Identity Issues

It almost seems too easy to pile on General Manager–and widely maligned ginger super villain–Gavin Wilkinson after the abortive mess that was the Portland Timbers 2012 campaign. Most, if not every, PTFC supporter is well aware of Wilkinson’s past hits; from throwing his squad under the bus (a few times), to somewhat callously slagging off players on their way out of town. Unfortunately for Wilkinson, with each interview he grants, the hits keep on coming, usually in the form of anyone but Gavin Wilkinson being made responsible for the club’s substandard play.

And so, with the first round of #Rostergeddon behind us, and the next round rapidly approaching, Wilkinson delivered another few gems in the form of two separate quotes on Monday:

“The general manager’s job is to get the pieces for the head coach to help the success of the organization, and it’s about the organization,” Wilkinson said. “And it’s also about giving Caleb the pieces he wants to work with, the pieces he thinks will contribute the way he sees them contributing.”

“We have enough athleticism, we have enough ability,” Wilkinson said. “What we want to fix is maybe the mental side of it and bring in mentally tough guys who have been in the league and succeeded in the league.”

Critics of the general manager will first point to the fact that by Gavin Wilkinson’s own standards, he has been an abject failure as a general manager. They will likely point out that the last two years have not done the organization any favors, particularly the way ‘upgrades’ and releases have been handled, and short of seeing the Cascadia Cup in the Fanladen, fans are very down on the club’s ability to perform in an MLS league that ranks somewhere towards the middle internationally.

But what I found particularly interesting about Wilkinson’s latest interview is how it plays into something I’ve been saying about the club since it’s ascendancy to MLS; it quite plainly does not have a footballing identity. While it ultimately falls on the players to play the game, it is the responsibility of management to set the direction of the club, which starts with the hiring of key staff and then make sure that staff does their jobs.

In the beginning, both Wilkinson and owner Meritt Paulson tried to sell us on a strategy of bringing in footballers with athletic prowess to make a team that could out-MLS everyone in MLS with hustle and and a pure athleticism that could produce some beautiful football and ultimately solid results. This seemed odd on its face given that the club had hired John Spencer, a manager who immediately implemented a 4-4-2 system, which classically relies on a solid back four that can defend and get up the pitch during an attack, coupled with a pair of central midfielders to support the back four and initiate the attack going the other way. Under Spencer, the team rarely found themselves being able to boast of success in either area. They were ostensibly a 4-4-2 team that couldn’t take leverage any the 4-4-2 formation’s advantages, due in great part to a bevy of personnel issues.


Attempting to spell out these personnel problems in each area of the pitch is difficult, due primarily to the fact that the personnel in each area of the pitch changed around so much, that John Spencer’s famous quip that he was fitting “square pegs going into round holes” became a talking point in its own right. However, it is fair to say that forwards were often more isolated than an ascetic monk on a hilltop, waiting for the inevitable long ball from a cartoonish rotation of unsuccessful left- and right-backs, all but nullifying the supposed athletic advantages the squad was meant to be built around. The midfield was toothless and unimaginative; often featuring two defensive-minded center-mids, with largely ineffective service sporadically coming from the wings. To use a very cheap analogy, it’s as if Merritt Paulson gave his GM the chassis of a Bugati Veyron and charged him with the task of sourcing parts and a competent driver, only to find what he saw as a Bugati running like a fucking Geo Metro with an increasingly befuddled toddler behind the wheel.

Looking from our tortured MLS past, to the somewhat unclear MLS future, that toddler, John Spencer, is but a distant memory in the minds of Timbers supporters and former Akron Zips coach Caleb Porter has been brought in to right the ship. The choice is interesting, inasmuch as it seems to be both an admission that past two years of football played at the club are to be forgotten, while still remaining well within the thus-far unsuccessful MO of owner Meritt Paulson, who is always after the next up-and-coming (read: unproven) talent to build his club around. The problem here is obvious, in a rush to obscure his lack of soccer knowledge and the FO’s gross  mismanagement, it seems that he has been watching Barcelona games on Fox Soccer, and now hopes to sell us on the idea that he’s going to build an MLS Barca here in Portland, without actually holding his people responsible for the success of that massive undertaking.

