Getting To Know John Spencer

An engaging conversation with Timbers Head Coach John Spencer on his impressions on Portland

Last week, Portland Timbers Digital Media Director Brian Costello walked down into the lower regions of PGE Park—the sounds of construction excavators clanging on overhead—to meet the Timbers’ new Major League Soccer Head Coach John Spencer. Recently appointed to the post, Spencer was still settling into his surroundings and getting a feel for the stadium, the city and the team.

Spencer grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, and as a youth became one of the first Catholic players signed by the legendary and traditionally Protestant Rangers FC. Given Rangers’ historical and intense sectarian rivalry with cross-town, predominantly Catholic Celtic FC, Spencer’s arrival meant he needed extra security to get to and from the stadium. His career continued as he later became a talismanic striker for Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers, was called up for Scottish national team duty at Euro ’96, had brief spells with Everton and Motherwell, and eventually came to the United States to star with and captain the Colorado Rapids. The Rapids marked the end of Spencer’s playing career by inducting him into their Gallery of Honor. Houston Dynamo Head Coach Dominic Kinnear added Spencer to his coaching staff in 2006 where he was part of their impressive back-to-back MLS Cup winning teams. In August, the Timbers named him their inaugural MLS head coach.

It's clear that underneath Spencer’s warm Scottish brogue and friendly, charming demeanor that his on-field reputation as a feisty and gritty player still drives his character and definitely his ideas for the future of the Timbers. Here is a man who has grand plans for his team and is exhilarated to be a head coach in Portland. The engaging conversation ranged from his impressions on Portland, to what he’s working on for next season, to what kind of player he’s searching for. Rest assured, Spencer is ready to come out of the gate at full speed.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

Had you been to Portland before discussing the Timbers head coach position?
John Spencer:  I’d never been to Portland before. Once I’d heard that . . . there was going to be expansion and there was going to be a new team there, obviously, I had aspirations to be a head coach. So, I started asking around. Players that had played here before and people that had been at adidas that I had met, people at Nike that I had met, and asked them about the city and the state. Not one person came back with a bad thing to say about Portland or the state of Oregon. So when I got the call asking me would I be interested in an interview, I kind of played it down a little bit, and said, “Yeah, for sure. I’ll come up and speak to you guys.” But I had, like, my whole suitcase out the closet and had it packed ready to come up here. I had a laugh and a joke with [Timbers Owner] Merritt [Paulson] a couple of weeks ago. I said, “Jeez, Merritt, if you’d have known how much I liked the place, you could have probably got me for a lot cheaper.”

And your family is settling in?
Spencer:  Yeah. I mean we’ve got a daughter who’s 17, I’ve a son at 14 and I’ve a little baby—an 11 month old. He’s bringing me back to the waking up in the middle of the night so I’m struggling, but, you know, everything’s good.  Family—obviously at their ages—are finding it a little bit difficult to adapt, Having two high school kids and moving at that time of year and at that time of age, so it’s difficult for them to leave their friends behind but they also realize that they’re coming to a fantastic place. It’s a fantastic opportunity for their father. And they’re embracing the culture that is here. I think it’s a totally different setup from Texas. [Portland] actually reminds me of waking up in Glasgow everyday because we have that cloud cover. So it makes us feel a little bit at home. A lot of greenery in it. A lot of nice scenery about so that’s something I’m really enjoying at the moment.

It will always stay green, with the rain.
Spencer:  It doesn’t bother me. You know, people always say to me, “The Rain, the Rain,”—people from Houston—but I was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and that’s a much similar climate there.  I do feel that I’ve been here before . . . Maybe it’s just because it reminds me so much of being at home. I’m enjoying every minute at the moment.

