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.

Soccervision

It’s long been accepted wisdom, in the UK at least, that Americans don’t get football, and most likely won’t ever get it. They’d much rather watch hillbillies drive round in circles for hours on end, or padded freaks of nature crash into each other than enjoy the sport that the rest of the world recognises as the beautiful game.

It wasn’t for for the likes of them.

Except that in my brief stay over here it’s already clear that there is a growing proportion of American sports fans that are turning on to football. Literally.

This past weekend saw every single match on the closing day of the Premier League season screened live across Fox’s network of sports channels and ESPN, in an event called “Survival Sunday”.

This unprecedented event follows strong ratings for matches, with ESPN recording over a million viewers for the recent Manchester derby, while competitions like the Champions League also consistently draw high ratings.

It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that most of these matches – the Champions League group stages in particular – will take place during weekday afternoons. Many Premier League matches kick off in early morning for West Coast based footy fans.

They’re not prime time events, yet the fans know what they want, and are willing to seek it out, and the television networks have taken note. Make no mistake, if football wasn’t a big draw, Fox wouldn’t give it a second glance, yet it even has a dedicated soccer channel.

The breadth of choice for the football fan in the States is staggering. Coming from a country where live coverage of much of the sport is in the iron grip of vastly overpriced subscription channels, it really is a breath of fresh air.

And it’s really not that surprising. The sport is growing in popularity all the time. It’s the most popular team sport for under 13s, and 60% of soccer players are under the age of 18. It’s this new generation of football fans that will continue the sport’s rapid growth, as their love affair with soccer blossoms.

The missing link is in the domestic game. Attendance at MLS matches continues to grow thanks in large part to some very smart expansions in recent years – the end of the 2011 season saw MLS rise to 3rd in average attendance at professional sports, behind NFL and MLB. Yet, the television ratings still disappoint. Only 70,000 tuned in to a recent New York vs New England match, and it’s a rare event that sees the ratings nudge towards 500,000.

It could be a snobbishness towards MLS, considering it an inferior product, that lies behind some of the ratings disparity. Perhaps it’s the (relative) lack of history or drama that the final day of the Premier League season threw up, or the major European competitions regularly do.

While MLS is clearly not on the level of a Premier League or La Liga in terms of overall quality, the football is improving all the time. It is, however, difficult to increase quality greatly when a career in soccer can’t yet offer the same financial rewards to those kids playing the game that other major American sports can.

The average salary of even the NHL is over $1.3 million, a figure only a select few can hope to earn playing Major League Soccer. The average salary of NBA players dwarves even that of an MLS teams entire salary cap. This bleeding of talent from the game lowers the pool available to MLS clubs, though they may hope to plug this leak with the development of youth academies that will funnel the best players to the top.

Growing the sport at the grassroots, and bringing through fresh, exciting local talent will help to turn eyes towards the league. Tapping urban areas for the kinds of players that are largely lost to soccer will also be key to increasing the sports broad appeal.

But it shouldn’t be an either-or situation for football fans in the States. MLS and European or South American football can happily co-exist and even compliment each other as anyone who has followed Clint Dempsey’s career from MLS to Premier League could testify.

There is still a resistance to soccer among many American sports fans, but there’s been a shift in recent years away from trying to court these casual fans to the game. This older generation are not the market that soccer is aiming for any more, and it’s allowed MLS in particular to be more focussed on delivering a strong product to those that already love the game, but haven’t yet fallen in love with the American flavour of soccer.

The outlets are certainly there as the big sports broadcasters in the States have all awoken over the past few years to the huge potential of football. Advertisers clearly see value in placing their ads during shows, and footballers such as Lionel Messi, Frank Lampard and Sergio Aguero are seen as viable ambassadors for brands like Pepsi across even non-soccer specific channels.

This summer will see every match of the European Championship broadcast by ESPN, with over 200 hours of coverage dedicated to the event, as well as the continued coverage of MLS who may hope for a ratings bump as a result.