If you close your eyes, you can probably imagine Paulson yelling: “Just build me a fucking Veyron this time and let me know when you’re done, so that I can go for a ride. WEEEEEEEEEE!”

It is expected that Porter will institute a 4-3-3 system, one which is favored in the modern game by teams like Barca for its positivity, but which also places a much higher premium of player technique and creativity, especially in the midfield. When done poorly it can leave the back-line isolated and vulnerable to attack, something the Timbers were quite prone to under the more defensive 4-4-2 setup. Porter seems to be saying all the right things and his clubs at the college level have played some very attractive, and very successful football, but he’s not walking into a hand-picked group of players at PTFC. This is still a club with a fair amount of personnel issues all over the pitch. And so, it seems, the identity of Caleb Porter’s PTFC  will depend largely on the direction of Merritt Paulson’s “soccer guy,” Gavin Wilkinson. That last sentence isn’t one prone to give supporters of the club much hope. In fact, you may want to call your favorite Timbers supporter now to talk them off the ledge, if you haven’t done so already this off-season.

The way “Timbers insiders” will tell it now–in a revisionist history fitting of Stalin or George W. Bush apologists–John Spencer was basically in charge of personnel decisions, directing his boss to scrounge up the squad we saw the past two seasons. While it is reasonably to expect that Spencer most certainly had sway in the process, as any manager does, it seems incredibly unlikely that this was actually the case, particularly given the sense of exacerbation with which Spencer bemoaned the lack of solid options at key positions. But this revisionism, which smacks of desperation by the FO to deflect some of the ire seen in the North End towards the end of last season, brings up management issues that many fans have quite rightly questioned. Firstly, if Spencer was essentially in control of personnel decisions, what the fuck was Gavin Wilkinson doing the past two years? It certainly wasn’t his job, even as he has described it as recently as Monday. Secondly, if he hasn’t been capable of doing his job the past two seasons, why is he being given a third? I’ve yet to hear a decent explanation for this and I’m most certainly not holding my breath.

What’s staggering is, while it’s easy to get focused on personnel, Wilkinson’s history of general managerial incompetence, when it comes to shaping the identity of the club, spans well beyond player signings. When John Spencer was hired as the first manager of the MLS Timbers, it was based on his history and reputation as a highly respected coach in MLS under Houston Dynamo’s Dominic Kinnear. And while few could doubt Spencer’s energy, passion, and ability to work day-to-day with players, it was often that case that he looked pitifully out of depth on match-day, unable or unwilling to adjust to tactical changes and woefully off-base with substitutions. Things only got worse when Trevor James, an MLS veteran, left the bank at the end of the first season. Wilkinson’s answer was as simplistic as it was incomprehensible, he doubled down on USL-era coaches and perennial ‘parts of the problem’ Amos Magee and Adam James. The results were predictable as the club struggled once again to find an identity or any points on the road for that matter. The James departure and its aftermath may seem like a small event, but it was a clear opportunity for Paulson and the man he relies on for soccer related counsel to step in and assert some control over the situation, to bring someone in that could assist Spencer in bringing the team into his system before things got so out of hand that the club was dropping games to amateur teams in front of its fans to the tune of “Taps.”


But for 2013 at least, we are going to battle with Gavin Wilkinson at the helm, and what Gavin Wilkinson is saying is that he believes that PTFC is basically set-up to allow Caleb Porter to succeed. He would have us believe that it is not, as many fans have complained, a lack of quality on the pitch– or should we say the right kind of quality on the pitch–but rather a lack of mental toughness that has held this squad back to this point. This could very well mean that we won’t see a great deal more change to the roster ahead of the upcoming campaign, not even in key areas for a 4-3-3 formation, like the midfield.

