The title race has yet to be decided but one thing is clear: the Thorns are united and thriving under Wilkinson's leadership
The shoes Rhian Wilkinson stepped into last November couldn’t have been much bigger.
After playing professionally for over 14 years, Wilkinson spent the seasons immediately following her retirement coaching in the Canadian international setup followed by a quick stint as an assistant coach with Team Great Britain in England. While both high-profile international experiences, there aren’t many jobs in women’s professional soccer that match the pressure and expectations that come with being the head coach of the Portland Thorns.
Mark Parsons spent the previous six seasons leading the Thorns to two NWSL championship appearances, one title, two NWSL Shields and a Challenge Cup victory. He stepped away to lead the Netherlands women’s national team following the 2021 season, jumping at an opportunity to coach closer to his family in England.
Wilkinson spent time shadowing Parsons and his staff last fall and early winter, sitting in on staff meetings and conferences at Providence Park. She asked questions, scribbling down furious notes about the club, city, individual players, philosophy, and culture.
As prepared as Wilkinson felt, she still had plenty of learning to do.The Canadian coach took over a team loaded with talent at every position, an ingrained culture, and a tight bond and was asked to make her own imprint to take it to the next level. Nearly a year later, she has Portland on the precipice of winning that coveted third star.
“I always give a lot of credit to Mark Parsons,” said Wilkinson when asked about the Thorns success this season. “I came into a team that had already had a tough year and so they had already created a very strong culture. I definitely felt like one of my biggest mandates when I arrived was to continue to emphasize that culture with the team.”
Wilkinson’s first-ever win came in San Diego, California, a 1-0 victory against the Wave on March 26. She coached the Thorns to a 3-0 win against the Kansas City Current days later, her first regular season win as head coach. From there the Thorns took off, embarking on a regular season in which they only lost three games, led the league with a plus-25 goal differential and corralled 39 points, one shy of the NWSL Shield.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the first-year head coach. The Thorns struggled during August, playing six games in all competitions and winning only once. The Thorns bounced back quickly, however—the club hasn’t lost once in all competitions since the 2-0 defeat to San Diego on August 27.
The most difficult part of Wilkinson’s job, as it is for any coach, is keeping an entire team happy when not every player can see the field each game. On a team such as Portland, chock-full of talent at every position, such a task takes on increased difficulty.
“Every time I put out a starting lineup, I'm disrespecting people that have earned the right to be on the field because we have more than 11 starters,” said Wilkinson. “Every time I tell someone they're not dressing, I break someone's heart. And they're professional players. This is their dream.”
Still, the Thorns have remained united all season long, a testament to the club’s familiarity and culture, as well as Wilkinson’s leadership. She has started to figure out what buttons to push and when.
Although the Wave’s Casey Stoney took home Coach of the Year honors, Wilkinson’s successes on the field put her name in the conversation. Most importantly, through the growing pains and cold stretches Wilkinson guided Portland back to another NWSL Championship game, right where the club knows it belongs.
“It's really not about me,” said Wilkinson. “I think the players would have had every excuse to just do enough today and then it’s still a successful season right? Semi-finals. One point off of winning the season. But you saw today what it means for them to play together and to play for this club in front of the fans they love and it could have gone either way.”