Parsons' cultural overhaul a driving force for unbeaten Thorns

ISI Photos-Daniel Bartel

Stars are nothing new for Portland, but with a new coach at the helm, a new group of them is meeting expectations. Richard Farley goes inside the mind of the Thorns coach.

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PORTLAND, Ore. – In the days before the Portland Thorns’ May 21 visit from the Washington Spirit, Mark Parsons had grown frustrated. The match was an important one for the 29-year-old head coach, who’d left the Spirit six months earlier, but during that week’s preparations, his new team was beginning to show some worrisome signs.

The principles the team had agreed on in the six months leading up to the season – attitude, effort, and focus – weren’t coming through in training. A team that had fought through four road games in five to open the season with a 2-0-3 record was starting to lose perspective.

“There were things building in the two days, three days before that Washington game that drove me nuts,” Parsons, reflecting this week, told FourFourTwo. “It was simple things. A player’s body language? Poor. A player making a comment to another player or staff, saying ‘hey, when can I get to do that?’ Basically, getting a bit selfish.”

For most teams, that’d be an idle anecdote; potentially irrelevant. Teams have down stretches during the season. Part of a coach’s job is to make sure one or two bad days don’t become a week, or a month.

Within the context of the Thorns, though, Parsons’ story could have been the answer to a long lingering question. Portland had spent most its first three years in the National Women’s Soccer League disappointing. Its results rarely matched the at times unparalleled quality of the team’s roster. Players consistently played below their standards, and the team’s style of play rarely reflected its skill, although those seemed to be symptoms. Befuddled, at times disappointed to tears, neither coaches nor players were able to identify an obvious cause.

In lieu of explanations, psychology became the culprit. Chemistry, attitude, mentality. Sometimes, priorities. They’d gone from buzzwords to hypotheses by the time Parsons was brought on board.

Not that those hypotheses were fair. The Thorns entered the league’s inaugural 2013 season as heavy favorites, a status derived from stars like Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath. They vindicated expectations by winning the league title that season, even though they finished third in the regular season. Unfortunately, over the next two years, that regular season proved to be the team’s true level, with third- and sixth-place finishes leaving the talent-laden Thorns better known for their failures than the 2013 title.

As the team prepared for Washington, was the enigma returning? Parsons was being vigilant, and even after the team gave its most impressive performance of the season – a 4-1 thrashing of the then-pace-setting Spirit – he was still concerned. In the days, that followed, with a derby against Seattle Reign FC looming, Parsons held his first, and to date only, “heart-to-heart” meeting with his squad.

“I remember after [the meeting] one of the experienced players said, ‘Aw, man, you were really angry, and that’s the softest thing I’ve seen someone get angry about …,’” Parsons recalls, remembering he again had to emphasize attitude, effort and focus. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I only ask for these three (things), and as a group, they dropped yesterday. And the day before. I only ask for three things.”

Parsons’ squad responded with draws against two 2015 playoff teams, Seattle and Chicago, the first of which came despite U.S. national team callups depriving the Thorns of five starters. Four straight wins later, Portland has run its record to 7-0-5, giving the Thorns a five-point lead atop the league as teams sprint away from the season’s halfway mark.

Three months ago, with a new coach and an overturned roster, it was unclear whether Portland could compete for a title. Now, it’s unclear how the NWSL can compete with the Thorns.

Explaining an undefeated start

It’s tempting to see Parsons’ new ethos as the reason for Portland’s turnaround, and perhaps that’s the right reading. Given how quickly and dramatically the team has corrected course, though, it’s worth some deeper thought.

Last season, over the league’s 20-game schedule, Portland claimed 23 points. This year’s team equaled that mark in 11 rounds, though points only capture part of the Thorns’ dominance. After letting in 29 goals last season, the team has only allowed seven this year, leaving it on pace to concede 12 goals by season’s end. The league record for fewest goals allowed in a regular season? 20. Portland’s on pace to demolish that mark.

“It’s a whole team effort, of a moving block of defense,” defender Emily Menges, who Parsons calls the Thorns’ “best player, right now,” told FourFourTwo. “[Sinclair’s] not a forward; she’s our first line of defense. I think that’s been a huge difference this year: Defensively more organized.”

Three months ago, with a new coach and an overturned roster, it was unclear whether Portland could compete for a title. Now, it’s unclear how the NWSL can compete with the Thorns."

That defense is the most obvious part of the Thorns’ remarkable turnaround, though when remarkable things happen, there’s usually more than one cause. That certainly seems to be the case with Portland. Coming off 2015’s disappointment, the Thorns embarked on an offseason of upheaval. Paul Riley, a coach who had so much success in Women’s Professional Soccer with Philadelphia, was not offered a new contract. The team’s name above the marquee, Morgan, was traded to Orlando, and another 15 players who made at least three appearances last season left the club.

Beyond overhauls, there are some more fundamental explanations for the Thorns’ about face. The Thorns underperformed last season. Add in the upgraded roster, some negative regression from other teams and the quirks of small samples (12 games really isn’t that much), and Portland’s burst out of the gates becomes more explicable.

But that doesn’t make the Thorns’ start any less remarkable, nor any easier to predict how long it will continue. Examining all of those factors, though, does provide a clearer picture. If the Thorns’ new success is based on one or two key things, preserving those could also preserve the team’s dominance. If it’s based on a confluence of a number of factors, though, or if it’s based on results that are unsustainable, Portland’s fast start could prove to be little more than jockeying for postseason position.

Continue: Parsons preaching simplicity