Given Porter’s track record, particularly as the U-21 coach for the USMNT, it has to be said that short of changing his mind, this is the crux of the gamble Wilkinson is making with PTFC’s future.  As noted sports philosopher Shaquile O’Neal once said, “Don’t fake the funk on a nasty dunk;” either this team actually takes on the identity of a fluid, 4-3-3 style attacking Porter team–with the players we currently have (give or take a pair here and there)–or Porter could be forced to be the face of another season of disjointed, disappointing play as square pegs are unceremoniously and repeatedly jammed into round holes without even the courtesy of a lubricant.

For supporters, whose anxiety is sure to produce some positively epic SCUSA posts in the coming days, we can only sit back and wait to see what happens with the rest of #Rostergeddon before we decide just how much to freak the fuck out. With Gavin Wilkinson at the helm we may have to be resigned to the fact that as long as we have no solidified footballing identity and as long as failure is accepted at the highest levels of this club, this is what our normal is.


Admin note: Logan has asked that a line be edited from the piece as it seemed to be detracting from discussion of the actual thrust of the article. Let’s keep the conversation on what matters, please. Thanks.

Wanted?

With the team a goal down at home to their greatest rivals, Gavin Wilkinson must have at some point cast a glance across his bench in search of The One who could come on and change the game in Portland’s favour.

There he would’ve seen Kalif Alhassan, a mercurial winger on his way back to full fitness after a season that has defined stop-start; Eric Alexander, still the club’s leading assist provider, who had recently put in a great performance deputising for Diego Chara; Futty Danso, the big Gambian central defender who hasn’t kicked a ball for the first team since a 5-0 loss in Dallas; Mike Fucito, the ex-Sounders striker signed from Montreal; Danny Mwanga, a popular striker who had been traded to the club in exchange for Jorge Perlaza, who is now back in his native Colombia; and lastly, Kris Boyd.

Boyd was the marquee signing on the close season. A record breaking goal scorer, signed as a designated player to fill the gap left by Kenny Cooper, Boyd had joined when the club was still coached by John Spencer, and it’s not a stretch to speculate that Spencer was a big, if not the big, reason behind his decision to go to the Timbers.

He hit the ground running with a goal in his competitive debut against Philadelphia and would warm himself to the fans with his goal, and celebration, in the earlier match against the Sounders – a game the Timbers won.

But along the way there has been some rough sailing. A penalty miss against Cal FC saw Boyd cast as the villain to many, as well as some bad misses and a dip in confidence which led to his being dropped by Wilkinson once Spencer had been hustled out the door.

Confidence

Since his two goals in the 5-3 loss to LA Galaxy – Wilkinson’s first match in charge – it’s been a little over 400 minutes since Boyd last found the back of the net. There isn’t a striker who hasn’t gone through similar spells in their career. More than most positions the role of goal scorer is one that is founded, to a large degree, on confidence and once that takes a hit, it can take a while to get back on track.

“Instead of usually being composed and putting it in the back of the net, I’ve snatched at the last couple of chances. The chances have been there, it’s been bad finishing. It’s been bad finishing on my part.”

Boyd’s own words sum it succinctly. It’s the quandary a manager faces with a misfiring striker – do you stick with him and hope that a ball bounces his way and it sparks him back into goalscoring life, or drop him for the good of the team? If missing a couple of chances can kick a players self-belief down a notch, you can imagine that being dropped entirely isn’t likely to have him believe he can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Considering the season, in a competitive sense, is as good as over it’s pretty telling that Wilkinson dropped Boyd rather than let the highest paid player at the club play through a sticky spell. The suspicion is that Boyd was a “Spencer signing” and has no long-term place at the club under Wilkinson and Porter.

The Dike Factor

Certainly Wilkinson would point to the impact that Boyd’s replacement has had on the team. Bright Dike came back from a loan where LA Blues, where he’d scored a few goals – confidence – and found the net twice in his first three starts. Typical poacher’s efforts, both goals were scored in the box, as the result of fine work by Sal Zizzo to set up the chances.

Since a winning goal against Colorado though, it’s been a bit of a slog for Dike. He’s now 200 minutes since the last time he scored, though it was only the width of the post that denied him a winner against Seattle, and I’m not alone in sharing some doubts about Dike’s ability to lead the line as a first choice striker.

