At 41, Spencer has already amassed a lifetime of soccer experience. He signed his first professional playing contract with Scottish Premier League powerhouse, Rangers F.C., at the age of 14. He spent the next two decades with Rangers and other elite clubs such as Chelsea and Everton, finishing his career with the MLS’ Colorado Rapids. In 2006, Spencer transitioned to coaching, winning two MLS Cup championships with the Houston Dynamo before becoming the first head coach in Timbers’ MLS history.
In many ways, Spencer’s Timbers are an embodiment of the market in which they play and, at their best, a reflection of the coach they play for: an endearing team, operating with fewer resources than their competitors (Portland had the lowest payroll in the MLS in 2011), bereft of glamorous talent, relying on a lunch-pail attitude and doggedness befitting of their coach.
After narrowly missing the MLS playoffs in their inaugural season, Spencer isn’t shy about his ambitions for the Timbers’ sophomore campaign. Undoubtedly, the blind enthusiasm of 2011 will be dampened by heightened expectations in 2012. Shiny new talent and a few dozen training sessions probably won’t close the talent and experience gap on the rest of the league. To be successful in 2012, Spencer will have to teach the Timbers to play bigger than they are.
At what point in your playing career did you start thinking about becoming a coach?
There wasn’t one point during my career that I ever thought about becoming a coach. I’ve always had a mentality that once you start thinking about doing something else, you almost have one foot out the door from the job that you’re doing. For me, that job was being a soccer player. I didn’t like to have distractions in my mind, because looking after your body 24/7 to be a good pro and a good player is a full-time job. I never really thought about anything else until the end came.
So how did you get into coaching? Has there been a particularly validating experience that made you think—I can be good at this?
I fell into coaching by mistake. I was in London doing some TV work for Chelsea TV and I got a call from an ex-teammate of mine about an opportunity with the Houston Dynamo. I never really considered coaching. I actually liked doing the color commentary. I never thought I’d get the job, but a couple of guys turned the job down and they offered me the position. My mentality was that I had a 2 year contract and it would take a couple of months for me to transform myself mentally from being player to a coach to see if I’m good at it. I wanted to see if I could take the information that I’d learned through my experience and pass it on to make players better. So I went in there and worked as hard as I did as a player, only on the coaching side of things. I spent a lot of time on the field with players after practice trying to make them better in areas where we felt they had weaknesses. I was just getting good feedback the whole time. Guys were saying things like, “I’ve never heard that before,” or, “I’ve never done that exercise.” I started to feel like maybe I had something to offer. By the end of the first year I was just enjoying the job. By the second year I felt very confident that the information and experience I could pass on would make me a good coach. Obviously, we’re learning all the time, but I feel like I have the chance of becoming a very good coach.
What kind of qualities did you have as a player that transitioned well to coaching?
I think that the good thing about traveling around the world is that you meet people with different methodologies and different thoughts. Playing under many different coaches gives you a lot of insight. You play under some great coaches who might know the game inside and out, but man-management isn’t their forte. For me, I tried to take a part of every coach that I enjoyed playing under by analyzing their strengths and weaknesses and becoming the best of what they were. Glenn Hoddle, off the top of my head, was my head coach at Chelsea and was magnificent at communicating with me personally. I would have private conversations with him, and when he gave me positives I remember how good it made me feel. I try to implement that here with the players I have. I try to show that I’m invested in them not as a piece of meat or a commodity, but that I’m invested in each one of them as a person.
How has game changed since your time as a player?
The money is the biggest thing. Also, the fitness levels in the game have gotten a lot higher. I look at the players that I played with and, technically, they could still play the game. I don’t think technically the game has gotten any better, but the fitness levels are through the roof.
Are you saying that the influx of money has allowed soccer to attract a different level of athlete?
Not exactly. The different training philosophies, supplements and nutritional programs that have come into the game are so advanced. Players are really starting to dedicate their bodies to the game. When I played in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a bit of a drinking culture with players in England. The ones that managed it and didn’t drink too much were the ones who survived the longest and forged good careers. I was fortunate to play alongside two or three great Italian players at Chelsea. Italian football at that time was so far ahead on the nutrition side. I learned a tremendous amount from them and totally transformed my diet, and when I did that it really transformed me as a player.
Let’s say you and your coaching staff were unavailable for a game and you had to select one player to coach in your place. Who would it be?
Jack Jewsbury. (Portland Timbers midfielder)
Experienced. Level headed. Knows the game.
Who on the team do you expect to make “the jump” this year?
I’m looking for a couple of guys to step up. I think if I were to put my money on one player it would be Darlington [Nagbe] (Portland Timbers winger).
The guy has loads of talent, huh?
Natural talent. Not coachable talent. Nobody has made him. He’s been born that way.
If you had to drive cross-country with one of your players sitting shotgun who would it be?
If I was looking for a fun trip, it would Rodney Wallace. If I wanted a chilled conversation, probably Sal Zizzo. If I wanted to talk about fashion and good looks, it would probably have to be Chewy [Mike Chabala], and that whole conversation would have to be about him and I would have to drive because he’d be looking in the rearview mirror the whole time admiring himself.
