Glasgow native John Spencer scored goals for elite soccer teams in Europe, starred in MLS, and became an up-and-coming assistant coach for the Houston Dynamo. Now, the Timbers’ Affable 40-year-old boss gives us his thoughts on the players, the fans, and his plans for his adopted home.
WHY DID YOU COME TO PORTLAND?
Pressure. A Timbers match is the most European-type atmosphere in MLS. Our fans know the game, and you have the Pacific Northwest history of the Timbers, the Vancouver Whitecaps, and the Seattle Sounders going at it, from the ’70s on. People say we’re an expansion team. I don’t think Timbers fans look at us as an expansion team. It’s good pressure.
WHAT’S YOUR IMPRESSION SO FAR?
Not one person in American professional soccer has one bad thing to say about the city, soccer-wise. And culturally, it’s very much like Glasgow, Scotland, where I come from. It’s soccer-mad. Some cities in America you don’t have that. We know that if we play well, we’re going to get attention.
YOU’VE DESCRIBED BOTH PORTLAND AND YOUR APPROACH AS "BLUE COLLAR." WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
During an economic crisis, fans work hard for their money. It’s tough. And yet they’re buying season tickets and merchandise. Look, we’re not going to play well every week. We’re human beings. But fans must see effort. When we walk off right in front of the Timbers Army, if we haven’t played well, it won’t be me telling them that. They’ll have thousands of people giving them … not abuse, but they’ll voice their opinion. You don’t want prima donnas in this kind of city.
YOU TURNED PRO AT AGE 15. DOES AMERICA PRODUCE A DIFFERENT KIND OF PLAYER?
Back in Scotland, the upbringing is just tougher. Most of the top European players, they come from the run-down neighborhoods and the low-income families. Most American soccer players come from middle to upper classes. And our coaches were tougher on us back then, but I think that’s just society changing. Maybe kids are a little bit spoiled everywhere now—I know my own are. But people don’t give American soccer enough credit. European teams are fighting over American players, not British players. American guys are trustworthy and intelligent. You don’t need to worry about them going off the rails.
THE SEATTLE SOUNDERS—OUR RIVAL—JOINED MLS IN 2009 AND WERE A HUGE SUCCESS. DIES THAT INTENSIFY THE PRESSURE?
You could put four sweatshirts down on the street as goalposts and say the Timbers are playing the Sounders, and 7,000 people would show up. Our fans are crazy—we don’t need to create anything. Seattle has done a good job. I know Timbers fans don’t like to hear that, but you’ve got to give credit where it’s due.
BUT YOU WILL BEAT THEM, RIGHT?
We need to beat a lot of teams. Would you rather beat Seattle twice and not make the playoffs, or lose those two games and make the playoffs?
IT’S DIFFICULT TO CHOOSE.
Not for me.
WHAT ARE YOUR BROADER AMBITIONS HERE?
Every MLS team is required to have a youth development academy. I would love to sit back in 10 or 15 years, look at the Timbers, and see that seven or eight of the players are from Portland. Hopefully, Portland will soon be famous not just for making wine and beer, but for producing soccer players.
SPEAKING OF WHICH, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE MICROBREW?
People ask me, “You’re a Scotsman—do you drink beer and play golf?” And I don’t do a lot of either. Golf, I don’t have the temperament for it. It’s a gentleman’s game. I don’t have the etiquette. I’m not a big beer drinker, to be honest. More red wine. I’m trying to lose some pounds.
OREGON PINOT NOIR, OF COURSE.
Nice, yeah. I had a glass of that the other night in Baltimore, at the draft. Hopefully, we’ll have a few more.
WHAT’S YOUR SALES PITCH FOR SOCCER NEOPHYTES?
There’s nothing worse than coming to the cinema and the movie’s already started. Get in. Get your seat.
SPEAKING OF BOOZE, WHAT’S THIS ABOUT YOU INVITING OREGONIAN SPORTS COLUMNIST (AND SOCCER SKEPTIC) JOHN CANZANO FOR A GLASS OF WINE?
Yeah, we’re going to have a glass. I told him, “I know you’re not a big soccer fan, but you seem like a nice guy.” So I said, “Come down to the office after the first match in April, and we’ll have a glass of red.” Hopefully we’ll be celebrating a win.
YOU SIGNED KENNY COOPER, AN AMERICAN WHO’S BEEN PLAYING IN GERMANY. DOES HE FIT THAT MOLD?
I’ve known about him since we played against him when he was with Dallas and I was with Houston. About three weeks ago, the league dropped his name on our desk. They said, “Would you want him?” I think it took 25 or 30 seconds to say yes. Not a rah-rah kind of guy. He leads by example. He’s first on the training field, last off the field. His enthusiasm and professionalism will rub off.
HOW CLOSE IS THE ROSTER TO BEING COMPLETE?
I can’t really say. I can say right now, I’m busting with pride that I’m the head coach of this roster at this moment. There’s always room for improvement. Every team in the world is looking to improve. But right now, I’m very, very happy. OK, I kind of sat on the fence a little bit, right?
ESPECIALLY ABOUT THE DRAFT?
We got the kid we dreamed about for the last six months, Darlington Nagbe. Hopefully we’ll get to see him perform at a very high level. His family have done a great job. He’s very well-educated, and most of all a great young footballer in the making.
WHO ARE YOU LOOKING TO AS THE VOCAL LEADER?
It takes a bit of time for the leaders to emerge. We’ll take our time. I’m a not guy who’s looking for players in the locker room to talk a big game. It’s easy to say things. Hard to do things.