PORTLAND, Ore. — The buildup probably helped. After the possibility reached public eyes last week, we had time to accept it, though that wasn’t step one. Like some other information we see on social media, some of us tried to reject it, then rationalize — entertain it, then prepare. By the time Portland Thorns FC confirmed Mark Parsons’ future this morning, we were used to the idea, whether we’ve fully embraced it or not.
Roughly nine days ago, rumors surfaced that Parsons, the Thorns’ head coach since October 2015, would be appointed to the Netherlands women’s national team job. Without the caveat that the move would happen after the 2021 National Women’s Soccer League season, the possibility was easy to dismiss. But add that qualifier and here we are, in a place where the news is suddenly official.
“Portland Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons has accepted the position as the head coach of the Netherlands Women’s National Team,” Portland Thursday statement began, bringing nine days’ speculation to full fruition.
“[It was] an incredibly hard decision, of course,” Parsons said, in an interview for ThornsFC.com. “This place has become home. I’ve been treated as family from the moment I’ve come here …
“Another unique opportunity has come along, and I think the timing of coaching at the international stage [combined] with a family decision after this last 12 months — being able to get my family closer to loved ones that we haven’t been able to see, and also be able to take on a challenge at this time — seemed appropriate, [while] finishing up some business this year. Which is very important to all of us.”
Gavin Wilkinson, Mark Parsons discuss Mark's departure at season's end, team goals for 2021
Parsons joined Thorns FC before the 2016 season and guided his new team that year to an NWSL Shield for the league’s best record. The next season, he helped claim the club’s second league title. He’s since added a Community Shield (2020) and Challenge Cup (2021) to his list of Portland accomplishments, and though it’s early in the NWSL’s new campaign, Portland appears to be the strongest contender to claim the league’s 2021 title.
Though it’s premature to talk about things that can’t happen until November, it’s important to recognize what Parsons has helped build, as well as what he’s leaving behind. After Portland was eliminated in 2019’s playoff semifinal, the Thorns undertook a major reorganization of their squad, changing course from the team that had evolved over Parsons’ first four seasons to adopt a new direction. The new squad and new approach has built to this point, where the Thorns have won the league’s last two trophies, are unbeaten in their last 10 games, and opened the 2021 regular season with a 5-0 victory over a perennial contender, the Chicago Red Stars.
That’s not an easy situation to leave, especially when your work has yet to fully pay off. Parsons talked about that when he said he didn’t want to leave “without finishing up some business this year.” But as he also alluded, professional goals have to be balanced with personal ones, and while he tries to help the Thorns to another title, Parsons is also doing what he feels is best off the field.
- ANNOUNCEMENT: Parsons to depart at conclusion of 2021 season
“[The move] has been an ongoing conversation about, how do we solve some of the challenges that Mark has been presented with,” Portland’s president of soccer, Gavin Wilkinson, said when asked about his head coach’s move. Saying Parsons’ decision “wasn’t a surprise,” Wilkinson explained, “[the last year has] been a challenge just relative to getting connected with family, just being able to see family, and being able to raise a young daughter in a world you’re trying to embrace around friends and family.”
Parsons and his wife, Hannah, are raising a young daughter, who fans have connected with through the team’s post-match celebrations at Providence Park. There is a cheer Edie shares with north end’s fans after every match at home. But according to Wilkinson, the challenges of living in Portland, including being away from family in the Parsons’ native England, were part of concerns that were shared “over the last six months.”
“It got to the stage where I promised, if an opportunity came that made sense for everybody, [the club] would entertain it …,” Wilkinson said. “The Dutch women’s national team are getting very, very lucky with Mark.”
For the players’ part, many found out about the possibility like the rest of us. Defender Becky Sauerbrunn, when asked how she learned about the news, confessed, “one of my teammates passed me a Twitter message, and it mentioned a rumor of Mark going over the to Netherlands.” “I usually hear things through the grapevine,” she confessed, while Thorns captain Christine Sinclair admitted, “we were all a little surprised when we found out.”
Thorns FC's Christine Sinclair, Becky Sauerbrunn discuss Mark Parsons' future, reinforce team goals for 2021
“But then that quickly turns to you’re happy for your head coach …,” Sinclair explained. “Obviously, selfishly, you want him to stick around and be with the Thorns forever, but at the same time, you completely understand that he’s got to take this chance.”
Sinclair and Sauerbrunn have been in this situation before, multiple times over. Three years ago, Sinclair saw her national team head coach, John Herdman, leave Canada women’s national team a year before the 2019 World Cup. The same year, Sauerbrunn was a part of a FC Kansas City squad that saw Vlatko Andonovski depart ahead of her team’s relocation to Utah. Each have been part of notable changes, before. Each recognize those changes are part of the sport.
“It happens a lot in the game,” Sauerbrunn said, “and I think it’s a great opportunity for Mark. It’s great for his family. He’s going to be back in Europe and coaching the Netherlands. It’s a world-class team, so it’s a really great opportunity … I’m really happy for him.”
“For people to think that you’re going to play on a professional team or a national team and never experience a coaching change is a little unrealistic,” Sinclair said. “[It’s] similar to players coming and going. It’s the same with the coaches.”
That’s not to say Parsons’ departure doesn’t matter. It does. There’s a reason why this news matters so much. But given when his departure will happen — at the end of the season; not now — the real impact of today’s news won’t be felt for a while We’re talking about it today, wrapping our heads around the inevitable, but if the Thorns’ season goes as planned, Parsons will still have six more months in charge.
When asked what the news means for the Thorns’ season, Sauerbrunn said, “It doesn’t mean anything. We’re just focused on 2021.”
“I think it’s important for this team to focus on this year, not let it be a distraction,” Sinclair said, “then realize that it’s the players that make up this group, and that’s just going to continue.”
Likewise, when it comes to Portland’s goals, Parsons is keeping his part in perspective.
“The motivation can’t be about what we’re talking about, here, or me,” Parsons said. “This club is always bigger than any single person. This is a club that has a heartbeat of the best fanbase in the world, and of ownership and a front office that pushes it to be the absolute best. Thanks to incredible work to build this team over the last 18 months, this is a special group that’s been built to play incredible football, but also succeed not just for this year, but for future years.
“The fact that I get to enjoy this one more year with such a talented, committed, all-in group is a privilege, and something I just can’t wait to [do] … [I] just want to embrace and enjoy this last year.”