How Mark Parsons' bold decisions pushed Portland into this year's NWSL final

ISI Photos-Daniel Bartel

Bench two of your biggest stars? Change formations? The decisions weren't easy, but they paid off for Portland.

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When the National Women’s Soccer League’s Coach of the Year finalists were revealed last week, Mark Parsons was the only boss of a top-four team whose name was missing from the ballot.

Don’t feel too sorry for him. The second-year Portland Thorns coach won the honor last year. Besides, the three people who made the final ballot all had award-worthy seasons. Paul Riley directed North Carolina to the NWSL Shield, Orlando enjoyed a ninth-to-third turnaround under Tom Sermanni, and the first five months of Chicago’s season cemented Rory Dames’ place in voters’ minds.

Parsons’ season ran the opposite way as Dames’. While Chicago looked strong in the season’s first half and faded over the final month, the Thorns were left scrounging for results early, trying to ignite an offense that was coping with the loss of its most creative player, Tobin Heath. Parsons’ attack struggled over the season’s first month, scoring only five times in five games.

By midseason, that rate had picked up slightly, but the 1.25 goals per game Portland was averaging was still down from last year’s 1.75. The small sample size could have been a factor, but the eye test confirmed something was wrong. This wasn’t a case of chances not finding net. Without Heath, Portland was far less dangerous than it was before.

By then -- at 5-4-3 and on the edge of the playoff race -- Parsons had begun enacting a series of changes, ones that would turn Portland’s season around. Having given up hope that Heath could contribute before the end of the campaign, Parsons needed to do something to ignite the attack. The ensuing formation change, positional shakeup, and shuffling of his lineup led the Thorns to a 9-1-2 record over the second half of the season, with the team’s attack producing 22 goals.

Here are those changes, and why each were far more difficult decisions than they looked:

Shakeup the shape

Earlier this season, we went deep on the system Parsons was trying to instill, one that would eventually allow his team to have to rely on multiple playmakers pinching in from the wings of a 4-2-3-1 formation. With Heath out, though, the plan began to stall, and that meant Christine Sinclair, the team’s most important attacking presence, was often isolated up top, without the ball.

Parsons’ solution? Change the shape. Out went the 4-2-3-1. In came a new shape, a 3-4-1-2, one that consolidated the team’s strength in midfield, added another player in the buildup phase, freed fullbacks to maraud as wingbacks, and gave the team the option of playing either a two- or three-front in defensive situations.

The effects of the change were evident immediately, with the Thorns earning a convincing 1-0 victory at home over the league-leading North Carolina Courage on July 15. The win was the second game of a run that saw the Thorns go 9-1-2 to close out the season. Goal scoring soared to 2.00 per game, and the already stingy defense improved from allowing 11 goals in the first half to nine in the second. Once at the bottom of the playoff picture, Portland easily earned its second successive home game.

In hindsight, it looks like an obvious choice: do what it takes to put your best players in a place to succeed. The formation did that for so many: Sinclair, Lindsey Horan, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Sonnett, Hayley Raso, Katherine Reynolds. But Parsons was coming off an NWSL Shield-winning season in 2016, and in the face of 12 games of data – and the risks of abandoning a tried and true approach – the safe choice would have stayed the course.

Parsons sensed that his team’s problems were more than temporal. They were real, and he had a solution. Look around the NWSL, and you don’t see many playoff-positioned coaches willing to make a major change to their team’s winning approach.

NEXT: Dropping last year’s stars to make this year’s team better