Timbers part ways with Spencer amid rough stretch

John Spencer

Photo Credit: 
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Even beating the Seattle Sounders wasn’t enough to save John Spencer.

The Portland Timbers parted ways with the only coach they’ve ever had as an MLS franchise on Monday, with the team stuck with just five wins in 17 games this season and a dismal record away from the Rose City.

Timbers owner Merritt Paulson made the announcement during a press conference at JELD-WEN Field.

General manager Gavin Wilkinson, who helped lure Spencer away from Houston after a successful stint as an assistant with the Dynamo and hired him in August of 2010, will take over as interim head coach. The team will not seek a new head coach before the end of this season, but will instead focus on signing one on a list of 10 potential candiates by the end of the calendar year, according to Paulson.

"I strongly believe any coach needs an adequate runway to be properly evaluated and that too many owners make coaching changes hastily," Paulson said. "Given our record last season and the fact we are only halfway through the 2012 campaign, there will be some on the outside who believe the decision to part ways with John is impatient. What I will say is that 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.

"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."

Spencer finished with a 16-22-13 record after helping usher the Timbers into their MLS existence last season. The club finished with a promising record for an expansion club (11-14-9) and missed a postseason spot by just four points, but they’ve struggled to build on that strong start in 2012 despite the additions of Designated Player Kris Boyd, former Rangers defender Steven Smith and Colombian import Hanyer Mosquera.

“I want to personally thank Merritt Paulson and the Paulson family for the opportunity to be the first head coach in the history of the MLS Timbers," Spencer said in a statement. "Also, I want to thank all the coaches, staff, players and fans associated with the team. I very much enjoyed my time with the club and wish everyone the best.”

Paulson, meanwhile, cited "some fundamental philosophical differences" as the reason Spencer was let go, and not necessarily the team's record this season.

"This is not a team-record driven decision," Paulson said. "While it is fair to say the likelihood of us making this announcement while sitting atop of the Western Conference standings would be low, there are scenarios where we could have a worse record than we do and John Spencer would still be the Portland Timbers coach.

"This decision has zero to do with integrity and ethics," he added. "John has great character and is one of the most honest people I know."

Spencer’s final game in charge was emblematic of the team’s struggles on the road this season. The Timbers played even with Real Salt Lake on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium before the wheels fell off early in the second half, and Portland were issued five yellow cards and a red card in the final 30 minutes of a humbling 3-0 loss.

That result, coupled with another 3-0 loss at the Colorado Rapids on June 30, punctuated the Timbers’ 0-6-2 mark away from home this year, second worst in the league. The Timbers won just two of 25 games away from the confines of JELD-WEN Field during Spencer’s tenure.

“It’s great when we’re at home, sure,” Timbers goalkeeper Troy Perkins said after the RSL loss on Saturday. “At some point, you have to draw the line and say enough is enough.  Everyone’s got to say it, do it, believe it and whether or not we win at home doesn’t matter. At this point, we’ve got to win on the road.”

They did play well at home, however, including two recent wins that seemed to potentially stem the tide of Spencer’s doubters. The Timbers beat Western Conference-leading San Jose on July 3 and, perhaps more importantly, topped the Sounders 2-1 on June 24 for their first MLS win over their hated rivals from the Pacific Northwest.

In fact, Spencer’s Timbers played remarkably well in Cascadia Cup matchups, including an unbeaten mark against the Vancouver Whitecaps (2-0-1) and a 1-1-1 record against the Sounders.

But that wasn’t enough to appease a club with a hungry front office and a demanding fan base. Combine the team’s league struggles with an embarrassing home loss to amateur side Cal FC in the US Open Cup on May 30 and it’s been a largely disappointing second season in the Rose City.

The rest of the Timbers coaching staff will remain intact according to Paulson, who indicated that one addition will announced in the near future.

The Timbers return to action against the LA Galaxy at home on Saturday (11 pm ET, NBCSN/TSN2, Live Chat on MLSsoccer.com).

"We are not, by any means, waving a white flag for 2012 here," Paulson said. "There are still many games to play and we continue to have high expectations for the Timbers this season."