As the MLS debut season inches closer each day for the Portland Timbers, the team continues to prepare for what will be an exciting year of firsts and growing pains.
The same applies to first-time head coach John Spencer, who has made the jump from a Houston Dynamo assistant to the top man in Portland. MLSsoccer.com’s Doug Binder spoke with Spencer about his first week leading preseason training, what his players have to prove and how he prepares his speeches to inspire his club.
MLSsoccer.com: How are you enjoying your first week as a head coach in the first week of training?
Spencer: Obviously, the title’s different, but I don’t see myself as a different person. I don’t see myself as a special guy. I feel like I’ve been given a fantastic opportunity at a club that has the potential, on the field, to be one of the best in Major League Soccer. But the hard part is getting that success on the field.
MLSsoccer.com: Over the last few months, how have you conceptualized putting all these pieces together and making a team?
Spencer: It’s a great process where you can go and kind of build something. [General manager Gavin Wilkinson], myself and the staff have had a great feeling about it. ... I don’t like us to look at ourselves as being an expansion team, as such. We’re a new team. But as I asked the guys this morning, "Do you think you’re good players?" And they went, "Yeah, we do." In my opinion, good players can play anywhere.
MLSsoccer.com: How quickly do you see relationships forming this week?
Spencer: Very quickly. That’s been the great thing about it. We did fitness testing on the first day on Sunday and did [40-yard sprints, back and forth], and as guys were dropping out, they were encouraging other guys they had just met. For me and the staff members, we were going, "Wow, this group looks like it’s coming together."
Obviously it’s going to get more difficult when we get down and start playing games and guys are not playing as much as they think they’re going to be playing. Then that’s when you see the true character coming out. I’m hopeful we can keep everybody involved and focused.
MLSsoccer.com: Many of the players on this team have something to prove. They are from Division 2, were not protected in the Expansion Draft, or are coming off an injury. Does that define the character of this team?
Spencer: You can’t have that chip on your shoulder for three months and then get into the starting 11 and think the job’s been achieved. That’s not going to keep us on the job, it’s not going to help us be successful. I said to the guys this morning, "It’s up to you not to get yourself on the team for the first game of the season, but to stay on the team one year, two years, three years."
This is where guys like Landon Donovan or Brian Ching or the Pablo Mastroenis of this world are top-class players, because they’re mentally tougher than what people give them credit for. They are top-end year in and year out. This is what we’ve got to try and create here.
MLSsoccer.com: How is what you’re doing now different than being an assistant at Houston?
Spencer: The job’s changed. There’s pressure, but pressure’s great. I prided myself, at Houston, that even [coaching] the reserve team, we never half-a--ed it. When the reserve team lost a game, I never walked out of the stadium and thought, "Ah, don’t worry about it. My job doesn’t rely on the reserves winning the league."
One thing that’s for sure, you’re going to get hired one day and you’re going to get fired one day. It’s just up to me, the staff and the players to do all that we can to prolong our careers. If we can get half the success that, in my eyes the best coach in the league, Dominic Kinnear, has had, then we’ve done all right.
MLSsoccer.com: How much planning went into what you wanted to say to these players in your first interactions with the group this week?
Spencer: I was joking with [defender] Kevin Goldthwaite after practice yesterday, "Jeez, golly, I’ve given my four best speeches, my only four speeches,, already, and we haven’t even gotten to the season."
For me, I’ve always tried to pride myself on being honest and speak the truth. I’ve said that to the guys. I won’t treat any of them any differently. I’ll treat them like I’d want my own son to be treated in a professional environment. It doesn’t matter whether you are at minimum salary or make DP money.
MLSsoccer.com: Preseason matches are coming up quickly. How challenging is that to prepare for?
Spencer: No excuses. What are you going to do? We’re on a level playing field with the same salary cap as everybody else. If I stand in front of these guys and say, "This is a problem, that’s a problem," I’m creating an environment built around that.
You know what? I’m confident. I’ve got a fantastic staff behind me. We’re good to go. Play well, or don’t play well, it’s simple as that. We need to get better? We’ll get better. We need to push ourselves? We’ll push ourselves.
MLSsoccer.com: You have an understanding for what it takes to compete in this league. Is this team ready or is it deficient?
Spencer: If you had asked me six months ago, "Do you think you would be this happy with the group in Portland?" I might have said no. It’s a difficult task trying to find good players. We were lucky with the guys we got in the Expansion Draft. I said it to the boys this morning: We got everybody that we wanted in the Expansion Draft, we got the kid we wanted in the college SuperDraft.
Kenny Cooper comes into the picture, Kerrea Gilbert comes into the picture, and all of a sudden we’re starting to build a competitive group. We’re not overconfident, because anything that’s worth having doesn’t come easy. The league has good quality teams. We need to prove that the coaching staff’s belief in this group matches our ambitions on the field.