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New Thorns coach works to build championship culture


COURTESY: PORTLAND THORNS - England's Mark Parsons has taken over for Paul Riley as coach of the Portland Thorns, who missed the National Women's Soccer League playoffs last year, but are reloading with lots of talent for 2016.Having been on the job for just four months and no games yet as coach of the Portland Thorns, Mark Parsons doesn’t get recognized when he ventures outside of Providence Park.

But that’s fine with him. Since he arrived in the Rose City, he has bumped into soccer fans in coffee shops around town, and he’s eager to hear what they really think.

“They don’t know they’re talking to the coach, and I don’t tell them because I just want to have a soccer chat,” Parsons says, adopting the American term for the sport amid his British accent. “It’s cool listening to them and the passion they have.”

And there is plenty to chat about. Tasked with turning around a team that failed to make the National Women’s Soccer League playoffs last season, Parsons has been busy since arriving in Portland.

He already has overhauled much of the roster, which meant losing top players such as Alex Morgan. Of the team’s 20-player roster last season, 11 won’t return.

“Yes, you go through the process of identifying problems,” Parsons says when asked about the changes he wanted to make when he took the job. “But for me, it’s more about identifying where we want to go and the positive things that have to happen to get there.”

On paper, it seems Parsons has found strong players to do just that. Lindsey Horan — whose recent performances with the U.S. women’s national team have her looking like the next big thing — was one of Parsons’ earliest signings, along with national team defender Meghan Klingenberg. The Thorns also signed the No. 1 overall draft pick in Emily Sonnett, who is expected to be a starting defender.

One player in advanced negotiations with the Thorns, sources tell the Tribune, is Amandine Henry of France. She won the Silver Ball at the Women’s World Cup over the summer as the second-best player of the tournament behind Carli Lloyd.

Henry is still under contract with Olympique Lyonnais in France, and Parsons won’t comment on which international players he is targeting. But he hints that whoever the team is negotiating with would be a major signing, if a deal is made.

“We had a strategy for bringing in a world-class player that is in her prime,” Parsons says. “And that is difficult to do — a world-class player in her prime that also fits the culture and the work ethic and the passion that we have in this club. The player that we’re close with signing, we probably didn’t even think it was possible.”

He adds: “If it comes off, this will be a very special thing for us.”

But with every high-profile national team player comes a recurring problem. Club general manager Gavin Wilkinson already has identified too many players leaving midseason for the World Cup last summer as a major reason for the Thorns’ struggles. National team players must leave again for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this year.

Parsons originally expected that the Thorns might lose as few as four players for the Rio Games, well below the nine who left the Thorns shorthanded last season during the World Cup. But then, the new Thorns players started making a splash with the national team.

“Suddenly, players we wanted have increased their stock and their form,” he says. “Lindsay Horan, Emily Sonnett and A.D. (Adrianna) Franch are all in camp now (with the national team). We didn’t think at the time that they could be going to the Olympics. All three of them, that’s possible now. We might be up to six leaving now, which should be the max.”

Acquiring top talent is one thing, but making it work together is another. For the Thorns, consistent chemistry has been a nagging concern. Players in seasons past admitted that not everyone on the team had the same level of commitment. Last year, the full squad barely played together between the World Cup and injuries. With more new players than returning ones, 2016 may look ripe for similar issues.

The preseason won’t begin until March and the schedule won’t be out until next month, but Parsons already is laying the groundwork for a cohesive team. He is planning a nonsoccer team-building trip for players, and Portland will host a preseason invitational tournament, the first of its kind in the NWSL. As Parsons puts it, it’s about bringing the Thorns together off the field just as much as on it.

Parsons, who started his coaching career in youth and then women’s programs for Chelsea in England, also has been careful in his recruitment process to suss out players who won’t match the commitment of the rest of the team. It may have caused some negotiations to fall through, but Parsons is insistent that the club needs players who are exceptional in their willingness to put the Thorns first.

“I’m not afraid of losing a player because I’m really honest in telling them exactly what we want — and I have,” he says. “There are some players that haven’t worked out because we want a specific type of player and a specific set of priorities.

“We want every single player passionate about making the Thorns the best possible team in this country and in the world. I know that’s silly, you think every player would want that, but with national teams, business things, other jobs, education, family, relationships, there’s so many things in a player’s life they have to juggle.

“For us, Thorns have to be at the top. Family is the most important to me — my wife, my daughter — but on my working day, the Thorns will get everything from me.”

In hiring the former coach and general manager of the Washington Spirit, who compete against the Thorns in the NWSL, Wilkinson and club officials identified Parsons as a coach who understands the league and how to relate to its players. With the Thorns roster nearly full, the next phase for Parsons to make perhaps his most important mark as coach will soon begin.

“We will have a championship culture and a championship mindset,” he says, when asked about how he expects the team to fare in the standings. “That’s what we can control: being winners every day in how we approach training and preparation.”