SUITED FOR SOCCER SUCCESS
Passion, work ethic propel career of Portland Thorns coach Mark Parsons
Three months into a five-month offseason and fresh off agreeing to a contract extension, Portland Thorns coach Mark Parsons is thinking details.
Even after guiding the Thorns to the best regular-season record in the National Women's Soccer League in his first season in Portland, Parsons isn't in the mood to rest.
His passion and work ethic, he explains, are the reason that, having just turned 30, he is in charge of perhaps the most recognized women's soccer club in the world.
After the Thorns last month announced a contract extension for Parsons, the Portland Tribune caught up with him in his office at Providence Park.
Turns out the first question on the list already had been asked — by Edie Parsons, the coach's 3-year-old daughter:
"She's upset right now," the coach relays. "I woke up this morning and gave her breakfast and said, 'I've got to go to work.' She said, 'Thorns are closed right now. I want Thorns to open. I miss the games.'
"She doesn't understand why I go to work if the Thorns are closed."
Good question. Especially because, as coaches like to say, Parsons already has checked a lot of boxes. The Thorns have most of their roster set for 2017 — including all of their national-team stars and most of their key contributors from 2016.
So, let's start our Q&A with topics relating more to Parsons, his family, his interests and his life in Portland — and then get into the Thorns of 2016 and 2017 and women's soccer issues.
Tribune: Growing up in England, what was your childhood like? What did your parents do?
Parsons: My mom and dad split up when I was 3 or 4. I lived with my dad and visited my mom (on weekends). My mom (Kimberly) passed away when I was 18. She passed away when I was just starting (as a coach) at Chelsea, and she was a Chelsea fan. What's disappointing is when I probably found myself, and it took me a long time, when I found my passion she didn't get to see that.
My dad (Richard) is a driver for a company that provides all kinds of driving services.
We flew him in for the semifinals. I wanted him to see this and see the fans in the stadium. He's grown up in England and seen some amazing, passionate fans of clubs that have there for 100 years … and even he said you don't see what he witnessed here. He loved it. He appreciated that this is a very special place, with a special connection between the fans, the players, the staff, the club.
Tribune: What kind of youngster were you?
Parsons: I was always out playing. Sometimes causing trouble, naively — causing trouble by playing soccer in areas or streets where you shouldn't be. Everything always included a soccer ball. It also included getting everyone else out to play. That was one of the big responsibilities I had.
I'd get back from school, I would look at my homework, procrastinate on it, then I would call everyone and tell them to get down to the field so we can play soccer.
Tribune: Any siblings?
Parsons: Two older brothers, Adam and Matthew, and a younger sister, Alana. My dad and brothers are in England. My sister married a great guy and moved to Scotland.
Tribune: Did you have an 'aha' moment when you knew you wanted to coach?
Parsons: I missed a big game (as a player), a game that scouts were at who could help me, and I went and coached the boys in a U-12, U-13 semifinal. I couldn't not be there for them, and I let the team down I was playing for which wasn't good either.
My dad pretty much said: Look, you taught yourself what you care about more.
Tribune: How did you get into the coaching profession?
Parsons: I stopped playing. I was working on cars, fitting sound systems and alarms. I had an apprenticeship to do that. I was getting 100 pounds a week to do that. How I saw it was, if I got that apprenticeship and I never broke through in coaching maybe I can fix the electrical side of cars.
I did that for a year. But during that year I was coaching this boys team from the local town. The equivalent here would be coaching a travel or competitive youth team. Someone was crazy enough to let me near them to run sessions.
I had a couple of friends who were coaching at Chelsea Football Club, working with the kids, the camps and clinics. I got an interview, and they asked: 'Do you have a driving license and do you have flexible time?'
So I quit the car job after a year and committed to being there at Chelsea Football Club for one hour a day, making nothing.
Every now and then a friend's dad would call and need someone on a construction site, so I'd go. I was very poor at that. I'm not a super-handy person.
I told Chelsea Football Club, whenever you need me I will be there. To run the 4-year-old or a 6-year-old session, I'll be there.
(Within a year Parsons was hired full time by Chelsea).
Tribune: Who are mentors who helped you get established in coaching?
Parsons: When I was at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho was there. I could watch him out my office window. Guus Hiddink, Carl Ancelotti, the list is long.
The biggest impact was a friend I text practically every day. He is a coach at Chelsea, Keith Harmes. The people who have the biggest impact are the ones that invest in you. I appreciate that, and that's what I try to do now.
At that age, I was willing to knock on anyone's door. He gave me a lot of time and had the biggest impact. Now he works with the (age) 17 girls academy team (at Chelsea). He's produced a lot of youth international England players who have gone on to be senior England players.
Tribune: Are you surprised by how quickly you've become a head coach of a professional club?
Parsons: Where I am now, I'm having such a great time. I love working at this place. I never even dreamed of coaching at this level. It wasn't reality. I dreamed of coaching lower, nowhere near this, men's or women's side.
