January 21, 2011

MIAMI (Reuters) -- With a large and knowledgeable fan base already in place, former Scotland and Chelsea striker John Spencer is expecting to enjoy his new challenge as head coach of Major League Soccer (MLS) debutants the Portland Timbers.

Certainly there will be pressure, he admits, with fans of the 36-year-old club expecting instant success, but Spencer is not worried.

"There are certain markets in the U.S. that are soccer-mad towns just like back in Europe or at home and it's fantastic," Spencer told Reuters in an interview.

"I have conversations with coaches who say: 'Jeez you are going to be under pressure next year'. Well, with the environment that I have come through, from being a young player at Rangers, I have always been under pressure to produce and have never had it easy -- it's human nature for us, it's common practice that you are under pressure to win. It's great."

Unlike most teams who have entered MLS since the league began in 1996, the Timbers have a pedigree.

The first Timbers team began life in 1975 in the old North American Soccer League (NASL) and, even after the collapse of that venture, survived through the sport's lean years in various competitions.

Portland played last season in the second tier as part of the United Soccer Leagues (USL) and drew some impressive crowds as fans prepared for their step up to a league that contains international names such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry.


The 40-year-old Spencer had the chance to watch the Timbers at that level and was impressed by the genuine passion for the team.

"It's incredible. At the moment we have 10,000 season tickets sold. I watched five games in USL last year and the crowd was absolutely unbelievable -- I think we will have by far the best atmosphere in Major League Soccer," said Spencer who, besides Chelsea and Glasgow Rangers, played for Everton and the Colorado Rapids.

"Obviously Seattle have a great crowd with the numbers they have. Our fans have been supporting their team for a long, long time, getting attendances of 14-15,000 in USL, and there are not many teams can say that," he said.

The club's background means that Spencer does not have to start from scratch -- training and support staff are already in place -- but it also mean that the fans, organised in the form of the 'Timbers Army', expect the team to hit the ground running when the season opens in March.

"Our fans will never allow us to take our foot off the gas, no matter what the competition or where we are playing. We are under pressure. I told the players we signed: 'If you can't handle the pressure then none of us are going to be there too long', but it's the kind of environment you want to be involved in," said Spencer.

Spencer has already brought in new faces at Portland, including U.S. international forward Kenny Cooper, returning from Germany, and the most exciting talent in college soccer -- Darlington Nagbe, whom the Timbers took with the number two pick in the draft.

Added to the air of anticipation is the fact that the other team joining the expanded MLS this season, the Vancouver Whitecaps, have a long-standing rivalry with Portland dating back to derbies in the old NASL.


The same goes for neighbours Seattle Sounders whose first two years in the league have been a huge success off the field, with average crowds of more than 30,000, and promising on the field where they reached the playoffs in both their campaigns.

With those additional pressures, Spencer knows there will be high expectations of success on the field, starting when Portland open their campaign away to his old team Colorado Rapids on March 19.

"From day one we need to believe that we are good enough to go and challenge and go for the playoffs. Obviously history doesn't show that 'expansion teams' or new teams are successful in doing that.

"Seattle raised the bar though with how they came in as a new team."

Spencer, in the best tradition of Scottish managers, has also set himself the goal of bringing positive and attractive football.

"For me, I was a small striker and there was nothing worse than if the ball was being knocked long to you and you have got to try and get up and challenge big central defenders. Obviously there are times in the game that you have got to do that if you are under pressure but our philosophy will be to go out and pass the ball and try to entertain the fans.

"They work hard to pay for their tickets -- the last thing they need is a boring game".

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