The biggest development for fans of the Portland Timbers on Monday wasn’t that head coach John Spencer was shown the door.
When, at 9:22 a.m., the email arrived announcing Monday’s press conference, there was no mystery about what was going down at Jeld-Wen Field.
Spencer was fond of saying that everyone in the organization must earn the privilege of representing the Portland Timbers. Two consecutive dismal road performances — and an embarrassing loss to amateur team Cal FC in the U.S. Open Cup — certainly didn’t cut it.
But Monday was more about the ambition of owner Merritt Paulson than the departure of a coach. By firing a man he hired less than two years ago, Paulson demonstrated that providing a compelling product for his customers outweighs his personal affinity for his coach.
“I cannot stress enough that this is not an announcement I expected to make a year and a half into our MLS existence,” Paulson said.
Nor did it seem easy. Admitting a mistake — which is what Paulson did by firing Spencer halfway through the club’s three-year plan — never is easy. Firing a friend is even more difficult.
At one point while reading his prepared statement the owner choked up.
“There’s nothing I like more at our games than looking down at John when we score a goal and seeing him fist pumping, looking up at me,” Paulson said. “I like him a lot. This is a very painful decision to make.”
It was also the right decision.
Not because John Spencer wasn’t getting the job done. Not even because of the philosophical differences that Paulson said were central to him jettisoning John at midseason. And not because the club needs to change course.
There is nothing wrong with the Timbers plan of building around a youthful, athletic roster. As Spencer noted early in his tenure, developing young players into assets sought by richer clubs is smart business.
But it is wrong to expect an expansion club with neophytes from top to bottom to consistently beat more established professionals. Firing Spencer on Monday was the right decision because this organization needs some experience on the soccer side of things.
In Mike Golub, Paulson has a veteran to run the business side of his MLS franchise. With thousands on a waiting list for season tickets, Golub and his sales team are winning big.
Things are different on the soccer side of the operation. Gavin Wilkinson (who was named interim head coach) is a young general manager with no previous experience building a MLS-caliber squad. Paulson himself is relatively new to soccer, and to owning a sports franchise, for that matter.
This was Spencer’s first head coaching job. The roster, which he helped build, is populated with inexperienced players who might have a huge upside but who are learning on the job.
Forget ability. Even in a sometimes quirky sport like soccer, pairing a rookie coach and a rookie-filled roster is not a recipe for overnight success.
On Monday, Paulson fended off questions about the philosophical differences that led him to decide he and Spencer were headed in different directions. The owner and his general manager/interim head coach each refused to say if those differences included formations, lineups, or a tendency to emphasize defensive responsibility over the freedom to attack (a subject for another day, perhaps).
Can’t blame them for keeping specifics to themselves. Still, we learned something about Paulson:
His instincts are to be proactive. He saw no reason to keep Spencer on the job through the end of this season because he had decided Spencer would not be his coach in 2013.
“It is essential to me that the Portland Timbers brand be personified by continuity and commitment to long-term growth. Over time we will demonstrate that,” Paulson said. “However, I am a firm believer that when any personnel decision is made and final there is little to be gained from waiting to put it into effect.”
Will the effect of firing Spencer be to motivate the players and spur this Timbers’ team into the playoffs? Paulson was emphatic that Monday’s maneuver was not about surrendering this season.
But the impact of this decision won’t be measured between July and October. Monday’s decision will be defined by the quality of soccer the Timbers play soccer in 2013 and beyond — an improved fan experience that requires a more experienced head coach.
From the start Paulson’s ambition was to build a championship contender by the Timbers’ third season in MLS. On Monday he said that hasn’t changed. And proved it by saying goodbye to a friend.