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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Fresh from winning title, team focuses on getting even better

COURTESY: BRAD SMITH/ISIPHOTOS.COM - Lindsey Horan of the Portland Thorns celebrates after scoring in the NWSL championship game, won Saturday 1-0 over the North Carolina Courage in Orlando, Fla.After a rather significant weekend, Mark Parsons was back at his Providence Park office on Monday.

"We need to get after it," the Portland Thorns coach explains. "We've got to find a way to be better. We know we can get better and want to get that process going."

Better?

Two days removed from the second Thorns championship in five National Women's Soccer League seasons, Parsons' attention was on end-of-season details, including medical tests and player meetings.

Soon, the coach will be focusing on ways the Thorns — who won 16 of 26 games on their way to the 2017 NWSL title — can be better in 2018.

There are questions to answer between now and next spring, when the NWSL plans to kick off its sixth season —  twice as long as any previous American women's soccer league survived.

Among the chores for Parsons and president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson is replacing favorites Amandine Henry and Nadia Nadim.

Henry — the French star whose arrival in Portland last summer was viewed as a watershed event for the young league — is returning to play for the Lyon team she left for Portland in the summer of 2016.

Nadim has signed with England's Manchester City. The Danish international played two seasons in Portland after coming to the NWSL to play for Sky Blue FC late in the 2014 season.

"These are two wonderful people, wonderful players," Parsons says. "While we can't replace those two individuals — they're so unique — we have to find a way to get better in performance and results."

Parsons expects minimal roster turnover and anticipates keeping his staff together.

"The first step is exit meetings with current players to see how they feel about being here ... We need to know where everyone is" in terms of their future plans, Parsons says. "There will be improvements, and we will get better. But there's no way that there will be drastic changes."

Team captain Christine Sinclair turns 35 next summer, but Parsons says Sinclair is years away from retirement — and should have an even better 2018 season. She finished 2017 with nine goals and thrived in an attacking midfield role during the second half of the season.

"I took longer than I should have to find a way to have her impact this team the best she can," Parsons says. "It will evolve. It will change again, I'm sure. But I'm much clearer about what it takes to make sure Christine Sinclair is doing all the great things she can do for our team."

One of the new stars this season was goalkeeper Adrianna Franch. The club's backup goalkeeper in 2016, Franch set a league record with 11 regular-season shutouts and was the only Thorns player selected to the NWSL Best XI.

Franch — who in her rookie season was the goalkeeper the Thorns defeated in the 2013 NWSL championship match — credits training against world-class players for her growth.

She says the same is true for the league as a whole.

"The women are bringing their level up every single month, every single day, every single year. We're trying to grow our game, and it shows," Franch says.

A year ago, Parsons and his players were dealing with the pain of an unexpected semifinal loss. That loss was a key driving force to the 2017 title. But the Thorns will not lack for motivation next season, according to their coach.

"We want to be the first club to get three stars. So that burning desire will be very, very strong," Parsons says, referring to the stars above the team logo that represent championships won.

"No. 2 is the players that were here and maybe didn't get to play as much. There are a lot of young players, and they just witnessed what a championship win can feel like in this city and this community," Parsons says.

Rookies such as Savannah Jordan and Tyler Lussi, and even a young player such as Hayley Raso, who burst into a prominent role in her second season, should be excited about improving, the coach says. 

"If I'm sitting in their shoes, I'm going to have the best offseason of my life because I want to be on that field," Parsons says.

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