More people are playing it. More people are going to matches. More people are tuning in.

It’s safe to say soccer is here, and it’s here to stay.

Viva la Fútbol

Playing the Wigan Way

As January rolled into February, one thing looked certain in the English Premier League – Wigan Athletic were going down. They had lost 14 or their 23 matches, and were stuck on a paltry 15 points. They lost every match in September and October in a 8 match losing streak (9 if you include a League Cup defeat at Crystal Palace), before repeating that trick in January, losing all four league matches, and a FA Cop match at League Two side, Swindon Town.

And yet, a curious thing happened. Wigan lost only three of their next 13 matches, a run of results that has seen them out of the bottom three and looking like a good bet to stay up. Such has been their form over these 13 games that extrapolating it across a season, it would’ve seen them finish 5th last year, above Spurs.

It was, in short, a massive turnaround.

A large factor behind the recent upturn in results has been a tactical switch by Roberto Martinez.. Martinez has always tried to instill his teams a desire to get the ball down and play a quick short passing game, as can be seen in the current Swansea City team that still bares many of his hallmarks following his time in charge there from early 2007 to the summer of 2009.

He brought a similar philosophy to Wigan, yet results have seen the club mired in relegation battles year after year.

One of the big factors behind the recent upturn in fortunes for the Latics has been Martinez’s switch from a back four to back three.

The question is, could this current Wigan side be a template for the Portland Timbers to follow?


It’s been a difficult 2012 for the Timbers so far. Their first 8 matches have seen 5 defeats, with the most dispiriting coming in a toothless 2-0 defeat to expansion side Montreal Impact. In a weird coincidence, if you were to take that form across 23 matches the Timbers would lose, you guessed it, 14 of them – just like Wigan. You can whistle the Twilight Zone theme here, if you so wish.

John Spencer, now in his second year as head coach, has taken some criticism for his team selections and perceived lack of tactical flexibility. Much of it, I must admit, from me. He has thrown up a few variations – going with a midfield diamond, or an anchor sitting between defence and midfield, but all are very much under the 4-4-2 umbrella.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Spencer is seemingly wedded to this way of playing. For much of his time in the UK, and then in the States, the 4-4-2 was the predominant tactic. It’s what he’s used to, what he probably feels he knows best. But whatever the reasons, the results are that it’s simply not working right now.

Which isn’t to say a 4-4-2 doesn’t have it’s place, but given the personnel available to him, it simply doesn’t seem to be bringing out the best in his players. Too many players are asked to play in positions or roles that are unfamiliar or don’t suit them. Does anyone really believe Diego Chara is a wide midfielder? Or Jack Jewsbury the attacking hub?

Before we get to how Wigan’s new formation would work for the timbers, let’s look at how it stacks up, taking each players’ “influence” from the FourFourTwo StatZone app for the past four matches. (By the way, please do a MLS version!)

**PIC MISSING, SORRY!**

As you can see, the 3-4-3 is oft-times more a 3-4-2-1. I’m not the first to suggest such a change – John Nyen suggested a move to a 3-5-2 / 3-4-3 a while ago in a great article – but taking Wigan specifically as an example we can explore just how the Timbers could adopt much of what Martinez’s side do.

In my opinion, there are a number of similarities in the make up of the squads. Take Victor Moses as an example. Though Moses is often played as a wide-attacker, he naturally comes inside where he can be more involved, picking up the ball in pockets of space and running at defenders. So, that’ll be Darlington Nagbe, then.

I maintain that Nagbe isn’t an out-and-out striker, but neither is he best used out wide. In the 4-4-2 that Spencer is so enamoured with, there’s often no natural place to put Nagbe to get the very best out of him.

The Timbers don’t have a great squad. It’s good, and there are some real talents in there, but only those with the most green-tinted glasses would look at the squad as it is and think “top of the table”. But I’d maintain that, relatively speaking, the Timbers squad is no worse than Wigan’s is in comparison to the rest of the Premier League.