The Portland Timbers’ USSF D-2 Pro League season is still underway with the team jostling for playoff position and players jostling not only for playing time and victories but also a chance to showcase themselves for next year’s MLS edition. What’s your role currently at this stage? Are you traveling with the team? What are you working on in the interim?
Spencer:  What we’re basically doing is I’m at practice every day watching the team. [Head Coach and Technical Director] Gavin [Wilkinson] is coaching the team. Obviously, he’s given me the authority to step in and make coaching points if need be. I’m talking to players individually in one-on-ones. But we’re planning for the future. It’s basically, I’m sitting here going over, analyzing players and what players I feel like can step up for the future and have a future at this club and help us to become a better football team. We’re emailing back and forth with agents, we’re organizing scouting trips, we’re doing everything that basically every other head coach and assistant coaches around the world is doing which is:  You’ve always got to look forward and prepare for the worst, really. And make sure that you’re covered, in every aspect. And we’re leaving no stone unturned. There’s a lot of people that want to come and play in this wonderful city. And they know, because they’ve heard through the grapevine, that it’s going to be a wonderful place to play next year with the terrific fans that we’ve got.

How do you feel about this as your first head coaching experience? Different recent MLS expansion teams have explored different strategies with the position. How are you preparing and addressing what will be a jump from assistant to head coach?
Spencer:  I know where you’re coming from. I’ve been involved as a professional for a long, long time in the game, in every aspect of it. I think the last four-and-half years in Houston served me very well. I think I worked under probably the best man-manager I’ve ever worked under in my career and that was Dominic Kinnear. And we still speak regularly. I have a lot of good contacts in the game . . . my brother-in-law is actually the head coach of Nottingham Forrest in the [English Football League] Championship—Billy Davis—and he’s a great young manager. So I have plenty of people I can fall back on if need be. In Houston, I was involved with Dominic, step-by-step, [and] always had his back. We worked together, we had success together, and had failures together. So I think that all of the experiences from the start of my soccer career as a professional right through to now, I’ll always fall back on those times. I would say that the difference is that obviously there’s more pressure. There’s obviously more time that gets taken up with calls, you’re dealing with agents more, you’re dealing with players’ contracts . . . I think the great thing here is that I think Gavin’s built, what he and Merritt have built from the start til now is the foundation [is] very good here. Myself and Gavin and with his experience with the city and the players already here—we’ll work very closely together. We’ll do a lot of scouting together. We’ll do a lot of scouting trips together. So he’ll have a big input on how things are run but at the end of the day when it the team’s getting picked and the team’s getting coached, etc., that’ll fall down on me.

Do you know, I don’t know if you can say, but when and where those scouting trips are going to be?
Spencer:  I don’t want to start naming cities and countries we’re going to. There are probably about two or three, possibly four scouting trips we’re going to arrange from now until the end of the year.

End of the season? Spencer:  Well, yes. Gavin’s going to be heading off on a scouting trip after this weekend and there will be trips coming up for both of us to go on. He knows what type of players that I’m looking for.

And what type of players are you looking for?
Spencer:  I’m looking for young, hungry players full of desire that are looking to make a name for themselves. And then obviously you’ve got the expansion draft; there’ll be experienced MLS players available, but I think we’re looking to build a young energetic roster with a luxury of carrying a group together for a number of years rather than going out and getting two or three older guys that are nearing the end of their careers that have their own big contracts that kind of ties you up a little bit and restricts you. I don’t think that’s the way ahead for this team. I look at this city and everywhere, I drive around the city and it seems to be a young, vibrant city, so maybe the team might reflect what goes on in this city.

We talk a lot here across the whole organization about authenticity and how does one maintain that authenticity. I think the players and obviously the fans—the Timbers Army and even the casual fan—get it. Building a roster that reflects that will be exciting, if not challenging.
Spencer:  It’s challenging. It’s not going to be easy. I had an old strength and conditioning guy that I used to work with a few years ago back in Scotland that said, “Anything that’s worth having, doesn’t come easy.” And it’s the same case here that I look at players here and I think that when I see a 24-year old guys, I don’t look at them as young players. I look at Wayne Rooney who is 23-24 . . . Ronaldo, Messi, all those guys. I’m not saying that we have the same caliber of players here in this country, you know, those guys are world-class players, but at 23, 24, you’re all the man you’re going to ever be. So you can’t be sitting back saying, “Well I’m not going to be ready until I’m 28,” because people write you off at 30 here so you’re only going to have two years of a professional career. So for me, when I look at 19, 20; I’m looking for you to be a man. If we draft—which we’re going to do is draft young college players—or the young [Premier Development League] players step up, I don’t want to hear that I’m young and inexperienced. The only way you get a chance to gain experience is if you’re good enough. So if you’re good enough, you’re going to be old enough.