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Parsons' cultural overhaul a driving force for unbeaten Thorns

ISI Photos-Daniel Bartel
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The beauty of simplicity

The easiest explanation for improvement is usually players playing better, but with the Thorns, even that leads back to Parsons. Whereas in previous seasons there were whispers of a lack of tactical sophistication, Parsons’ relatively straightforward approach has resonated with the squad. The sophistication comes in the staff’s adjustments to individual opponents, with the application, boiling down to a few simple principles.

“It makes me laugh when we talk about this,” Parsons explains, seizing a moment to talk about the forest instead of a tree. “I think as a coach … tactics can be too complicated. Number one, get your players performing at their best. Get each individual doing what they love to do, and get them doing it well.”

Perhaps no player has benefited from that simplicity as much as Heath. Over the NWSL’s first three seasons, the U.S. international had one goal and three assists in 24 regular-season games (and the title-clinching goal in 2013). This season, before departing to prepare for the Olympics, Heath had one goal and a league-leading five assists in nine games.

“So Tobin, she's one of the most special players on your team,” Parsons said. “Get her doing what she loves to do. She loves to run at people, she loves to dribble, to create. Make sure your tactic allows that to happen.”

In defense, it’s less about playing to individual skills than implementing a base philosophy. Even then, the principles are similar.

“We do simple stuff, we have simple rules,” according to Parsons. “We have areas the other team is allowed to go to. There are areas they cannot go to. And we just train and (watch) video and talk and train.”

Whether the lack of complexity makes the Thorns’ success sustainable seems to cut two ways. On the one hand, simple plans are easier to replicate. The lack of intricacy means they’re easy to perform. On the other hand, they’re also easier to figure out. Will opposing defenses eventually see tendencies in what Heath and Sinclair do in Parsons’ setup? Maybe the areas teams are allowed to enter in attack will start to be exploited?

Talent and character

That’s where another theory of the Thorns’ success comes in: Increased talent. Thanks to one of the most successful offseasons in league history, Portland was able to add three U.S. internationals (left back Meghan Klingenberg, midfielder Lindsey Horan, central defender Emily Sonnett) to the core it held over: Heath, Sinclair, midfielder Allie Long, defender Emily Menges, and goalkeeper Michelle Betos. Two more starters, Nadia Nadim and Dagny Brynjarsdottir, were brought in to round out the attack, while French international Amandine Henry has arrived mid-season, bringing another world-class talent to the team’s midfield.

Portland lost Morgan, though; aka, the starting striker on the world’s No. 1 ranked international team. Former World Player of the Year Nadine Angerer retired in goal, and a slew of other high-profile internationals were part of the squad’s mass exodus. Of the 13 players on the 2015 roster who could claim to have high-level international experience, only three returned (Sinclair, Heath, Long). Aggregated, Portland may have lost as much talent as it acquired.

The players Parsons and Thorns management brought in, though, all fit a very specific vision.

“If you look at our offseason, whoever we kept or brought in, the biggest factor in their recruitment was their character,” Parsons explains when asked about his offseason priorities. “Are they going to put the team first?”

ISI Photos-Roy K. Miller

Amandine Henry: The Thorns' newest star. (ISI Photos-Roy K. Miller)

It’s a factor that helped Parsons transition into his new job.

“Here, the buy-in given to me, to me and my staff, has been immediate,” he explained, “because I think we brought in great characters. We spent six months talking to them before the season, what [the team] was going to be … I did have to get the buy-in.”

That buy-in’s reflected in the team’s work rate - a term that’s often used as a vague cliché when trying to describe success or failure. For Portland, though, it’s become a standard, with the team’s staff making sure players hit their marks.

“We get 50-50 stats. We get header stats. We get all these stats,” Menges explained. “If we are outworking the other team, we will win. To this point, we’ve outworked every other team, and we’ve won. I think that's the most important thing.”

Morgan’s departure, however, is the elephant in the room: something Parsons can’t speak to, because he never coached her; something ex-teammates won’t speak to, out of respect for a friend and colleague. For the three years the U.S. star was in Portland, there was a strange co-alpha relationship between her and Sinclair, one rarely talked about publicly but alluded to when Morgan, after moving to Orlando, conceded that she could make Orlando her team. That preference was never publicly revealed in Portland, nor would it have been with Sinclair around.

This year has been different. Parsons, highlighting a June 26 moment in Orlando, spoke to the new dynamic.

“[Sinclair] came off at halftime, and I’ve never seen her so animated,” Parsons recalls, explaining Klingenberg and Henry also spoke up. “[Sinclair] said ‘tell me what we can do, I can do. We’re winning this game.’”

“For me, it wasn’t what she said, it was the energy and passion. She was so ready.  She didn’t say it, but I looked at her and thought ‘If I need to put her at center back, she’ll play center back.’”

ISI Photos-Craig Mitchelldyer

Christine Sinclair is the heart of Portland. (ISI Photos-Craig Mitchelldyer)

For a team based in Portland, where Sinclair has established a legend dating back to her time at the University of Portland, it always made sense to have her at the center of the club. After this offseason, that’s clearly the case, and although there are other influential presences within the room, Sinclair’s legacy, passion and attachment make her voice heard.

“One of the very first conversations (from the offseason),” Parsons explains, “[I] talked with Sinc, and within 10 minutes, (it was clear) she was so deep and invested in this club doing well. She talked about how long she’d been in this city, and the city deserved success. She’s so committed to bringing that here.”

Reinforcing the ethos

Even the effect of the leadership changes is difficult to disentangle from Parsons. From the moment he took charge with the club, the former Chelsea LFC boss talked to Sinclair and the rest of the squad about what would become the team’s core principles: Attitude, effort and focus.

The next run of games will test those principles. With seven players set to be gone during this lead-up to the Olympics, the Thorns are unlikely to continue their undefeated run, but the reasons they stumble could speak volumes. If the first-choice holdovers falter or replacement players waver, the effects could carry on past their stars’ returns. But if the team loses because of a lack of goals or replacements getting beat in individual battles, Portland can expect another surge when the Olympics are over.

For Parsons, although he believes “we won’t see the true evidence of the time the team has put into each other until next year,” the 2016 season can still exceed the first 12 games’ promise:

“We are seeing something special here, and I am not taking my eyes off the next game, but just my experience is, we’re just getting going. If we’re a power train or power car, we’re just second gear.

“Even though we’re still doing well, I think this is just the start.”

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Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.