Spencer's coaching staff built on trust, experience

Assistants James, Magee, Smith ready to work

Spencer and assistant coach Magee

Photo Credit: 
Liz Wade/Portland Timbers

As the Timbers players bond with each other and look forward to making the team, we shine a light on another team: the coaches. John Spencer has assembled a coaching staff from disparate sources with a deep knowledge of American soccer. They are all men Spencer has known for a while, and men he trusts. And like Spencer, two of the three have their roots in British football.

Amos Magee is a former MLS player and a former head coach with the Minnesota Thunder of United Soccer Leagues from 2006-08. He also coached with the U.S. Maccabi Men’s Open Team.

Having put in two seasons as an assistant coach with the Timbers’ second-division club, he’s the institutional memory of the dugout.

“My first priority is supporting John Spencer any way I can,” he said. “My role is to be honest and give insight.”

Magee is newly married and he and his wife enjoy exploring the city’s restaurant scene. Living in Northwest Portland, he can walk to his office at the stadium.

He’s a big fan of Minnesota teams – the Twins, Timberwolves, Vikings and Golden Gophers. But he has a soft spot for the EPL. “My parents are both scientists and when I was 12 my dad took a sabbatical, so we spent 6 months in North London. I had a tube pass and roamed all over the city on my own. I went to a game at (Arsenal’s) Highbury, and someone was going to take me to (Tottenham Hotspur’s) White Hart Lane but it never happened, so I’m an Arsenal fan.”

Magee will be coaching the team’s new reserve side. “I’m excited because it allows me to develop my in-game, on-field coaching,” he said. “We’re trying to develop players who can make an impact with the team, the league and beyond.”

The staff will take their cue from Spencer. “We look how to get the most out of the players. The easiest way is to be honest with them, we as a staff believe that,” says Magee. “When in doubt be honest, tell the players if they haven’t performed and why they’re not being picked. We’ve all played games, and not played games when we wanted to. I expect more times than not we’ll get it right.”

“We do it all with understanding that the club comes first, and we as a staff will do all we can to help team win and the club grow.”

Liz Wade/Portland Timbers

Trevor James was the last piece of the Timbers coaching puzzle, coming to the Timbers in December from the LA Galaxy where he was assistant coach. From 2006 to 2010 he saw it all working with three head coaches in Frank Yallop, Ruud Gullit and Bruce Arena, and of course stars such as Landon Donovan and David Beckham.

James, 49, was born in Norwich, England, and his pro career there played out in eastern England.He played under legendary coach Bobby Robson at Ipswich Town, and he also played for nearby Colchester United. In the U.S. he played indoors for the Los Angeles Lazers. As a coach he has U.S., English and European coaching licenses.

“My number one goal is to try to get the squad in a positive frame of mind, to give them confidence and get them to play at the next level,” he said.

Positivity in this case means both forward thinking, and forward playing.

“We want the players to go forward without forcing the game. This is different because I’ve been around MLS for a few years and a lot of teams will try to attack with three or four players in defense, in a holding position. We’re saying to defenders, ‘If the ball’s being crossed from the left why not get up on the right side?’ Obviously it all depends on the opposition’s formation. We don’t want to leave ourselves exposed.”

He says the drills the team are currently doing are pretty standard around the world. “We’re not reinventing the wheel.”

Working with the players on their psychology is just as important. He rates Bobby Robson as a great session coach and a great man manager. “I know of no better example of how to deal with players and get best out of them,” says James.

“He knew when to speak to players, when to give them a kick up the backside or an arm around the shoulders. He knew how players would respond.”

A newcomer to Portland, James is busy settling in. “I probably won’t miss the California sun as much as my wife,” said James. “But she’s a keen soccer person herself, she used to play. She sees the buzz around town and she’s excited too.”

Robert Mora/Portland Timbers

Goalkeeping coach Adam Smith has 19 years of coaching experience and has been with the Timbers for a year. He says Spencer’s first instructions to him were to connect with the players. “John wants us to invest some time in the players, connect with team before and after training. Not be best buddies outside of [soccer] but just sit down and say ‘How are you doing, how’re you feeling, how’s your body feeling?’”

The aim is to get to know how players respond to discipline and encouragement, and not treat them in a one-size fits all way.

Preseason is actually an easy time to do this. Says Smith, “It might be a bit different when they’re sat on the bench and think they should be playing.”

Smith works with his goalies every day for an hour. They either begin warming up with the team, or do goalie-specific warm-ups, especially for hands and feet. Later they join the team for sessions on crossing and finishing, or working on the shape of the team.

“Goalkeepers years ago used to get the old ‘Heave-ho, here you go, here’s a few balls, get yourself ready.’ I like to integrate them into the team when possible,” says Smith.

Goalies also now do video analysis on ProZone, looking at goals they’ve let in from different angles. “They study the perspective and we talk through what happened.”

Smith’s father Graham was also a pro goalie. The family were Everton fans from Liverpool but they moved around as their dad did, including stints at West Bromwich Albion in the Midlands, and Colchester United.

“America produces good goalies because there are a lot of big athletes here who look after their bodies and they grow up playing sports with their hands. They always say a goalie has to be a little bit crazy, because he has to be brave and put head in.”

Ultimately, the goalie’s art looks simple from the outside.  

“In my experience the game is 90 percent mental for goalies,” remarks Smith. “Really, as long as they keep the ball out the net, the coach is happy.”

As for Spencer’s expectations?

“I demand of my coaches the same thing I demand of myself. Always do your best,” he said.

“Trevor brings that older gentleman aspect, the guy you can always turn to in training  and ask ‘What do you think?’ He’s going to be a fantastic help to bring success to this club.

Amos has an unbelievable insight into the college game, he was tremendous in the draft.

And Adam I met in 1999 in Sweden. I was with (Scottish side) Motherwell on a pre-season tour and he came in to chaperone us. He worked a few sessions with the goalkeeper and we struck up a relationship.” A decade later, Spencer remembered his man.

After all the discussions and strategizing for game day, all the assistants know where the buck stops. “At the end of the day they’ll give me their opinions and it’s up to me to decide Number one to Number 11,” says Spencer. “And they’ll back me 100 per cent.”