The only reason I have a chance to be here today is that when I said to myself 'I'm going to coach' — it's no different than with players — I gave everything I could. If I was coaching the 3-year-old session, I talked to my uncles and aunties about 3-year-olds. I wanted to know how 3-year-olds tick. I probably made 3-year-olds cry the first time I coached them because I thought they could play a game called Pirates of the Caribbean and the pirates scared them and they cried.
I wanted to be the best. I wanted to help these 3-year-olds, or the 12-year-olds who, if they weren't at your soccer session, could be causing trouble. How could I use soccer to help?
Tribune: What are cornerstones of your soccer philosophy?
Parsons: A relentless drive and work-rate; preparation and organization and a style that players want to believe in and want to fight to play.
Right now, a lot of people get distracted with which soccer club looks the best and sounds the best and the fancy words or whatever's cool at the moment. Whoever won the Champions League, let's play their style. The actual playing style continues to evolve, but it has to be a style that the players and staff believe in passionately and want to fight for.
When you're 1-nil down on the road and you've had 60-70 training sessions, it's halfway through the season and everything's against you, are the players fighting to still do the things that you've trained and had hours of? Do they believe in it? You've got to match that with the demands of this league, which is one of the fastest and most powerful leagues in the world in terms of athletic ability and speed in transition.
Tribune: How did you meet your wife, Hannah?
Parsons: High school sweethearts. She has been my biggest supporter. When I was working on cars and took the leap of faith to begin coaching, she was the one who said, 'Yeah, I know you're not going to have the money and we might not be able to go to the cinema, but that's what you want to do, so do it.'
Hey, do you want to go to America in 2010? Do you want to move across the country to Portland with our 1-year-old?
She's been there throughout pushing me, nudging me, kicking me when we lose. She's spectacular. We've been together 12 years now (married six).
Tribune: Aside from the passion for soccer, what do you think of Portland?
Parsons: We fell in love with the passion for soccer from a distance. Outside of soccer, we're in love with the community, the area, the people.
That's the extra-cool thing. I could be happy wherever I worked as long as I'm in soccer, but having your family loving every element of the community and the area. City, suburbs, even a little bit of Oregon that we've seen. That's as important as anything else.
Tribune: Any favorite restaurants?
Parsons: Elephants Deli is our favorite. I'm always there, but it's my daughter's favorite, for sure. It's easy for her. She can pick whatever she's feeling. My wife loves 23rd Avenue. And there's some cool spots on the west side. We've loved exploring the restaurants. I would say Division Street right now is the flavor.
Tribune: How are you a better coach now than when you were hired a year ago?
Parsons: What I learned this year is the more connected and closer I was to each player and understanding them as people helps them individually perform and also helps the team reach levels that individually, if we weren't as together, we couldn't reach.
Tribune: What things are you working on now to prepare for the 2017 season?
Parsons: We bought a whole new set of players together (in 2016). We brought a whole new staff together, then we hit the season and we took off. So what's going on now is we're evaluating every aspect of staff, players, how we do things.
Right now we're looking at the technical staff a little bit. We want to continue to add and improve. With regards to the roster, the strategy is can we keep everyone that we want to keep? Can we keep this core group together? We have a lot of very good players. That's our first objective. Unless something comes out of nowhere, I think we are achieving that, but it will be a continuing process.
To be specific, we might improve by bringing in one or two very strong players, but there's no room for any more than one or two. We already have a lot of very good players. We can't make this a suddenly unhealthy situation where I'm asking too many players (to sacrifice) who are in a stage of their career where they need to play.
Tribune: What did you tell players after the painful semifinal loss at home?
Parsons: The message to every player in the one-on-one meetings was: If you're not returning in a better place, then you're telling me that that loss didn't affect you. And I knew it affected everyone.
My point to them was: I would never be able to recreate the motivation a loss like that can provide. So if you're not motivated to go away and be better when you turn up in March, then maybe you will never be better.
Tribune: How did you process that loss, coming on the heels of such a strong finish to the regular season?
Parsons: I woke up after that semifinal and my emotion was different than any other game. But I have a process. I break the game down. I analyze the team performance. I analyze the individual performance. Six hours later I have my answers that I need. I've got five months to potentially do that, but if my process is to do that the day after, I'm not breaking that process to take a step sideways or backwards. This is what I do. I'm not changing. Same with players. What do players do after? They take a rest, they regenerate and they prepare again. Whether it's five months for the preparation or it's three days.
Tribune: How can you help players improve when they are away in the offseason?
Parsons: I think my biggest role is supporting, mentoring, cheering for our players through this next few months. There's some strategic things we're doing. From the technical side they've got targets that they're working on. Also, with the type of profile of player that they are, ask them to observe other professionals.
Tribune: For example?
Parsons: If I look at Lindsey Horan, the type of player she is, Paul Pogba at Manchester United looks like he could grab a game by himself, like a Steph Curry or a Damian Lillard, grab a game and run the show. That doesn't happen in soccer. It happens in basketball. Lindsey Horan did that for us, and can do that. And she's going to continue to grow into the player that impacts everything and everyone.
