PORTLAND, Ore. – Coaches’ time before a soccer practice is usually pretty structured. Finalize plans for the session. Get out to the field, finish setting up the drills. Generally do whatever it takes so many sure the next 60, 75, 90 minutes are used as efficiently as possible.
Today, though Portland Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons has made time for something else. From one moment of finalizing the sides in a short-sided drill with assistant Rich Gunney to talking about something that has little to do with this coming session, the Parsons is making an exception from his normal routine to discuss something more important.
“I know we should be talking about soccer and championship games,” he says, “but (Stand Together) really is one of the most important things we do.”
It’s the perception of somebody who’s embarking on his fourth Stand Together Week – an annual tradition with the Timbers and Thorns organization. Over the course of seven days, Stand Together – the club’s community outreach platform of the club – brings to bear the club’s full involvement for a week of projects around Portland and its surrounding areas. In the past, Parsons’ contributions have involved working with refugee youth, among other projects, and last year he had a prominent role with Power of the Purse, in association with Girls Inc. of the Pacific Northwest.
When asked about his first involvement with Stand Together, though, he immediately fast forwards to 2017, and a project that’s become well known among fans of the Timbers and Thorns. It was the project Diego Valeri not only vigorously promoted but one that helped supporter Keith Palau to win Major League Soccer’s MLS Works Community MVP award that year. It was one that saw two reading rooms at a foster care centers in Beaverton, Oregon, given a dramatically new look.
New paint, new furniture, and a new vision helped turn two rooms with barren white walls into spaces that conveyed something important. Parsons was there to help.
“It was one that emotionally hit me,” Parsons said, of the project. “My wife and daughter couldn’t make it, and my wife wanted to understand more – (the location) was close to us, where we lived at the time – and how we could get more involved. Fortunately, we did.
“Me coming back and sharing the impact it had on me, and then wanted to go back and see the outcome and how it was helping the kids spend time with their families and spend time with adults in supervised rooms. It hit us, and it definitely hit my wife.”
It was an early apex for the Parsons family’s Stand Together experience. The coach, his wife and their daughter had relocated to Oregon the year before, having previously called the DMV area (District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia) home. In moving from the NWSL’s Washington Spirit to the Thorns, Parsons also moved to an organization that had something like Stand Together. His first impressions were profound.
“After my first year, I remember speaking to (club President of Soccer) Gavin (Wilkinson) and (club President of Business) Mike Golub about it, that it was just being blown away by the impact it clearly has on this community, and the impact it has on me,” Parsons remembers. “’I’m in awe of what you guys built. Thank you for letting me be a part of it …’
“It was then going, ‘me and my family need to maximize this. We get one week. We need to maximize the opportunity to be able to help as much as we can.’”
Those involved with the Timbers and Thorns are asked to find one project each year they’d like to do. Parsons makes time to do multiple projects each Stand Together Week, club Vice President of Community Impact Kristel Wissel confirms. Yet to him, there are misgivings at merely exceeding expectations, with the week leaving him with the same questions many take away from the project: “Why is it just for a week?”
“The thing that keeps eating me – and now we’ve brought the emotions that I always go through – is why don’t we do a bit more? … How do we keep in contact? I’m not talking about us,” as a collective, he clarifies.” I’m talking about me. Why can’t I? And the answer is, I can. It’s just when it’s organized, it becomes easier, which is (the) wrong (approach).”
Instead, he prefers to look at Stand Together in terms of the tradition it’s building, one which, for him, evokes the unique place other, older clubs around the world have earned within their community. He speaks of Juventus playing their season’s first game in Villar Perosa – a small town 25 miles outside of Turin, Italy – on a small field at the Angelli estate. The annual game between senior and youth squads on the owners’ property leaves players in an intimate setting with some of their club’s most-loyal support.
For Parsons, the Stand Together experience can be what Villar Perosa is to Italy’s most famous club.
“Listening to the players talk about how important that tradition is,” he says, “because they get to go, and they stay in this old little town, and they get to hear about the history of the club, and the importance of the connection to the fans and the community, and the town. For us, we have something similar, which is really unique. It’s so powerful.”
“(Stand Together) is one of the best and more rewarding weeks of the calendar year, and that is echoed by every single player … This is how we can give back to fans and our community.”
For Parsons, it’s taken time to see that scope. Whereas his first year with them left him marveling at the initiative, and his second found a project that struck an emotional cord, Parsons now has enough experience to see the perspective. He’s seen new faces come, experience the same awakening he did four years ago. Now, he can be part of explaining Stand Together’s value.
“I went from being a fan of this unbelievable event to wanting to be a part of this properly, trying to take advantage of the time we have to get out to these organized events,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed trying to do that.”
This enjoyment this year will start at the Children’s Book Bank in Northeast Portland before, later in the week, participating in activities at the Rockwood Boys & Girls’ Club in Southeast Portland – activities that come during time he’d otherwise be spending in his office, doing “planning and video and scouting.” That may require a change of routine, but for Parsons, the tradeoffs are always easy ones.
“It’s never difficult,” he says, “because we have to make the most of our window of opportunity.”
“I can’t wait to get out, and I also can’t wait to continue to evolve, to try to play a bigger part, a bigger role, and have fun. Have fun with our players, with Timbers players, with staff, and our fans.”