PORTLAND, Ore. – “Of course, we didn’t anticipate this happening,” Portland Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons confessed about the situation that evolved over the previous three days. Between the last time his team had taken the field – a 0-0, Friday night draw at Providence Park with Utah Royals FC – and the start of Monday’s training session, Parsons had seen five of the nine Thorns active at the 2019 World Cup eliminated in the tournament’s Round of 16.
Australia lost a penalty shootout to Norway on Saturday, ending the tournament for Ellie Carpenter, Caitlin Foord and Hayley Raso. Come Sunday, it was Brazil’s turn, with host-nation France ending the tournament for Andressinha. On Monday, Canada bowed out, with Sweden sending Thorns captain Christine Sinclair home earlier than most thought Canada would bow out.
Parsons had planned for all of his players to be gone through the end of the competition on July 7, even though he knew some players wouldn’t make the final. “It’s the safest,” Parsons said about his plans, explaining, “I didn’t expect to be thinking about this, yet.”
“This” is the return of some players’ early returns, something that will test the lessons Parsons learned three and four years ago. Then, in 2015 and 2016, the Thorns head coach also dealt with significant absences, navigating the 2015 World Cup while in charge of the Washington Spirit before, the next year, the Summer Olympics impacted his first season with the Thorns.
Both seasons, Parsons found a way to manage the absences. Both seasons, his teams ended up in the playoffs.
“I think there’s previous lessons – some relate, and some don’t – but to be specific here, it’s going to be about that individual,” he said. “It always is.
“They’re all coming from different situations, different stages of their career, and what this tournament means. We’ve got to be able to support the individual as a person, first. And then when they’re ready, it will be back to adjusting to football with the Thorns.”
It’s the wait-and-see approach every coach will have to employ over the coming weeks. FIFA defines a specific period of time after the World Cup where players are still to be considered on international duty, but come the close of that window, that doesn’t mean every player will be ready to resume life as normal with their club.
There’s a physical toll of the World Cup that has to be considered, as well as the travel. Perhaps most important, there’s an emotional and intellectual impact that comes with four years’ training ending in a few moments. Tournaments can end with a whistle. A person’s mindset is more persistent.
Each player’s path has to be considered. Each mentality is different. So, while every NWSL coach might know when a player’s going to return, until they see their World Cup players in person, it’s difficult to know when a particular player will be back on the field.
“There are players in the best stage of their career that felt so prepared,” Parsons said, “and then there are players that fought back from injury. There are players who have squeezed back in.
“You look at Andressinha. She’s squeezed back in from a tough couple of months, being out of selection. She gets back in the last game, and then she comes on as a sub. It just feels like her rhythm was just about to start to grow.”
Perhaps Andressinha will hit the ground running on her return. Maybe the Australians will need more time, dealing with a disappointment more acute. Will Christine Sinclair need less time because she’s dealt with this before, or more time because of, well, a number of potential factors?
It’s impossible to know. Better to focus on what you can count on – the emotion of the moment – and leave the rest to how they preform when they’re back in Portland.
“I’ve been their biggest fan. I’ve absolutely loved watching all our players at the World Cup,” Parsons said. “I’ve enjoyed not being too serious and too focused about soccer and just supporting our Thorns.”
“So, disappointed for them, as individuals, and proud of their individual performances. Proud of their commitment to their country. I’m just ready to give them a big hug and help them in any way they need help.”