(Published in print in the United States – July 2001)
There are players who score and there are goalscorers. Certain forwards seem born to put the ball in the back of the net. Think Roma's Argentine Gabriel Batistuta, Liverpool's Englishman Robbie Fowler or even injured MetroStars frontman Clint Mathis.
Add striker John Spencer to that list. The 30-year-old Scottish import has added life to a Colorado Rapids team that has spent most of this Major League Soccer season sleepwalking. With a 4-9-6 record and just 18 points entering Saturday's match at Tampa Bay, the Rapids' playoff hopes are slim at best. Not that Spencer hasn't been carrying his weight.
The 5-foot-6, 160-pounder donned the No. 7 shirt when Colorado signed him as a senior international and has impressed with 11 goals and four assists entering Saturday. Spencer credits a heightened drive for his output.
"I had two former (European) teammates playing in MLS -- Mo Johnston in Kansas City and Juergen Sommer with New England," the Glasgow native said Tuesday via teleconference. "Both these guys told me it was a difficult league to play in.
"They said that it was very physical. I came over here with open eyes and with a work ethic that I was going to work as hard as I possibly could for the team. I feel if you do that, you earn the respect of your teammates and then you can start to do well. I've been pretty impressed by my teammates and the opposition. They have a very high standard in MLS."
Rapids coach Tim Hankinson cited Spencer's enthusiasm as a springboard for the rest of the squad. "He's just a firecracker of a guy," Hankinson told the Rocky Mountain News. "He keeps the fires burning around here."
For all his attributes as a motivator, Spencer's main talent is scoring. Originally a Glasgow Rangers player, he first showed his penchant for goals while on loan to Hong Kong club Lai Sun - in the form of 20 in 24 appearances. A 1992 move to Chelsea yielded 43 goals in 96 runouts. His star now shining, Queens Park Rangers paid fellow English club Chelsea a $4 million transfer fee for Spencer's services and he didn't disappoint. At Loftus Road, he netted 24 times in 53 appearances. A brief spell at England's Everton was followed by a move to Scotland's Motherwell, then to MLS.
Spencer, the subject of an in-depth feature Monday on "MLS Extra Time" (11 p.m., ESPN2), is in a position of authority to evaluate MLS' growth. "You've got to remember these world leagues have been going for a long, long time, whereas MLS is just in its sixth season," he said. "I feel there are a lot of players here that could do very well in the Scottish Premier League. I feel that they try to play a much better passing game here and keep the ball on the ground, whereas in the Scottish game -- and a lot of the English teams -- tend to play a longer ball, which I don't think is a good way to take soccer ahead."
Spencer's feats haven't gone unnoticed by the league. "John has made a huge difference," MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis said during the teleconference. "Most amazing to me is that he has scored 44 percent of Colorado's goals this year. That's a remarkable achievement for a new player."
Spencer, who's won 14 caps for his country, has struggled a bit to adapt to America's summer temperatures. "The biggest adjustment has been the weather I've had to play in," he said. "Some of the cities we've been to have been hot."
The Rapids' play has improved after the recent acquisitions of Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama and striker Raul Diaz Arce of El Salvador. Their Latino presence has spurred a revival at the gate for Colorado as well. For a recent 3-1 win over D.C. United -- in which Spencer scored a hat trick -- 60,500 fans came through the turnstiles of Denver's Mile High Stadium.
"Carlos has been excellent; everybody knows what Valderrama can do," Spencer said. "He's been a famous player for a long, long time. Being a striker, you know you are always going to get chances from him. He always plays the little threaded passes through the defense, so if I and Raul can get on to some of those at our feet I think we're going to score a lot more goals this season."