Phil Neville returns to MLS with a point to prove, but a fanbase that doesn’t want him

Photograph: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Phil Neville, somehow, is back in Major League Soccer. A lot of Portland Timbers fans wish he wasn’t – and they have been vocal in saying so. When the club published an announcement video of Neville stepping over the stands at Providence Park, it inadvertently symbolised how the concerns of supporters have been ignored to appoint the former England international. The video was deleted, but fans aren’t ready to accept Neville

Neville, as his detractors see it, was a failure in the only other MLS position he has held.

Under his stewardship, Inter Miami were the worst team in the league, sitting rock bottom of the Eastern Conference when he was fired in June. This was pre-Lionel Messi, of course, but still: Neville’s qualifications as an MLS manager are far from convincing.

Timbers fans have also questioned Neville’s character, particularly relating to his past statements on social about women. “[Neville] has a history of sexist public statements that run counter to our ethos as a club, city and supporters’ group,” the Timbers Army said in a statement. Neville acknowledged his statements after being appointed manager of the England women’s team. “The tweets were wrong then and wrong now,” Neville told the Guardian in 2019.

This isn’t the first time Neville’s distasteful comments about women from more than a decade ago have been dredged up, but the discussion is particularly pertinent given the Portland Timbers’ recent controversies. This is, after all, an organization (including the Portland Thorns) that faced widespread criticism for its handling of a series of sexual misconduct and domestic violence allegations. The club settled a domestic violence lawsuit with the estranged wife of former midfielder Andy Polo in 2022. MLS fined Portland $25,000 for failing to disclose the allegations of domestic violence.

The Thorns dismissed coach Paul Riley in 2015 season after a player, Mana Shim, made a formal complaint to the team that Riley had sexually harassed her. Allegations about Riley’s sexual misconduct were known by players, a coach, an owner and an assistant general manager for another team before the complaint, according to an independent investigation into claims of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer. The Thorns then helped Riley to get another job in the NWSL with the Western New York Flash, according to the report.

Related: Phil Neville gets Portland Timbers head coach job in face of fan complaints

The Thorns and Timbers must regain the trust of its supporters and Neville’s hiring has thrown up another obstacle.

In more than one way, Portland finds itself at a crossroads. Owner Merritt Paulson announced his intention to sell the Portland Thorns nearly 12 months ago and has come under pressure to sell the Timbers too. The team also requires remolding on the pitch after failing to make the playoffs in successive seasons. Previous manager Giovanni Savarese led the Timbers to the MLS Cup final in 2021 – and the MLS Is Back Tournament in 2020 – but 2023 marked the undeniable end of a cycle. A change was needed.

Meaningful change will be difficult with Neville at the helm, though. In six years of management, he has failed to develop an identity as a coach. He doesn’t have a recognized style of play, unlike the likes of Wilfried Nancy or Bradley Carnell who have achieved success in MLS playing a certain way. As coaches, they stand for something. They have principles. What are Neville’s principles? What does he stand for? MLS fans now expect more than a recognizable face in the dugout.

Neville struggled to develop a coaching identity at Inter Miami. Photograph: Jim Rassol/AP

With some justification, Neville argues it was “impossible” to be successful at Inter Miami due to the circumstances around the club at that time. Sanctions imposed by MLS due to a violation of salary budget and roster rules made it difficult for Neville to build a winning team. “Finishing sixth [in 2022] was probably the greatest achievement I’ve had,” he argued. “We changed around 19 players.”

Portland could see similar turnover this off-season with no fewer than nine players out of contract at the end of the year. Neville and general manager Ned Grabavoy will have the freedom to reshape the squad before the start of the 2024 campaign. Neville says he wants to impose a high-tempo, attacking style of play – and claims the cool Pacific Northwest weather will help him achieve this. There will be no excuses if he fails to deliver.

Related: Phil Neville’s tenure as England Women coach: tepid and too much arrogance | Suzanne Wrack

Even if he does, some fans may never come around to Neville. Not for the first time, a divide has opened up between the club’s decision-makers and its fans and Neville, only just in the door, is a symbol of this. Neville has pledged to become a Thorns season ticket holder and to “support them any way I can”.

“I feel really lucky to be the head coach of an organization that has two incredible football teams,” he said at his introductory press conference.

Neville plans on meeting the Timbers Army face-to-face, but he can’t answer for the process that led to his hiring in the first place, nor the mistakes made by the ownership in its running of the club.

The potential of the Portland Timbers is clear to anyone who has visited Providence Park for a match. Their home atmosphere is among the best in MLS with the stadium’s downtown location reflecting how central the Timbers are to a place dubbed ‘Soccer City USA.’ Newer, flashier franchises like Inter Miami and Los Angeles FC have guided MLS in a different direction in recent years, but the Timbers remain one of the league’s biggest success stories. It’s easy to see why Neville would be drawn there, even with the club in its current condition.

Neville says he has “unfinished business” in MLS. More than that, he has a point to prove as a coach and must do something to reverse the trend of teams dramatically improving after his firing (see Inter Miami and the England’s women’s national team). The same questions have followed Neville throughout his coaching career. In Portland, he must produce answers for a fanbase that doesn’t want him.


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