The received wisdom is that Dike is a better fit for the system than Boyd. As that system has changed, moving away from the 4-4-2 that Spencer played, so Boyd has seen himself pushed further to the periphery of Wilkinson’s brave new world.

The System

I had flagged up Boyd’s lack of suitability in a lone front man role as a concern when the Timbers signed him – urging that a good partner be found to play alongside him. Alas, the Timbers didn’t seem to know what they’d signed, or how to get the best out of him, and so he’s never really found the consistency that he had when he was focal point at Kilmarnock and Rangers.

However, where Boyd has struggled as the lone striker before is when he’s been on a team that has played on the backfoot. For Scotland, the formation is very much a 4-5-1, with the emphasis on the “5”. The midfield will sit deep, and Scotland will look to the lone guy up top to run into corner and chase lost causes all day in the hope that something breaks for him. That’s why Vancouver goal-machine Kenny Miller gets the nod more often than not, and why Boyd is no longer a part of the international setup.

Similarly, when Rangers were successful in Europe, it was built on a defensive model. The football was, all but the most blue-nosed would admit, absolutely fucking turgid to watch when Rangers made it all the way to the UEFA Cup final. It was once more a system built on having a lone man up top foraging for scraps. That’s not Boyd’s strength.

The way the Timbers have been playing of late has relied on the lone man up top, but it is a much more attacking, fluid style than that of Scotland or Rangers.

I’d make the strong case that both Dike’s goals would get scored whether it was Boyd or Bright on the pitch at the time. Dike made a good run, and showed good movement and composure to get into place, but he didn’t do anything you wouldn’t expect a decent striker to do. What made the goals, rather, was the build-up play, and it was this that was so often lacking in the early part of the season.

The case is made by some fans that the team play better because Boyd isn’t there. His presence is too great a distraction for those around him. I don’t really buy this line of thinking, firstly as I don’t think that his fellow professional are so in awe of him, and secondly because I think any upheaval in tactics and style is inevitably going to bring about a period of reconstruction and uncertainty in play.

You’d expect after five or six games of a new formation and philosophy that you would start to see the results on the field, and so it’s been the case. As players got used to their new roles and responsibilities, so the play has improved somewhat (in an attacking sense, at least). It’s Boyd’s bad luck that just as the team start to click into gear, he’s found himself on the outside looking in.

Take nothing away from Bright Dike. He’s done well, and I’m sure he’s a handful to play against. But really, is he really that much different from Kris Boyd?

The stats would back up their attacking similarities. Both take about the same number of shots per match – one every 30 minutes or so – though Boyd gets more on frame, 45% – 27% of Dike’s admittedly very small sample size (not a euphemism). Even minutes per goal, 216-267 in Dike’s favour, doesn’t flag up any glaring differences. Dike may show a greater willingness to chase shadows into corners, but I’d balance that by making a case that Boyd’s link-up play is generally better.

The Future…?

The clock ticked past 70 minutes and Wilkinson took another look across the bench. Danny Mwanga was the man chosen to go on and change the game. Boyd remained seated. He would stay there until the final whistle blew on a 1-1 draw that leaves the Cascadia Cup to be settled.

At this point it would be easy to start second guessing every decision Wilkinson makes. Did he bring Mwanga on because he thought Danny’s pace and energy would be the key to unlocking the Sounders, or did Porter want Danny to get some game time? Has Porter made it clear that Boyd won’t be a Timber come First Kick 2013, and so that’s why the Scot can’t buy a start right now? Does Wilkinson simply not like or rate Boyd, and so he’s choosing to leave him out?

Boyd’s ability as a goalscorer isn’t in doubt, at least with me. Mike Donovan tweeted during the match, asking if there was any current Timbers player who could do what Montero did, turning and getting a looping shot off as he did? The answer was pretty easy – Kris Boyd. I’ve seen him do it live for Killie, and then again for Rangers. A confident Boyd, given the ball into his feet around the box is easily capable of this. For all his other faults, he’s still a danger in and around the box. His goal against the Sounders reserves was as typical a Boyd goal as you’re likely to see.

