BEAVERTON, Ore. – Thorns FC returned to practice this week with the same intensity they’ve shown all season. To the eye, there was no increased urgency within the group. There was even a little levity at the beginning of Tuesday’s session, though not enough to depict a team losing focus. In terms of the broad swath of a professional soccer team’s season, it was business as usual at the adidas Timbers Training Center, a state that would be unremarkable if not for the team’s last five results.
For the first time under head coach Mark Parsons, who joined the team before the 2016 NWSL season, Portland is winless in five, a run of results they haven’t matched since their ill-fated 2015 campaign. And while eight games into the new year is too early to predict a return to that year’s sixth-place levels, back-to-back trophy-winning seasons (NWSL Shield in 2016; NWSL title in 2017) make the team’s current slump highly unusual and unexpected ground.
After the team’s return to training, though, Parsons was quick to offer perspective on the team’s slump.
“We haven’t faced it with the Thorns since this group and staff have been together, here, but that’s very unique and very rare,” he said.
“This is the normal world of coaching, normal world of competing,” he explained. “You win games when you shouldn’t win them. You lose games that you feel you should have won, that you deserve to win.”
That’s where the Thorns find themselves ahead of Saturday’s visit to take on the Washington Spirit (4pm PT, NWSLsoccer.com/go90). Their five games without a win have not necessarily been because of poor performances. Even after reviewing last Saturday’s 2-1, home loss to the Orlando Pride, Portland’s staff came away content with much of the team’s performance, putting the team back in the same, perplexing place they stood after their previous home loss.
“That’s the frustrating thing about Saturday – we could say the same about Seattle,” Parsons explained, referencing the team’s May 5, 3-2 loss to rival Reign FC. “In those two games, if you find another team to pin those two quality teams in like we did for 45, 65 minutes of a game, I’ll be surprised.”
In each game, Portland set (or matched) the team’s record for shots, recording 48 over the 180 minutes. Ultimately, though, the Thorns lost each game by a single goal, leaving the team in fifth place in the NWSL.
“We did so many positive things,” Parsons felt. “We were very aggressive in the way that we attacked and defended for large, large part. But we need that urgency from the beginning. It can’t be 20 minutes in.”
Parsons accepted part of the blame for that lack of urgency, saying he has to be quicker to make adjustments, and that his team has to be better prepared to compete from minute one. “I have to make sure that I get it right, bang on from the beginning, as well,” he said, also lamenting his inability to find solutions in the team’s mid-week, 1-1 draw at the Houston Dash.
It’s the type of lament that could seep into other parts of the squad, threatening to change the Thorns’ mentality for the worse. But instead, Parsons is focused on expediency when it comes to addressing Portland’s problems, paying attention to those “many positive things” the staff is seeing rather than belaboring the negative.
“There are only a couple of mistakes, but they’re big,” he said, regarding his team’s approach. “There are a couple of areas that we’re not doing very well. Just a couple.
“Face them, head on. Take them on, head on. Train them, head on. Talk about them, head on. Video, head on, and get them out of our team.”
After which time, the Thorns can spend the majority of their training trying to fine tune what’s worked.
“So, 10 percent, 15 percent,” Parsons said, about the time spent on the negatives, “then all these positives and strengths, continue to work on them. Be brave. Be bold. Get onto the positives on all the things we are doing well.”
The Thorns can also look to the past, too – the times over the past two years where they didn’t feel they’d played well, yet got results – to remember how they pushed through. There were times throughout the 2017 campaign where Portland had to win ugly, finding ways to take three points even if the underlying performances were flawed.
Now, with the underlying performances improved, the team can look back on those games to see a recipe for overcoming adversity.
“Last year, we won games in the middle (of the season) where we were really unhappy (with the performance),” Parsons explained. “Boston away, at the end of the year, was one of our worst performances of the year, but we won by gritting it out … That was pure grit, at times. Pure fight and determination, and a mentality and an attitude.”
Ultimately, the 2018 season is only eight games old, and while the Thorns are now being tested in a way they haven’t in two previous years, Portland could, in theory, end up better for their struggles.
“Moments like this will define the success teams can have,” Parsons said. “Every team in this league is very, very good when things are going well. How you conduct yourself and how you continue to find ways to move forward when things are not going so well, things aren’t going your way, it defines teams.”