Timbers aim to enjoy friendly match with Dutch team
Portland Timbers coach John Spencer played a lot of soccer in his 18-year professional career. So, forgive him if he could not immediately call to mind if he played against Dutch club AFC Ajax, who the Timbers will face in a friendly Wednesday at Jeld-Wen Field.
'I don't believe so,' Spencer said. 'Played against a few other European teams, but I don't think I've ever played against Ajax.'
A few moments later, though, Spencer realized that with Chelsea he had played against Ajax (pronounced I-yex) in the 1995 Nottingham Forest tournament.
Spencer couldn't recall the result, but he was positive about one thing: In Nottingham Forest that day, he was Robin Hood and Ajax was Prince John.
'I remember I was fantastic in the game,' Spencer said, laughing.
Actually, Spencer said he was positive about two more things, as well.
'I was about 40 pounds lighter, and I had a lot more hair,' he said.
AFC Ajax is a storied football club that recently won its 30th Dutch league title. Often, star players do not join their side for offseason exhibition barnstorms across foreign countries. But Ajax comes to the states with a fairly full roster, including top scorers Miralem Sulejmani and Siem de Jong. Nine of 11 starters played in the 2-1 win over D.C. United last weekend.
The Timbers will play D.C. United in a MLS match Sunday at Jeld-Wen Field. That is the game Spencer will focus on winning.
'It's a difficult thing,' he said, of having this exhibition in between league matches. 'We're trying to prepare for D.C.'
Because friendly rules allow for mass substitutions, Spencer plans to get as many players onto the pitch Wednesday night as possible.
''We're going to try to rotate everybody in, give everybody a chance to play and enjoy the occasion,' he said. 'We'll try to get as many guys as many minutes as we can. We're not going to put out a youth team or anything like that. We've got to be respectful of everybody that's coming to watch the game. We've got to be respectful of Ajax and their history. But we've still got to be respectful that we've got a game against D.C. over the weekend.'
Spencer said he believes Ajax will view the match similarly.
'I don't think they'll be in full game mode,' he said. 'They'll be in a little bit of vacation mode. Hopefully, we're just going to get two teams who come out and try to play the game the way it's meant to be played. Not too much tackling, not too much kicking - just enjoy the occasion. It's a nice occasion for everybody here.'
Ajax will use the prototypical Dutch -tyle 4-3-3 total football strategy, where each player on the pitch is asked to try to score and defend.
'We're going to play a Dutch, 4-3-3 tomorrow to match them up,' Spencer joked. 'An American Dutch system.'
Spencer also said he hopes that the Ajax players are able to enjoy Portland during their time here, and maybe even enjoy Portland too much.
'I hope they realize there's a lot of bars, a lot of nice restaurants here in Portland they can go visit …t he day of the game, if they want,' he said.
Humor aside, Spencer hopes that Wednesday's match is fun for everyone involved.
'For us, it's an exhibition game,' he said. 'The fans are paying money, we're getting paid to coach the game, and we're looking forward to the game. But we can relax a little as a staff.
'It's not going to be as intense a mentality for us. I would like the players to thoroughly enjoy the experience, because you might never get to play against a big club like this again.'
• Injured players Eddie Johnson and Brian Umony practiced with the Timbers on Tuesday.
'It's good to see Eddie back,' Spencer said. 'Brian Umony is coming back now. He's looked sharp. Eddy's looked sharp.'
• Timbers starting midfielder Darlington Nagbe did not practice Tuesday because of a nagging groin problem that has forced Spencer to replace him with Sal Zizzo in the second half of the last few matches.
''D' has been struggling the last couple of games,' Spencer says. 'That's why we subbed him out, not because of his playing. It's just been he's been struggling with a tight abductor muscle. Soreness in there. So we need to be careful with him.
'We can't just keep running him and running him, because the way we play, we demand a lot from our wide guys to go up and down the field. So we've just been very, very cautious with him at the moment.'
• Timbers striker Bright Dike, who suffered a season-ending injury when he tore his right Achilles' tendon in the preseason, was on the Jeld-Wen pitch Tuesday juggling the ball and taking shots at an empty goal.
'He's under doctor's orders,' Spencer said. 'So whatever the doctor says for him goes. We were told he's going to be out as a season-ending injury. He may be back a little early.
'It's just nice to see the kid getting back out there. It was a horrendous injury. A bad time for him in his career. He was very down about it. So just to see him back in the locker room mixing with the guys is a major boost. I care a lot about him. He's a lovely kid. And just to see him get back makes me feel happier.'