Should his time in Portland come to an end sooner rather than later, as I expect it will, he’d make a great add for a number of other MLS sides, though my suspicion is that his future would more likely lie back in the UK.

Ultimately a striker will be judged on the goals he scores. That’s why Emile Heskey is largely a joke figure among fans while still maintaining the respect of the players he’s played with, and coaches he’s played under.

With Kris Boyd, I worry that he’ll leave Portland with the fans never having seen the best of him. I still think that he has another couple of years at the top in him, and I’d hoped that they would be with the Timbers, but like Cooper and Perlaza before him, he may pay the price for not being quite prolific enough.

Does he miss good chances? Yes, of course. If your goal is to find a striker who never misses, good luck with that Quixotic quest of yours.

The Timbers will visit San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake over the next week. Diego Chara will miss out due to injury, meaning a possible return to the XI for Eric Alexander. With Kalif Alhassan back on the fringes of the first team, and given how these two players more than any others have been able to get on Boyd’s wavelength, the next two matches may be the best possible time to give Boyd one last chance to prove his doubters wrong.

“It’s the manager’s decision. There’s nothing I can do except the next time I go on the pitch, prove that I’m good enough to play.”

#RCTID


[post_ender]

The Assistant

The recent English Premier League season ended with a promoted former-assistant at the helm of two of the relegated clubs – Steven Kean at Blackburn Rovers and Terry Connor at Wolves. Both had good coaching reputations, but neither could prevent their side from going down

It’s always interesting to see how assistants do when given the reins. It’s very much a sink or swim situation. Kean and Connor are the latest in a line of sinkers.

Brian Kidd is one of the highest profile sinkers. He had been assistant to Alex Ferguson and instrumental in bringing through some of the prodigous talent that propelled United to the top of European football, but when he took over as Blackburn manager in 1998, he prompted got Rovers relegated. Kidd is now back in his best role, behind the scenes, at Manchester City.

Another name that could be considered as a managerial flop is Carlos Queiroz. Not a bad manager, he found some success,and a number of high profile appointments, but there’s no doubting that Queiroz’s most successful spell came as assistant to Sir Alex. His recent appointment as manager of Iran certainly suggests that he won’t be bothering the upper echelons of the footballing pantheon any time soon.

Not all Number 2’s go on to fail when given the top job, of course. Bob Paisley faced the seemingly impossible task of replacing the legendary Bill Shankly at Liverpool. He swam, winning six league titles and three European cups. Not strictly an assistant, Pep Guardiola was a promotion from within at Barcelona, taking over the top job after a year in charge of the B team. It’s a trick Barça want to repeat following the appointment of Guardiola’s assistant, Tito Vilanova, to take over from him from next season.

As a Killie fan, I could also mention Kenny Shiels as doing a great job since taking over from Mixu Paatelainen, leading the club to a comfortable league position and a League Cup triumph.

The reason that all this occurred to me was that as the Timbers have struggled this year under the guidance of John Spencer, a lot of fans have voiced the thought that perhaps Spencer is an example of someone who makes a better assistant than a manager. A sinker.

Spenny had a few years as Dominic Kinnear’s assistant at Houston Dynamo before being chosen by Timbers owner Merritt Paulson to take over in the club’s first year in MLS. Paulson has always emphasised the long term nature of Spencer’s appointment, and the “project” they’re embarking on, but it’s hard to imagine he’s not been bitterly disappointed with the way the Timbers’ second season had unfolded.

Unlike a Guardiola or Paisley, or even Shiels, Spencer hasn’t served his “apprenticeship” in-house. Coming in from relative obscurity at Houston, he’s been thrown in at the deep end with a club whose fanbase is fanatical and fervent, to say the least.

Inexperience is a common theme at the Timbers. From a manager with no managerial experience, to a General Manager with no MLS experience and a young owner who’d be the first to admit soccer was never his first love.

Given all this, you might expect that Spencer would’ve been backed up by an experienced number two. Last season Trevor James had served as back-up to Spencer. James had five years of experience within the LA Galaxy set-up, but his tenure at the club lasted only a year.

