PORTLAND, Ore. – Only one coach in the National Women’s Soccer League has been with their team longer, and that coach, Chicago’s Rory Dames, has been there from the start.
That says something for how much the league has changed around Mark Parsons and Portland Thorns FC. Though the number of teams in the league has not significantly changed, the level of play on the field has, as well as the level of expectations off of it. Amid an evolving landscape, the NWSL’s challenges have become more arduous. Success is more elusive in 2020 than it was four years ago.
Yet amid that landscape’s evolution, Parsons has brought a level of stability. Before his 2016 arrival, Portland had finished third, third and sixth in the league, going on a playoff run in the league’s first year to claim the club’s first star. In the four seasons that have followed, the Thorns’ worst finish was third place, and that finish, last year’s, was considered a disappointment.
Parsons rightly gets a high degree of scrutiny, as any Thorns coach should. But the before and after of his 2016 arrival is clear. Whereas over the first three years of the league, Portland was a talented team that lacked identity, years four, five, six and seven has seen a talented team set a new standard for itself. Now, when the team doesn’t win a title, the season’s a disappointment.
That such a standard has become implicit – that the team’s fears rest in third-place finishes, not sixth-place collapses – is why today’s news makes sense. Per the club’s Friday announcement, Parsons has extended his stay in the Rose City, ready to push forward beyond a fifth season with a new multi-year contract extension.
“Mark has done a fantastic job, and this extension is a well-deserved recognition of his results and potential,” the Thorns’ owner, Merritt Paulson, said in the club’s announcement. Whereas the team’s President of Soccer, Gavin Wilkinson, is normally the first quote in releases, Paulson put his words out front for Parsons.
“We are excited and proud to have Mark here long term and look forward to seeing his continued development as a top soccer manager,” he said.
That continued development part is also often overlooked. In a profession where peers are normally into their forties and fifties, Parsons has been understandably quiet about his age. But he’s only 33 years old, and although he’s accumulated six playoff appearances, a championship trophy and a regular-season title in his six-plus years at the helm (the first two-plus with the Washington Spirit), Parsons is only in the first act of his career.
There will be progress, and if that progress matches the curiosity he's shown during the offseason, that progress will spark evolution. The coach we see now will not be the coach we see at the end of his new deal.
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC
“Mark’s contract extension shows a commitment to both his qualities as the Thorns head coach and the process,” Wilkinson said. “While we have had success, we are collectively striving to make sure this club is at the top of the standings every year challenging for trophies, and we believe Mark and his staff can help the Thorns meet those expectations.”
For as much as the NWSL has progressed since Parsons’ Spirit debut, it’s also demanded more of its coaches. The wanes of those who had success before hints as much, as do the challenges the Thorns have been handed over the last two seasons. For as good as the champions, FC Kansas City, where in 2014 and 2015, there was no North Carolina Courage over the league’s first year. Even teams like the Red Stars and Thorns, both of which may be in the top five in terms of the world’s best collections of talents, have to pursue new solutions.
That is what Parsons has signed up for. As hinted by Portland’s moves this offseason, he’s ready for his first major rebuild, undertaking a similar level of overhaul that happened on his 2016 arrival. Whereas the team was adapting to the failure of 2015, then, Portland is now adjusting to their heightened demands. It’s no longer enough to have talents like Adrianna Franch, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair. Now more than ever, you need talent to meet a mastery of approach.
Parsons has done that before. His teams in Washington weren’t the most talented, but they were good, reaching a new level almost immediately after he took over. A Spirit team that languished at the bottom of the NWSL standings before his appointment was a postseason presence the next season. In Portland, he won trophies in each of his first two campaigns, forging the league’s best defenses in both 2016 and 2017. In those years, the standard was set by the Thorns.
It’s a cycle of dominance then regression, struggle and adjustment that should continue for the foreseeable future, largely because we see that cycle in all sports. When someone sets the bar, they become the target. In soccer, in England’s Premier League, we’ve seen it with Manchester City and Liverpool; we saw it over the last few NBA seasons with the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets; and even in Parsons’ short time in Portland, we’ve seen it in the NWSL.
As much as the Coach of the Year honor he won in 2016, the 69 regular-season wins hem has collected since 2013, or the two major honors he’s won in Portland, Parsons’ ability to work within that cycle – to both master his team’s crests and adapt to their troughs – is why he has been successful. It’s also the theory as to why he can be successful in the future. Just as, in Portland, he isn’t the same coach he was in Washington, so too will be a different when his new deal plays out.
“I am humbled for the opportunity to commit long term to this incredible club, and I am very grateful to Merritt and Gavin for their trust and commitment,” Parsons said. “It’s an honor to work alongside such talented staff and an ambitious group of players who relentlessly chase improvement each day. My family is proud to call Portland our home and be in such a special community with the best fans and atmosphere in women’s sport.”
Within Parsons’ story, these are still early days. Even then, when you assess the coaching landscape, there are few whose resumes can be said to eclipse his. Factor in his NWSL experience, his time at Providence Park, and the new, higher standards he’s brought to the Thorns, and there may be no better fit for Portland. That’s true of Parsons’ current version, and it will likely be true of the coach he becomes.