So it’s vital that we make the most of the big talents we have, just as Wigan do with their star players, and that means finding a way to let Nagbe off the leash.

Played in that role between the opposition’s defensive and midfield lines gives Nagbe the license to wreak havoc in dangerous areas. Joining him in the front-line are Kris Boyd and Kalif Alhassan, though it could easily be Franck Songo’o in place of Alhassan depending on form and fitness.

Though I wrote, way back when Boyd first signed, that he was only really suited to playing in a front two, I should probably have considered the context of *when* he’s been asked to play that role in greater detail.

When Rangers were in Europe, or facing up against Celtic, or for Scotland, who tended towards playing a 4-5-1 more often than not. In each of these scenarios, Boyd was playing in a team that was facing opposition of an equal, or greater ability than Rangers/Scotland.

In Europe, the modus operandi was to nick an away goal, defend resolutely and counter. It was a strategy that allowed Rangers to bore their way to the 2008 UEFA Cup final – an eight match run that saw them lose only two goals and play out 3 goalless draws on the way.

Similarly with Scotland, the matches tend to be about grinding out a result, a 1-0 preferably. Here the attackers role was much the same – run the channels, keep the defenders honest, don’t stop running, and then run a bit more. It’s more suited to a Kenny Miller than a Kris Boyd who is a “give me the ball and I’ll score” type than a “put the ball thirty yards over there and I’ll chase after it even though there’s no way I’m going to get it” one.

So, the best in Boyd has been brought out in a two-man attack where he can get fed the ball to feet and get a shot off. In a 3-4-3 system similar to Wigan’s, it would be the job of Nagbe and Alhassan to get into attacking positions and feed Boyd the ball in dangerous areas. Both are, I feel, more than capable of this. And the disparity in quality in the MLS isn’t as great as, say, Scotland and Holland.

Jorge Perlaza (and Mike Fucito, who I’ve not seen enough of to really comment on) is the loser in this system, though if the team wanted to play with two up-top it would be easy to throw Perlaza up there with Boyd, and put Nagbe in behind. Perlaza could be the Conor Sammon of the team – the under-appreciated striker who may not bag loads of goals, but will come on late to run at and stretch a tired defence.

Across the midfield are Steven Smith, Diego Chara, Eric Alexander and Lovel Palmer. I know that the party line is that Palmer isn’t a right-back, but there aren’t a great deal of options down the right hand side. I think Chara is wasted out wide, and I’d worry about putting an Alhassan or Songo’o in that position as it carries a large defensive element to it.

Steve Purdy could perhaps play there, and If Spencer is determined to get Jewsbury in the starting line-up at all costs, Alexander could go wide right.

Smith, with Rodney Wallace as cover, has played as a left midfielder before, so I don’t doubt he could (given match fitness) play there pretty comfortably and he has a good delivery from his left boot if he can get to the byline.

Chara reminds me a great deal of James McCarthy in the Wigan midfield. Both are box-to-box midfielders, tenacious in the tackle and great at disrupting opponents and setting off counter attacks. I’d love to see Diego get the chance to play that kind of role in the centre of the field, but it seems he’s doomed to be a wide midfielder or defensive midfielder for as long as the Timbers fixate on their brand of 4-4-2.

Alexander started the season pretty well in midfield, and pitched in with a few assists, but has found himself out of the squad recently. I’ve been impressed with his passing and work-rate and think he could slot into the middle pretty well.

Across the backline are Futty Danso, Eric Brunner and Hanyer Mosquera. Central defence is an area of relative strength for the Timbers, with David Horst and Andrew Jean-Baptiste also in consideration.

Brunner is the holder, the Gary Caldwell, if you like. It’s a role that Eric adopts already – he’s usually the guy who drops off and covers behind defence. It would be his job to marshal the defence.

