual bite of the former Chelsea, Rangers, and Colorado striker. Conspicuous by its absence was mention of Wilkinson by name, perhaps simply an oversight of the man that convinced Paulson to gamble on his potential.
The image of the visibly emotional owner and club president was in stark contrast to the steely composure of Wilkinson, the Kiwi’s pragmatism for his now dual role now overriding the friendship with the man he replaces, if only temporarily. While the two were both in agreement on all players brought in, ultimately the proverbial axe fell on Spencer, and Paulson didn’t ask for anyone besides himself to shoulder the blame or responsibility of the decision.
Paulson spoke glowingly of Spencer, evoking memories of goalscoring celebrations and eye contact made from sideline to the owner’s box particularly indelible. Referring to the Scottish manager’s strengths, he went as far as to stay he exceeded the standard ten point scale, achieving marks as high as 15 out of 10. Fifteen? Spinal Tap only turned it up to eleven, and those guys killed it. High marks indeed.
The missing details come from what wasn’t said, the ones so carefully concealed so as not to be, as Wilkinson remarked, ‘misconstrued’. Paulson was cautious about what was said, speaking only in superlatives when discussing Spencer and downplaying the obvious, that 16 wins from 51 matches in charge was not enough to continue the experiment with a first time manager.
Wilkinson, who earned much of his pedigree as player, head coach, and general manager in the team’s second division USL era, was as integral to Spencer’s arrival as his departure. Spencer came in vogue as a managerial prospect on the rise following an MLS Reserve League championship with the Houston Dynamo in 2008, but the pressure filled atmosphere of the Fortress of Thorns ultimately proved too high a bar to meet, the jump in class a gulf too wide as the club made the step up to the top flight.
As the club prepared for its debut in MLS, the general manager and newly appointed coach both shared a philosophy of youth and athleticism as the building blocks of long term success for the club, Wilkinson’s establishment of a formal club academy system meant to provide a talent pipeline to Spencer, who many predicted to be an icon pitchside for years to come.
Spencer’s home success became both a measure of his potential and the deciding factor in his unmentioned weaknesses, primarily the inability to win regularly on the road, if at all. For a forward who found his finishing technique throughout his playing career, over his season and a half at the helm he couldn’t translate that into a coaching record better than 2 wins in 25 away attempts.
As Paulson alluded, if only a handful of the eight draws on Spencer’s travels were converted to three points, the scenario could be different and he’d still be holding down the job.
While the players came out in support of their departing boss, they’ve seen their own peers come and go on a regular basis in the team’s short existence in the first division, so the feeling that no one is safe from the chopping block is a message crisply and clearly delivered from the business end of the organization.
The words used to describe the motives behind the move were perhaps most compelling, Paulson stating, ‘it is essential to me that the Portland Timbers brand be personified by continuity and commitment to long-term growth’. While that can be read to say Wilkinson’s position is safe, the choice of the word ‘brand’ is the most disconcerting of the entire press release.
While Paulson’s passion for the team and the game are not in question, it’s not to say this is the first time he’s had egg on his face as he’s learned to handle the rigors of major league ownership. Shortly after the announcement of the team’s acceptance into MLS, the owner operator made a misstep with fans when he went too far in his attempt to ‘re-brand’ the Portland Timbers Football Club, the revised logo a bit too much for longtime supporters to swallow.
The move drew the immediate ire and consternation of the Timbers Army, whose backs the Portland transplant rode to a successful induction into Major League Soccer, a franchise awarded for the 2011 season along with their fellow Cascadian club, the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Whitecaps cut loose their inaugural manager Teitur Thordarson after only twelve matches, albeit with only one win in that short span, Spencer given a much longer chance to prove himself before his his time came due.
While Paulson learned a valuable lesson in public relations from the logo incident, it seems his heart is still catching up to his head with his love for success both financial and sporting at times at odds with the most diehard base of supporters. The Timbers Army, the antithesis of Paulson’s marketing assault on the masses, prefers a word of mouth approach as their modus operandi.
The group became a political force during the campaign to earn the backing of civic officials to pave the club’s entry into the top tier league, its transformation into the non-profit 107IST (Independent Supporters Trust) and subsequent Operation Pitch Invasion embedding its grass roots in the community even further. In this context, changes of the nature of the manager’s firing are of no small importance, rather they are highly consequential culturally.
Surely, Paulson’s Timbers do excellent work in the community in their own charitable efforts, yet the owner can be viewed as the gladhanding mayor, his players kissing babies in photo ops while the rank and file supporters do their work with less fanfare. This is an unfair image of Paulson, yet one that is too easily lampooned when his credentials as an Ivy League educated son of a former Goldman Sachs CEO and U.S. Treasury Secretary are considered.
Those deep pockets make some denizens of the Republic of Portland wary of carpetbaggery, yet on the contrary the Timbers Army knows without Paulson’s vision and monetary clout we wouldn’t be discussing these issues with the same temerity today. Paulson’s entrenchment of himself and his family in Portland, as well as being an oft seen supporter in the North End, now possesses as much or more old school cred with the Timbers Army as many of those who claim to have been there earlier than last year.
Paulson has proven himself capable of forging ahead with a plan, but also knowing when to change course. While both the owner and the club’s most ardent backers are still of the same mind when it comes to winning titles, how that is achieved is not always seen from the same point of view.
Whether Paulson is answering to his own competitive spirit or answering to a power higher up his own food chain is indeterminate. His reference to external forces at play may be a reminder that while he assumes responsibility for all decisions made, he’s well aware that no one else co-signed on the loan he took out to pay for the team.
There is genuine sadness that Spencer’s tenure didn’t last longer and with more sustained eclat, but the man will be remembered for the tangible impact he had on the Rose City. His unforgettable star turn in the club sponsor’s popular Alaska Airlines commercial will be remembered not just for capturing the wit and candor of the man, it encapsulated how many were introduced to a manager that brought humility and humanity to a very public role.
While things didn’t work out for the wee Scot as the long term solution to lead Portland, for all his lack of consistency in results he could always be counted on for cutting to the chase with quip-filled commentary. I once asked John Spencer to become a legend, now I’ll have to watch him do so for another club while thanking him for his efforts with ours.
Spencer, deemed a failure after only his second mid-term exam, ran out of time to demonstrate the tactical nous necessary to compete at this level. Now Wilkinson must face the challenge of turning a team that gets homesick into one that can sleep as soundly on the road as they do in their own beds.
If Wilkinson can get just a little bit more out of the players as he hopes to do, his dozen years of experience with the club at all levels could come in handy for Paulson as he mulls who to bring in next. Whatever unfolds, the owner will be desperate not to look like a right prat.