THE TIMBERS are practicing as usual at the Tualatin Hills Athletic Center in Beaverton, and for the first time all season, I see John Spencer sweat.
Portland's inter-squad scrimmage is packed onto a small field, with one goal in its normal spot and the other staked near mid-pitch. And as the game wraps up, the pace hardly ramps down: Less space to operate leads to quick, claustrophobic passes, and the action tilts toward feverish as players yell over the top of each other with tones more reminiscent of a weekend pick-up game at Buckman Field than a typical Tuesday training session.
Spencer, the Timbers' head coach, immediately stands out, and not because he's planted in one place screaming his face off—which is what you'd expect from the fiery Scottish coach of a team coming off a pair of losses. No, instead, the 5'6" former English Premier and Major League Soccer star is running from sideline to sideline, clad in a bright yellow mesh pinny, manning the edges of the action and repeatedly booting the ball back into the fracas.
Practice ends, and as the Timbers gingerly walk off the pitch, Spencer lightly jogs over, his face beaming behind beads of sweat.
Never has a losing streak looked so... fun. Seven seasons removed from his final professional match, Spencer may be exaggerating when he says he's 50 pounds heavier than his playing days—"all muscle," he quips—but he's honest about the source of his perspiration.
"It's frustrating, because your mind still works at the same speed," Spencer says, "but obviously, your body can't."
Which is why Portland hired the 40-year-old Spencer—his soccer mind, steadily delivered in pieces to the Rose City, while the don't-call-us-expansion Timbers have ebbed and flowed through a roller-coaster opening third of their inaugural MLS season that's seen a slow start, a surprising five-game home winning streak, and zero road victories.
Through it all, the diminutive Spencer has stood out as clearly as he did on the practice field by being comfortable speaking his mind: He labeled his team "soft" in April, when the Timbers showed a tendency to give up back-to-back goals ("You don't want to get a reputation," Spencer insisted). He graded Seattle Coach Sigi Schmid's excuses "bullshit" in May after the rival coach suggested rainy conditions gave Portland an advantage in the Cascadia Cup's first derby. ("If it's too wet up there for them to play soccer, they might want to move that franchise, because it pisses down rain nearly every time I've been in Seattle.") And this month, he called out his young players—including first-ever MLS draft pick Darlington Nagbe and midfielders Kalif Alhassan and Sal Zizzo—for hitting "a brick wall" physically so early in the season. ("Young players can sit back and watch [older players] and think, 'I can do that job easily.' It's a lot easier to say you can do it.")
And while providing his players instruction through the media, Spencer also gives them cover from it. The first-year club—made up of young projects, expansion-draft castoffs, and big-name (but even-keeled) signees like Kenny Cooper and Troy Perkins—elected MLS veteran Jack Jewsbury its captain just days after he joined the team. But it might as well have elected Spencer, who through his very public motivational tactics gives the keenest insight into the team's mental state, whether he's leading from behind or criticizing from out front.
"Ever since I've gotten here, he's been a guy we knew would have our back," says Jewsbury, who after the Seattle comments said he was happy to play for "a little fireball" like Spencer. "He said from the get-go, as long as you guys fight for me and play your hearts out, I'm going to back you up 100 percent."
But Spencer's backing pales in comparison to the treatment the raucous House of Pane crowd has given the Timbers, who've earned just two draws away from home during a first third that's seen Portland soar to second place in-conference and number four in the league ratings, until a three-game losing streak recently dropped them to seventh in a surging West.
The one constant has been Spencer's blunt honesty.
"It's my job to tell them—I tell them privately and I tell them in the press." Spencer says after practice, while a group of players pile into a 12-passenger van and honk the horn to hurry along teammates snagged by local media. "I'll never criticize them individually in the press, but I'll criticize them collectively as a unit, because at the end of the day, if you don't work as a unit, you're not going to get points."
But what they most certainly will continue to get is Spencer, stepping out front and never breaking a sweat.