PORTLAND, Ore. – In February last year, Merritt Paulson was a confident man.
His expansion Portland Timbers were coming off an inaugural season that exceeded most expectations, narrowly missing the MLS Cup playoffs after a race that carried on to the final week.
And heading into the club’s encore season behind the charismatic and media darling head coach John Spencer, Paulson and company lured in one of Colombia’s top young talents in forward Jose Adolfo Valencia. And to top it off, Paulson, team owner and president, made headlines with the signing of the Scottish Premier League’s all-time leading goal scorer Kris Boyd.
The outspoken Paulson not only guaranteed goals and exhilarating play but wins as well.
And then it all came crashing down.
Valencia came into preseason camp with a knee injury that would ultimately need season-ending surgery. Boyd, for reasons up for debate, turned in a pedestrian season that also ended more than a month prematurely due to injury.
And with the club languishing near the bottom of the table and likewise in nearly every offensive category by the end of June, Spencer was sent packing.
It was, to say the least, a pride-swallowing season for Paulson in many ways. After the team turned the page on the 2012 season, MLSsoccer.com sat down with Paulson in his office that overlooks the pitch at JELD-WEN Field to discuss all that went on.
“I had expectations that we would improve upon our first year, which was a really fairly successful year for an expansion team,” Paulson said. “And I certainly didn’t expect we’d be making a coaching change. A lot of things didn’t go according to plan. But, you know, a little adversity is very illustrative in showing real character. It’s the tough times when you can look in the mirror and find out who you really are.”
One of those moments came following the team’s sixth road loss of the season July 7 in a 3-0 rout against Real Salt Lake. In eight games away from JELD-WEN Field at that point, the Timbers had scored just one goal.
Two days later, Paulson announced in an emotional press conference that Spencer had been fired. Paulson, who was admittedly personally close to Spencer, said the decision was tough but necessary.
“It’s a difficult thing to go through,” Paulson said.
And while the circumstances to Spencer’s firing were certainly not something Paulson expected, he said the inner details of their relationship and why it soured will likely never be fully disclosed.
“We want to be open with the fans and media, but we don’t want to be airing dirty laundry, either,” he said. “I was candid with John. But I think, other than just saying we had our differences and felt the need to go a different direction, it was certainly not the plan. A tough decision, but obviously I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think it was the right decision.”
The philosophical differences played out on the field after general manager Gavin Wilkinson took over coaching duties as overall offensive numbers improved, ultimately leading to their first road win Oct. 21 against Vancouver. Paulson said that same philosophy led to the hiring Caleb Porter as their next head coach, tabbed after a search Paulson called “extensive.” He said there was no hesitation in bringing aboard a coach with no MLS coaching experience, familiar in that Spencer also had no head coaching experience. He said Porter, a former MLS player who had reportedly turned down other MLS coaching opportunities in the past, was hired with long-term success in mind.
“I feel like this guy is a bright star,” Paulson said of Porter, who is finishing out the season as the head coach at the University of Akron, where he won the 2010 NCAA title with current Timbers forward Darlington Nagbe. “I’m leery of putting too much pressure on him too soon. We have to make sure that he’s got plenty of runway to build this thing right. I think we’ve been working to make sure it’s not one step forward and two steps back. I think we had some traction towards the end of the year, and hopefully that can carry over to next year.”
Paulson said he and Wilkinson are frequently in touch with Porter, who will join the Timbers in January. And several of the moves made after Spencer’s departure were made with Porter’s input. Paulson said Porter’s philosophy matches with the strategies implemented by Wilkinson.
And that’s by design, Paulson said. He said that while the head coaching change was unexpected, it isn’t a complete organizational overhaul and the team’s assistant coaches will be retained.
“Caleb espouses those same ideals of the kind of play we want to lean towards,” Paulson said. “I do think that there’s going to be more continuity with this change than you might expect.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.