PORTLAND, Ore. – “Thunderstorm. Chicago Red Stars. Game got stopped. I think we might have been 1-0 up.”
Mark Parsons’ first NWSL win didn’t go as he would have planned. Forty-nine wins later, he can look back on that day in Chicago with some whimsy, seeing how far he’s come since taking over a wayward Washington Spirit nearly six years ago.
“My first game we tied, and it was like winning the World Cup,” he remembered. “Then we lost seven straight. Then we won, we won, and we tied. We beat Chicago, 1-0, then we beat Seattle, 1-0, then we tied Sky Blue, 1-1.
“I was annoyed that the thunderstorm gave us the first win in that spell. Everyone else was like, stop complaining. Get the win. Let’s move on!’ I was like, ‘We’ve worked so hard, and a freakin’ thunderstorm is going to give us our first win?’”
He’s matured, he says. Now, he knows how hard it is to win in the NWSL. Though he may have taken that August 7, 2013, victory for granted, at the time, his five years in charge of the Spirit and Portland Thorns FC have taught him the value of every “W.”
“You grab wins wherever you can grab wins in this league,” he says, now, admonishing the man who inherited the first-year Spirit. “You don’t get picky.”
You also don’t ignore those who helped. Parsons claimed his 50th career NWSL victory – and 30th win with Portland – Friday night, with the Thorns defeating the Utah Royals, 2-0, but he didn’t reach this milestone on his own.
“To be able to get to 50 wins in a league with the best players and coaches is the best indicator I’ve worked with some really special coaches and players,” he says. “Whenever I think about my times with different teams and the two-and-a-half years [in Portland] – the staff and players I get to spend my days with, week-in, week-out – I’m privileged. I’m really, really privileged.”
And in all likelihood, whenever success arrives, the people who you've surrounded yourself with are ones who share your vision. When asked what he had learned about himself over his first 50 NWSL wins, Parsons’ evoked that proximity to “great, great people.” His second was a dedication to progress.
“The second you think about stopping growth is the second you fall behind someone,” he said. “You have to grow. You have to learn. You have to improve. It’s what I think we’ve built, here, in the staff culture, that we’re most proud of … We’re trying to move forward and grow with ideas and push each other and challenge each other.”
It’s a goal that mimics the trends of the league, itself. From the time he took over in Washington, Parsons has seen the league around him grow, from the spark of its 2013 launch to the formative stage it’s reached in its sixth season.
“Players have evolved. Coaches have evolved. Clubs had evolved,” he explains. “Fan bases have evolved. It was like watching games on Atari, back in `13, and now, it’s quality.
“Everything has grown. Everything has moved forward. There are obviously clubs driving standards faster than others, but in regards to the league as a whole, everything has grown. Everything has moved forward.”
Forward, but at the same time, there’s still room for growth.
“We have to continue to hold ourselves to a higher accountability and drive more,” he says. “Everyone is like, ‘Wow, we have come a long way really, really fast,’ and we do respect that, but we have to keep going. We have to keep driving. We have to keep getting better.”
At such an early stage in the NWSL’s history, this is what individual milestones are about. The mile markers matter, but even more crucial for a league six years into its existence, the path itself is important. The number 50 means nothing without the value built into it, and increasingly, that value entails keeping up with the most competitive league in women’s professional soccer.
“The quality of play (keeps improving), without a doubt,” Parsons emphasized. “Especially looking at this year. It will be the tightest playoff race in history.”
It’s something that adds even more value to Parsons’ milestone. Amid an ever-more competitive landscape, the 31-year-old has seen his teams continuously grow: from first-year strugglers to playoff threats; from franchise lows to NWSL Shields; from title droughts to second stars.
Parsons may see his time in the NWSL in terms of players’ improvement and growth, but his arc in the technical area has travelled the same course. Now, with 50 wins under his belt, he has to demand of himself the same things he’d want on the training ground: stay hungry; be eager to learn; and be even better at the 100-win mark than you were when you reached this milestone.