For the first time since March 26, Mark Parsons spoke to the media on Monday, leaving two months of questions piled up about his team and the NWSL’s Covid-19 world. Yet thanks to the news of the previous five days, the Portland Thorns FC head coach was also some questions that bordered on normal. The main example: What will it be like to prepare for the North Carolina Courage?
It’s a refreshing if familiar reality for Parsons’ team, who Monday found out they will open their NWSL Challenge Cup on June 27 against the Courage. The Thorns will then play the Orlando Pride, Washington Spirit and OL Reign in the tournament’s preliminary round. Still, when the Courage’s envelope was opened fourth in this morning’s draw, casting them against the third-drawn Thorns, Parsons’ reaction echoed the rest of the NWSL world.
“We knew it,” he explained, when asked about the matchup. “You knew it was going to happen.”
The Thorns-Courage dynamic has been a dominant one over the league’s last four seasons, beginning with the squads’ meeting in the 2016 NWSL semifinals. The Courage’s core of players were part of Western New York then, under the Flash’s crest, but has stayed together after relocating to Cary, North Carolina. That core faced the Thorns in 2017’s title game and again in 2018, with the teams splitting titles.
The rivalry that resulted has been so prevalent, it’s easy to forget: The teams didn’t actually meet in last season’s final, something Parsons noted on Monday’s call.
“Maybe two years ago, when Thorns and Carolina were distinctly the two strongest [NWSL teams], it felt like we were always playing each other, always playing each other first,” he said. “We’d face each other in the championship, where it’s an important rivalry, and we don’t want to overcook it.
“But [the rivalry has] cooled off,” Parsons feels. “It’s cooled off. We didn’t make it to the championship. We’ve got a few other teams chasing us as well.”
There’s no doubt North Carolina has distinguished itself from the rest of the NWSL, setting a new bar for teams like Portland, the Chicago Red Stars and others. Whether the Thorns have lost so much ground that the rivalry’s diminished? That’s something different. After all, there’s a reason why so many thought “of course” during today’s draw. There’s a reason why, even if one team’s taken control, North Carolina and Portland have become each others’ fiercest rival.
“Playing a champion is always going to be fun,” Parsons said. “[North Carolina is] a team we’ve got great history with. To come off the bat, to be able to go at them, I think it’s a huge positive.”
That positive may add urgency to the next three-plus weeks. Their first competition of the year may prove their strongest. By kickoff, the Courage and Thorns may try to look at the Challenge Cup’s forgiving format, where eight of nine teams advance to its next round, and cast June 27 as a mere opener, but when was the last time a North Carolina-Portland match felt like something other than a showdown?
“Great game for the league,” Parsons said. “Great game for this country to see right off the bat, and we’re excited for it.”
In the interim, Parsons seems prepared to get back to basics. When asked about the unique challenges of his team’s restarted preseason, the Thorns’ head coach espoused the virtues of “mentality,” “high performance,” and “cohesion.”
“When teams get it right on the cohesion, style of play and culture, everyone gets pushed to a new level,” he said. “That’s our focus.”
By the end of Parsons’ availability, though, one virtue was being espoused more than most, with “identity” in focus after the way Portland concluded its 2019 season.
“Short tournament [or] long tournament, short season [or] long season, our identity, especially after last year – where I think our identity had become very grey – our identity is the highest priority ...,” he explained, his team having missed out on its first title game since 2017. “Being very clear on our style of play and the key characteristics, being very clear on our culture and behaviors and our expectations off the field, they’re our highest priorities.”
“We know the overarching responsibility we have at this club,” Parsons said. “We know success and winning is always there. What we focus on and where our mindset, mentality are always on is high performance, as a team and as individuals. Being our absolutely best. Pushing our absolute best.”