This year has seen Cameron Knowles join Amos Magee – an assistant to then-manager, now General Manager, Gavin Wilkinson, during the Timbers USL days. The appointment is Knowles’ first coaching job following his retirement at the end of last season. He’s another with a Wilkinson connection, having played under him for the USL Timbers.

To go back to Alex Ferguson briefly, he has given a masterclass in how to utilise assistants over the years. The role of assistant manager is a hard one to quantify.

To paint in broad strokes, the role is to be a guiding voice to the manager, and a bridge from manager to players. Within those outlines, there’s much more to the role. He can be the guy who’s on the training ground every day, such as Kevin Bond at Spurs, or he can fulfil the roles and duties the manager doesn’t want to, as Sir Alex’s assistants have done for years when the grumpy Scot wasn’t talking to the BBC.

Rather than just throw his assistants in front of the post-match cameras, Ferguson has used the role to develop his club into a forward-thinking operation. The key to how Fergie has managed to stay on top for so long without going stale could be the way he changes assistants periodically to bring in a fresh approach.

Queiroz brought a continental, technical style to the club – he’s widely credited with the club’s adoption of the 4-5-1/4-3-3 – whilst Steve McClaren modernised with a pioneering use of sports psychology and in-depth analytical technology.

What fresh ideas and approaches Knowles and Magee bring to the club is hard to tell without being on the training ground every day. Given the tactical naivety shown by Spencer at times over his tenure, it does seem like he misses an “old head” to provide guidance.

This lack of experience – from assistants, to manager, general manger and all the way up to club owner – is thrown into stark relief by the team up the road.

Seattle Sounders, in contrast to the Timbers, installed a vastly experienced head coach in Sigi Schmid, and they hit the ground running with successive US Open Cup triumphs that have kept the customers in rave green and bule suitably smug.

Travelling a little further north, Vancouver Whitecaps somewhat mirrored the Timbers when they appointed a relatively inexperienced Scot, Martin Rennie, as head coach (though he had held the top job at a number of lower league clubs), but made sure he had experience such as ex-DC United head coach Tom Soehn as Director of Soccer Operations to lean on.

It’s hard to tell if Spencer himself is is a sinker, or his Wilkinsonite support network within the club hasn’t been able to give him proper guidance. Given I’m relatively new to the Timbers, I don’t feel I have the authority to go over Wilkinson’s role in the Timbers’ struggles, but if there’s anyone out there who wants to give it a go, please do get in touch.

Very few first time managers hit the ground running and deliver immediate results, and it’s often the case that relatively inexperienced managers are given a more experienced assistant to help them out.

Even a legend such as Arsene Wenger, who lacked playing “credentials”, had the “football man” Pat Rice as assistant, until Rice’s recent retirement. Spencer certainly doesn’t lack for credentials having had an illustrious career in the UK and US, nor does he lack for confidence, but something is certainly missing.

Following the ignominious defeat to Cal FC, there are no matches for the Timbers for almost two weeks, when they will travel to face LA Galaxy. Despite having a team packed with quality and experience, Beckham FC prop up the Western Conference. I hope to have an in-depth look at them in the next week or so.

Timbers gu bràth

Has Spencer Lost It?

There will be few of a Timbers persuasion who will look back on the the first few months of the 2012 season with anything other than a grimace/rueful shake of the head depending on how the year turns out. It has not been good. At all.

Midway through May the performances and results have been poor and the team find themselves propping up the Western Conference with almost a third of the season gone.

Such is the atmosphere around the club that Merritt Paulson’s trip to Munich for the Champions League final drew the ire of some. You can guarantee that a winning team’s fans don’t particularly care if their team owner is out of town on a jolly, missing a grand total of one game in a season. But when the results aren’t good…

Many fans are asking hard questions of Paulson and the Timbers front office, or of the players of the pitch. It doesn’t diminish their support, but neither does support mean tough questions shouldn’t be asked.

The question that’s been nagging away at the back of my head for a while now isn’t about Paulson, a guy whose love for the club I do not question, or Gavin Wilkinson, a General Manager with no MLS experience, or even the players, whom I think are giving their best under the circumstances. No, the question that’s been on my mind is this –

What the hell is up with John Spencer?