Mosquera’s ability to read the game has been impressive and he’s strong and quick to step out of defence to snuff out a threat. Like his fellow South American, Maynor Figueroa, he would have the job of stepping out of defence in possession and giving the midfield an extra angle for a pass. His passing has been pretty solid so far.

Futty, or Horst/Jean-Baptiste, would give defensive cover with Brunner. Both Futty and Mosquera would be expected to pull out wider in possession, opening up the field, but pull together in defence, closing down space.

From the back, Troy Perkins should be looking for Futty or Mosquera out wide, or Brunner or Chara dropping deep to pick it up, rather than resorting to long, hit-and-hope punt up the field. This way possession can be retained, and the play can be built from the back rather than coming straight back down the field at them.

Wigan's passing stats vs Newcastle

The way that Wigan play is all about short, crisp passing through the midfield.

It’s a shame that the MLS site doesn’t allow for breaking down the kids of passes made in a match, and I’m not about to start counting individual passes, but I’d wager that the Timbers hit a greater percentage of long passes. A large part of this is Spencer prefers a “direct” style. He wants the ball to go back-to-front in as short a time as possible.

Playing with Wigan’s template would mean a sea change in playing style. Wigan are more than comfortable to play the ball across the midfield and probe for weaknesses. If they can pull midfielders out of position, and open up spaces for a Moses or Jordi Gomez to receive the ball, they’re quite happy to take their time to do it, but transition quickly into attack when the opportunity presents itself.

Part of my reasoning behind putting Chara and Alexander in the centre is they’re both more comfortable passing the ball than Jewsbury or Palmer are in that position.

Keeping possession of the ball in the midfield would also help alleviate issues with late game tiring as anyone who’s played will tell you it’s much easier when you’ve got the ball than when you’re chasing it. I maintain that possession for possession’s sake is no great indicator of goal scoring or victory, but this isn’t just “keep ball” – the passing isn’t only to the side or back, it’s often little triangles and give-and-go’s, all designed to pull the opposition around and dictate the tempo. For this reason you need guys who are comfortable on the ball, playing in tight spaces, and with good movement. Chara and Alexander are the two I feel closest fit the bill in those regard, as well as maintaining good defensive instincts.

In defence, you often see the attacking two dropping into wide positions, and the wide players dropping back to form a 5-4-1 designed to stifle. Managing the transition of play is key to this kind of football. React too slowly to a loss of possession and you can leave yourself open at the back.

It may be that a 3-4-3 isn’t the way forward for the Timbers, but neither do I think the 4-4-2 as Spencer seems determined to stick to is. The fact is, the Timbers are a delight to play against. You know what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it and how to stop them doing it.


I doubt, in all honestly, we’ll ever see a system like this from Spencer, but I’d hope that as much as I and other fans are putting time in thinking about these things, that Spencer and his coaching team are too. Far too often it seems that the bare minimum of thought has gone into how the Timbers are going to play other than showing “commitment” and “guts”.

However the Timbers play, we’re all just hoping they can get the season back on track. #RCTID is more than just a hashtag, but neither is it an excuse to accept sub-par football. We’re better than our league position shows at present, I’m sure of it, we just need to start showing it.

Everyone wrote off Wigan too, and if they can do it, so can we.

#RCTID

Kris Boyd, Portland Timber

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]ortland Timbers pulled off a signing coup by announcing the signing of Kris Boyd, a free agent after a transfer to Turkey went sour over unpaid wages. The striker had made his name at Kilmarnock and Rangers in the SPL, where he is the leagues all-time top scorer. A move to Middlesbrough didn’t work out for a variety of reasons – Gordon Strachan had raided the SPL for a host of players, and they failed to gel. Boyd’s form suffered, a new manager came in (Tony Mowbray) who didn’t rate Boyd and he soon found himself farmed out to Nottingham Forest. Continue reading