Parsons Project: Inside the Portland Thorns' pursuit of dominance

ISI Photos-Craig Mitchelldyer

Can a team be sophisticated in the rough-and-tumble parity of the NWSL? Thorns coach Mark Parsons thinks so.

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PORTLAND, Ore. – At the dawn of the National Women’s Soccer League in 2013, the Portland Thorns were supposed to be an attacking juggernaut, one fueled by the United States women’s national team’s best goal-scorer (Alex Morgan), her equivalent from Canada (Christine Sinclair) and the most technically-gifted player in the U.S. player pool (Tobin Heath).

Before even playing a game, the squad’s potential was being compared to that of superteams past, including the FC Gold Pride and Western New York Flash titans Sinclair helped fuel in the previous, defunct women’s league, Women’s Professional Soccer.

As predicted, the Thorns went on to win the title that first season, but they did so in an odd way. With only the league’s fourth-best attack, Portland rode the goalkeeping of Karina LeBlanc and the league’s third-best defense, led by rookie Kathryn Williamson, to the playoffs. Only then, with five postseason goals in two games, did the attack live up to its potential.

The 2013 NWSL title-winning version of the Thorns (Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports)

The 2013 NWSL title-winning version of the Thorns (Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports)

When the team’s first head coach, Cindy Parlow Cone, left the team that offseason, potential became an overbearing burden. It led the team to hire WPS’ most renowned coach, Paul Riley, who promised his teams would outscore opponents if they had to. When Mark Parsons was lured from the Washington Spirit to replace him two years later, Riley left bewildered at his failure, the Thorns attack having finished fourth and fifth on the league’s scoring charts in his two seasons in charge.

Riley would find redemption a year later, guiding Western New York to the title he’d promised Portland. But in claiming last season’s regular-season crown, the Thorns scarcely missed him. Yet amid Parsons’ first-year success, and the cultural turnaround that enabled it, one misgiving began to surface, a misgiving he knew he wouldn’t be able to address until this season.

“We won’t see the true evidence of the time the team has put into each other until next year,” Parsons said last July.

His team was competing at the top of the league at the time. But with his attack still lagging behind the league’s best and his star players splitting the season between Providence Park and the Olympics in Brazil, the new boss knew there was only so much he could do.

The cohesion he needed to leverage Sinclairs, Heaths, Allie Longs and Amandine Henrys of the world would take more than a few shared months over the course of a six-month season.

“If we’re a power train or power car, we’re just second gear,” he said. Even then, his squad’s potential was never far from Parsons’ mind, and he implicitly acknowledged an expectation that went beyond the sum in the points column. “Even though we’re still doing well [in terms of] results, I think this is just the start.”

Great expectations in Soccer City USA

ISI Photos-Daniel Bartel

ISI Photos-Daniel Bartel

That is the reality of the job in Portland. You can take a team from sixth to first and finish with the league’s best defense, yet in your heart, you’ll know the team is capable of more. You see the names on the team sheet, you see them train four, five times a week, and you remember why you’ve been brought into the club.

It’s not to build a grind-it-out, scoreboard-above-all stalwart. Let the Chicago Red Stars have their 1-0s, and give them the patent. As the thinking goes, the Thorns are supposed to be more.

That train of thought has slowed over the last five years, while Portland’s gone from the heights of expectation to the depths of pragmatism.

Last year, Thorns fans were thrilled just to have a playoff game at home, finally. It was the first time in history the league’s perpetually most-talented club finished in the top two, and with it, the Rose City Riveters got to occupy their north end of Providence Park for the first time in a postseason.

New coaches can’t live with that perspective, though. Their vision has to transcend the past. For Parsons, that came down to a two-phase plan. In year one, he’d have time to instill a new psychology, fixing a fractured team with a culture of responsibility, respect and effort. And when the likes of Sinclair and Heath weren’t in Brazil, he’d lean on their talents to make sure the attack would keep Portland contending for a title.

This year, there were no shortcuts. The new system began to be put in place on day one. Unfortunately, that has also meant the Thorns have had to take a step back before, Parsons hopes, they can surge forward.

No more wishing on a star

ISI Photos-Craig Mitchelldyer

ISI Photos-Craig Mitchelldyer

The endgame is to instill an approach that can fully leverage the Thorns’ superior talent. The team will no longer merely get the ball to Heath or Sinclair (or in previous seasons, Morgan) and let the stars shine from there. That approach left Cone’s teams, as well as Riley’s, too apt to lose control.

Strong midfields and robust presses could leave Portland playing on the back foot. Even last season, amid Parsons’ changes, the Thorns were undone by a press that demanded more than a kick-and-hope solution. Thanks to a pair of athletic forwards, Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald, Riley got his revenge on Portland in the semifinals of last year’s playoffs.

This year, the idea is to use the likes of Henry, Long, and Lindsey Horan to stretch teams, starting at the back. It’s to bring wingers in to overload during the buildup, and release fullbacks early to provide the width.

It’s to get the center backs, Emily Menges and Emily Sonnett, more comfortable on the ball, build goalkeeper Adrianna Franch’s confidence in her distribution – and once all that is in place, punish teams who try to exploit old weaknesses.

Thorns soccer is building, stretching, pulling the opposition out of where they want to be, and then hurting them.

- Mark Parsons

“Thorns soccer is building, stretching, pulling the opposition out of where they want to be, and then hurting them,” Parsons explains about a new approach that’s been refined over the season’s first two months. “Going forward, we are on that journey, and that's the process of each game … Once we get into that phase of going and changing speed and getting after them – we haven't nailed that part.”

Parsons clearly wants to do more than lean on one of the league’s most talented attacks. He wants to build a style that can define games, from beginning to end. He wants to leverage the talent at the back of the formation as much as his predecessors relied on Portland’s gifts at the front.

He wants to build on the mentality he instilled last season to foster a whole new, more robust approach. If that means taking a step back from what worked last year, Parsons is willing to do so.

NEXT: Signs that Parsons' work is bearing fruit