Hiring a manager with no experience of the top job was always a risk, especially without experienced back-up, but I felt that last year Spencer had shown some signs of progress. He’s certainly enthusiastic and engaging. On the pitch there were a few missteps, but as long as lessons are learned, then that’s fine. No-one expected trophies from the get-go.

The thing is that this year it doesn’t seem like the lessons of last year have been learned after all. The team seems to make the same mistakes, over and over and over again.

The last few weeks have been especially concerning for me as Spencer’s words and actions seem to indicate a manager who is, frankly, out of his depth.

Last month saw James Marcelin waived in a move that took many by surprise, but the real headscratcher was a couple of lines in the press release that gave the reason for Marcelin’s dismissal as “non-soccer-related“, and that the club had “a high level of professional expectations for all its players”.

Now, most fans are aware of the rumours about Marcelin, and few would describe the Haitian as a model professional, but quite why the club felt the need to include such a pointed, yet vague, dig at Marcelin is unclear.

Spencer undoutedly had very little to do with the wording of the press release, but Marcelin’s comments since getting picked up by FC Dallas that the Scot “doesn’t let you [play your game]” because “he’s just yelling all the time” probably points towards a personality clash that would’ve certainly hastened Marcelin’s departure.

The thing is, if the Timbers had simply said that Marcelin was surplus to requirements, and they felt the roster spot would be better utilised elsewhere, few would’ve batted an eyelid. Marcelin had never really commanded a place in the Timbers XI, and his effectiveness as a “closer” was questionable, at best. The little petty dig struck me, ironically enough, as rather unbecoming of a professional outfit.

Shortly after Marcelin’s departure, Spencer addressed Eric Alexander’s absence from the team with a very candid spiel on the midfielder’s application.

As he told the press, “[Eric] has been given an opportunity to play and is not playing to the best of his ability that we know how he can play. He needs to realize … that when you get the opportunity to play you’ve got to take it with both hands. Play well and stay in the team.”

This again caused eyebrows to raise among Timbers fans. Alexander, it should be noted, currently leads the club in assists. The last goal scored by a Timber came from an Alexander assist. Alexander isn’t playing, the Timbers aren’t scoring. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

Spencer sees Alexander in training every day – he knows more about him than any of us fans could hope to, so in some respects you have to bow to his insider knowledge. Perhaps Eric isn’t giving enough in training. Perhaps there is more to come from him. I wouldn’t dare to profess any great insight into whether Eric Alexander isn’t doing his best.

My issue is that publicly calling someone out isn’t, to my mind, the way to get more effort from that person. What sort of message does it send to other players as well that a manager under pressure and facing questions about his own performance is going to throw one of his (better) players out there as not doing enough?

There are those who’ll say that Spencer is just answering the question honestly. Hey, I can respect that. The meaningless clichés of football are one of my big bugbears. But I’d say that the place for blunt “honesty” is the locker room, not in front of the assembled press. You can be honest and diplomatic at the same time.

It doesn’t seem that Spencer’s public pep-talk has done much to improve Alexander’s efforts as he’s since been limited to cameo appearances, while Lovel Palmer has settled in at centre midfield. There are some who’d read Spencer’s “play well and stay in the team” line and then look at the team sheet with eyebrows raised so high they’d be halfway down the back of the neck.

The last couple of matches have at least seen the team come together defensively and put in some good shifts at the back, keeping two clean sheets back-to-back. Something to be applauded. A great foundation to build upon.

The problem has been that the team has offered very little in attack. It’s over 7 hours since a Timber put the ball in the net.

John Spencer, speaking to Timbers Insider, addressed fans concerns about a lack of attacking midfielders with a dismissive “square pegs in round holes” dig. “You’re just putting a blindfold on and throwing a dart at a dartboard and hopefully it comes up trumps. We’re not coaching [youth soccer] where you can do what you want. We’re a professional level, you’ve got to play the players in the positions that they’re accustomed to.”