If you had to coach another big four sport—football, hockey, baseball or basketball—what would you be most interested in and what do you think you’d be most successful at?
I want to coach with Chip Kelly. Chip is my sort of guy. I don’t know him, I just watch him. I like his mannerisms. I hear stories about the guy from afar. I’m glad he re-signed with the Ducks. He seems to be one of the guys that has that magical stardust about him, because when he talks, people listen. I know that when he talks, I listen, because I think you can learn something from everybody.
Describe the biggest difference between the English Premier League and MLS?
You’re comparing 7-Eleven to Target. Considering the money that they spend you can’t compare the two on the same level. You can compare them on the same level if were we spending $300 million per year. If we were paying Jack Jewsbury $8-10M per year like Frank Lampard then you can be held to the same standard. It’s an unfair question. The vast sum of money in the game there is a bit ridiculous.
If I were a top player in the EPL, how would you sell me on coming here to play in the MLS?
You would need to come here at the right age with the right desire to succeed because it’s not an easy league to succeed in. If you look at the percentage of foreign players succeeding in this league it’s like 33%. Why is that? Is that because MLS is easy? Or because MLS is hard? It’s a difficult league. I was practicing early in the season in Portland at 10am and it was 40 degrees. 5 hours later we’re arriving in Dallas to play a game and it’s 97 degrees. You don’t get that in Europe. Plus, there are drastic time zone changes.
The MLS is a very athletic league. A lot of older players are coming here and after a year they are leaving. I don’t believe it’s a physical league or an aggressive league, but it’s a very athletic league.
I honestly think that we’re up there with a lot of the leagues in the world like the Scottish Premier League and a lot of the Scandinavian leagues. I think we’re at a better standard. You take Rangers and Celtic out of the Scottish League and I think we’d have a chance of winning the league.
What’s your favorite thing about being with the Timbers?
On Saturday night of a game, from about 6 to 6:45, it’s an amazing atmosphere in the stadium. By the end of the game, if we’ve won and got 3 points, it’s even better. I’ve said this time and time again, and hopefully this is a long time down the line, but by the time I leave this football club I’ll look back on this time in my career and it will be one of the most special moments I’ve had. It’s a great football club.
Do you think the crowd atmosphere is the biggest asset that the Timbers have?
No. It’s everything that we’ve got here. The owner is tremendous. He’s a passionate guy. Everyone thinks he’s difficult to work for, but he’s not. He’s passionate. I come from that environment back home in Scotland. Scottish people are very fiery characters and explosive and short. We’re little bastards at times, and I’m one of them too. The good thing is that you can have a disagreement with him or an argument with him, and 15 minutes later you could be having lunch with him. That’s the type of character I am also.
Make the case for the Timbers winning the MLS title.
I think we have as good a chance as anybody. I think we need to be more consistent, especially on the road. I’m hoping that our younger players are more mature from the experience last year. Keeping my fingers crossed that we stay healthy. We have tremendous backing from the owner. We’ve got tremendous backing from the fan base. We’ve got an unbelievable fan base. We could sell probably 35,000 tickets if we wanted.
Do your tactics change on the road versus at home?
No, they don’t. This could probably end up getting me fired as a coach, but home and away we try to go and win games. I’m a fan of the game. I believe people pay money to get entertained. The last thing I want as a fan is to go and watch a game where teams are sitting back and bunkering on top of the 18-yard box. We’re trying to grow the sport in this country, and people say it’s not an entertaining sport on television. That’s some people’s opinion. It doesn’t help if teams are bunkering in and trying to get 0-0 ties. One of the main complaints in the US is the lack of goals in the sport. It’s a country that is based on points, points, points in basketball and football. I want to be entertained when I buy a ticket. It’s like when you go to the theatre. If you walk away and you didn’t see a good movie, you’re a bit pissed that you wasted your money. I want people to be entertained.
So do you feel an obligation to be aggressive to help grow the sport in this country?
No. I’m a fan of the game. I get excited when there are goals in the game. I love my team getting opportunities in front of the goal, I love my team creating opportunities, and I love to see the fans jumping out of their seats and the stadium full of noise when we score goals.
I’ve noticed that when guys score they seem to make a beeline to the sideline to celebrate with you…
Not every time, but some guys do it. It’s nice because obviously they want to celebrate with the staff and the bench. We try to treat our guys right. There is obviously going to be someone that is probably going to leave the club and feel like you’ve never done enough for them. For me, I think the guys realize that I care about them. My mentality is that I try to treat them like I would want my own son to be treated in a professional environment. You leave somebody off the team or tell them that they are not going to be playing, you don’t have to be an asshole about it. You can do it in a compassionate way or you can be a jackass. Believe me, I’ve heard some horror stories. For me, I just try to treat my players how I would love to be treated myself. They don’t always agree with me and I don’t expect them to, but I think if you show them that you care, well, I don’t know, maybe that goes a long way.
John Spencer left the Portland Timbers in July 2012