Gunney brings long view to Thorns assistant coach role
The Portland Thorns lead the National Women's Soccer League this season with 14 goals from corner kicks and free kicks.
Meghan Klingenberg's precise deliveries are one factor. Another is the work of the newest assistant coach to join Mark Parsons' staff.
One of Rich Gunney's main jobs is studying and planning set-piece attacking and defending.
Gunney, 36, came to Portland after six years in charge of futsal in his native Wales. He established programs for youths and adults and coached the first Wales national futsal team.
His crowning achievement came in December, when Wales hosted and won the first Four Nations Futsal Tournament, sweeping Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.
"I had six great years coaching that squad, traveling around Europe, playing international tournaments," Gunney says. "It was a great education and helped me develop a lot as a coach."
When Parsons reached out about joining his Thorns staff, Gunney jumped at the opportunity to work with some of the top women's soccer players in the world — on a Thorns team that will play host to Orlando at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in the NWSL semifinals.
"I was in a hurry to work at the highest level possible. Once I got the opportunity to work with the futsal team, I realized that you've got to keep learning, keep progressing and keep improving," Gunney says. "That was a great six years working as a head coach. This opportunity is a chance for me to support and learn and develop."
Parsons and Gunney first crossed paths as rival girls soccer academy directors in England, Parsons at Chelsea and Gunney at Fulham.
"He would develop and train and make these wonderful players and we would steal them," Parsons recalls.
Despite that, a coaching friendship began eight years ago, when Parsons and Gunney spent two weeks together for a coaching license program.
"We're very similar in the sense that we want to be the best coach we can be. We have a very player-centered approach," Parsons said.
Yet they see the game differently enough that, along with assistant coaches Sophie Clough and Nadine Angerer, Parsons has a staff that can push one another and the team forward.
Clough is a numbers person, analyzing statistics that paint a picture of how well the Thorns are performing on details such as 50-50 battles, headers won, recovery runs.
Angerer, the 2013 FIFA women's world player of the year and World Cup champion goalkeeper for Germany who finished her playing career with the Thorns, is in her second season coaching the club's goalkeepers.
"Something we're proud of is how well we collaborate, how well we work together (as a staff). We've pushed and taken each other to new levels," Parsons says. "We don't waste or spend any time on things that do not help the team. There's no fluff. You can't do that without great staff.
"Rich has come in and brought knowledge, brought experience, brought wisdom of the game. He's been soaking up and learning the women's game in this country."
Gunney was hired after Tracy Hasson moved from the Thorns staff to a coaching job with the Timbers youth academy.
Gunney, who worked briefly as director of a girls soccer club in Virginia, is impressed with the level of play throughout the NWSL. His job requires him to study each Thorns opponent. He spends hours watching video and preparing plans.
"I like studying the game and studying the tactics and the specifics of the game. So it's enjoyable work for me," Gunney says.
Growing up in Cardiff, Wales, Gunney dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. But his ability only took him as far as semi-professional soccer, playing as a wide player.
A coaching class he took while studying for a sports science degree piqued his interest in coaching and by the time he was 27 he had shifted into full-on coaching mode.
Some challenges are similar for coaches and for players, Gunney says.
"The real challenge is just the detail of operating at your best on a daily basis because it's a long season," he says. "You have highs and lows throughout the season, so you've just got to keep focused and keep grinding away each week to make sure that you support the players as best you can."
His interest in futsal — the mini version of soccer played five-a-side on hardcourt surfaces with a smaller ball — started with a coaching course. He introduced futsal as a training tool for the Fulham Girls Center of Excellence, then moved to the challenge of introducing competitive futsal to Wales and forming a national team.
Futsal is a great training tool for young players, Gunney says.
"It gets you used to playing in small spaces under pressure," he says. "It also teaches you some good principles of the game, such as one-v-one attacking, one-v-one defending, and the basics of passing and ball control."
A fan of ice hockey (Washington Capitals and his hometown Cardiff Devils) and rugby, Gunney says there are lessons in those sports that apply to his coaching soccer.
"Looking at how other coaches prepare and analyze and support their teams — you have to be adaptable and look at all the modern trends and techniques in the game," Gunney says.
Gunney's longer vision is to coach pro soccer players for as long as he can.
"Wherever it takes me. Soccer and professional sport can be a strange world. You never know which direction things are going to go in," he says. "So I'm very much about keep moving forward and always enjoy where I work and work with the best players and the best teams possible. Whether that's in an assistant role or a head coaching role, I'm sort of a little bit more patient and content just to keep improving and developing each year."