Take that fans. You know nothing. Now run along, there’s a dear.

If any fans had eyebrows left, reading that has probably shot them off into near-Earth orbit. “Play the players in the positions that they’re accustomed to.” Really, John? You’re actually using that line?

I suppose you mean guys like Diego Chara, the winger? Or Jack Jewsbury, the attacking midfielder?

Either Spencer is forgetful, or he’s a hypocrite. He’s the guy that’s been playing players out of position, consistently. That’s the problem. John.

There are few who believe that Nagbe’s rightful position is up top. His best work has come from deeper positions, when he can get turned, get his head up and run with the ball. Yet he’s found himself leading the line, or even stuck out wide.

The passive-aggressive tone of Spencer’s reply is that of the age-old defence – if you’ve not done it yourself, you can’t possibly be qualified to talk about it. Yeah, I don’t get paid to do this (I actually pay for the privilege with hosting costs), nor do I have coaching badges or experience of playing beyond school’s level, but don’t insinuate that I, and other fans, don’t know what we’re seeing.

I don’t have to have directed a blockbuster movie to know that Battleship is a steaming crock of shit. I don’t have to have written and performed a Top 10 hit to know that Justin Bieber is the greatest single threat to humanity since the invention of the A-Bomb.

And I don’t have to have managed a professional team (or youth soccer – hey youth soccer coaches, you suck too!) to know that this isn’t good enough, and you haven’t shown anything to suggest that you have any idea how to fix it.

To the list of unprofessional players, players who aren’t working hard enough, and an overabundance of square pegs, you can add “too many young players” to the list of reasons why the Timbers are underachieving this year.

“”I think we are underachieving when it comes to getting good service [to the attackers],” Spencer said to OregonLive.com. “We are inconsistent in that department. But that comes from having young players. They’re going to have inconsistencies.”

Well, I for one am glad that’s been sorted out. We’re not scoring because we have too many young players, not because we lack an attacking midfielder, or we’re benching our leading assist creator. It’s the young players!

Which is, quite frankly, horse shit. Freshly laid, steaming equine manure.

Let’s look at the numbers. The average age of the Timbers starting midfield and attack in the last tow matches is over 25. Only one player, Nagbe, could reasonably be tagged as “young”. Rodney Wallace, the next youngest at 23, has over 60 MLS starts to his name.

Meanwhile, at DC United – a team that have scored 22 in 13 matches, compared to the Timbers 9 in 10 – four of their most used midfield and attackers are 22 or under. The average age of their 7 most used midfielders and attackers comes in at a full year younger than the Timbers “kids” (a little over 24) – and that includes Dwayne De Rosario, a player so old he still remembers when everything was black and white. Take DeRo out of the mix and the average age crashes below 23. Nagbe is a veteran in that set up.

I’m not buying it, John.

Now, you could certainly make the case that Spencer had little or nothing to do with the Marcelin press release, and argue that Spencer’s comments about Alexander are just a sign of the man’s honesty and willingness to give a straight answer, but the last two examples are the most worrying to me.

These are the words of a manager who either doesn’t realise the problems the team faces, or doesn’t know how to right them. The passive-aggressive obfuscation of the fans legitimate concerns is getting old, fast.

It seems that whenever the pressure is on the manager, and questions are asked, the answer is the same: it’s the players. They’re not doing enough, or they’re inconsistent or too young. There’s always someone else to blame. Luck, referees, conditions. The list of excuses is as long as it is fatuous.

I might not know the answer of who to put the Timber back on track, but then it’s not my job to. It’s John Spencer’s, and if he doesn’t even understand the question in the first place, that’s not just worrying, it’s downright terrifying.

Tomorrow the Timbers face Chicago and have a chance to lay a marker down for the rest of the season. The rot stops here, and the goals will flow. No-one will be happier to see John Spencer turn it round, you might be surprised to hear, than me. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I’m starting to lose faith in the man in charge.

I firmly believe we have the players to go out and play a creatively attacking game, while remaining defensively responsible. Whether Spencer will let his young square pegs go out and do it is another matter.

#RCTID through the good times and, especially, the bad.