Paul Pogba is a similar mold. Paul Pogba could play in front of the back 4, could play at center mid. Paul Pogba can play behind the striker like Lindsey. Lindsey had the most success for us when she had freedom to cover every blade of grass.
Or Tobin Heath — she's an Arsenal fan so she might fight me on this — but Eden Hazard for Chelsea I think is a similar player. You look at the way he's started the season he's been explosive in his production and performance. He's one of the most talented with the ball I've seen and Tobin's one of the most talented with the ball.
"But it's not just me telling them (who to watch). I'll have two or three examples and make sure that they agree they're that kind of player. That's an important part of that process. Who do they think they are? What do they think they bring?"
Tribune: What is the impact of having a long-term contract?
Parsons: What does it actually change immediately? The intensity that we work at doesn't change. We have a five-day contract we still work the same. We have a 20-year contract we're going to work the same. That's how I am, and I'm going to demand that from everyone around me.
(On the personal side, Parsons said the security of a longer contract means house hunting.)
Now as we're looking for something to buy, we can prioritize the schools. My daughter is 3, so if we were going to be here for a couple of years then maybe we don't prioritize the schools. Now it's a little bit longer than that so we can and that's exciting."
Tribune: What is the role of the Thorns Youth Academy?
Parsons: The young 5-year-old who's walking, maybe they've been to piano or Powell's Books, and they can see the red and black scarves and the jerseys of the Thorns, and they hear the noise and see the floodlights, they're going to say, 'I want to do that — 21,000 fans cheering for those girls on the field. I want to be that.'
So we have that. What we need to do is give everything to developing the best people we can in our environment and our academy and, secondly, the best players. When you have this light, this inspiration — I didn't spend three or four hours a night kicking a soccer ball because someone told me to, I watched a professional game and it inspired me. We have that here. And we also have some of the best people, role models and players.
First of all, we're going to be developing better people. The percentage chance of someone coming all the way through to be a Thorns professional, we can't predict what that is. Yes, we aim to give the best to everyone in hope that they are prepared to be a professional player. Reality is, let's make them great people … and then give them a foot into being the best player. And that means, first of all, the opportunity to play in college. And at some point that means the opportunity to play for the Thorns.
Tribune: The NWSL is only four years old. How do you feel about the state of the league?
Parsons: I will always fight and say that what's important is the product on the pitch. We all, as coaches and players on the technical side, need to make sure that level continues to rise. I think this year the league was the most competitive on the pitch that it has ever been.
The standard of soccer continues to grow. So in four to five years the technical, tactical elements of the NWSL will continue to be better. It's a very athletic, hard-working, strong mentality kind of league right now with good tactical and technical (play). But I think the tactical and technical continues to improve. I think the standard on the pitch improves, and across the league, off the pitch, I think we're all fighting to improve standards: standards of staff, standards in practice, in facilities.
The fans, and the connection here (in Portland), are the best in the world. If you look across the league — and I'd say this if I'd not been there — the Washington Spirit, the fans' connection to their team: When they win, it makes their week. When they lose, it ruins their week. That is a fan, a supporter.
Let's just say those two teams have great fans. The soccer history in Portland goes back so far, women's soccer goes back with the (University of Portland) Pilots. In Washington, you had the Freedom with Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach playing. What I'm trying to say is, if you look at the fan support in those two great examples, there's history. In five years time, there's going to be more history in this league so there will be more connection.
Mark Parsons at a glance
Born: Cranleigh, England
Family: Wife Hannah; daughter Edie, age 3
Early coaching jobs: Parsons was a youth camp coach at Chelsea FC at age 18. He coached local youth teams starting at 14. In six years at Chelsea, he worked up to be head coach for the Chelsea Ladies Reserves.
Coming to America: In 2010, Parsons was hired as the technical director for the Culpeper (Va.) Soccer Association youth soccer club.
Road to pros: In 2012, Parsons coached the D.C. United under-20 women's team. In 2013, He was hired to coach the Washington Spirit reserves in the W-League, then promoted to coach the NWSL Spirit in July, replacing fired Mike Jorden.
NWSL record: Parsons was named 2016 NWSL coach of the year. In his three full seasons, his NWSL teams were 30-21-17, including playoffs. The Thorns finished 2016 with a league-best regular-season record of 12-4-6 before losing to the Western New York Flash in the postseason.
NWSL key dates
2017 college draft at Los Angeles -- The Thorns have picks 14, 20, 27 and 40. They do not have a pick in the first of the four rounds.
To be announced. Unless there is a radical change from previous seasons — which seems unlikely — expect the Thorns to begin training in March, with league play to begin in April.
The first two years, the NWSL season ended with August playoffs. The last two seasons, play extended into October because of breaks for the Women's World Cup and Olympics. With no World Cup or Olympics in 2017, the league's stars should be involved the whole season.