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The Lowdown: Mark Parsons got Thorns to buy in, and it paid off with a championship

The 2017 Portland Thorns preparing to lift the NWSL Championship trophy (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

ORLANDO — Two years ago this month, Mark Parsons hopped on the NWSL coaching carousel taking over as head coach of Portland Thorns FC. From a stuffy room in his Virginia home, the then 29-year old Parsons sat down to phone the most prominent player remaining on his new team—Christine Sinclair.

Parsons had taken over a moribund Washington Spirit side midway through 2013 and carried them to the playoffs each of the next two seasons. He presided over Crystal Dunn’s, take-that-Jill-Ellis, MVP season of 2015. And yet he was nervous.

“I remember the room I was sitting in, in my house in Virginia. I was calling all the players in the office that the air con(ditioner) never got to,” Parsons recalled after coaching the Thorns to the NWSL Championship over the weekend. “I was sweating nervously because of the heat, nervously because I was about to call Christine Sinclair.”

Parsons made the call and asked Canada’s most decorated soccer player where her passion and desire came from to play for the Thorns. Sinclair was a Thorns original, allocated by the Canadian Soccer Association as one of seven original members of the side. Those Thorns won the 2013 NWSL Championship, but 2015 had been a challenging season that did not include a trip to the playoffs.

“Straight away it was just easy to talk to her,” Parsons said. Then again perhaps that just comes easy for Parsons as Sinclair’s first comment when asked was: “I just remember he likes to talk.”

Nevertheless, the initial phone call between Parsons and Sinclair laid the groundwork for a Shield winning season in 2016 and the NWSL Championship in 2017.

“She talked about UP (University of Portland), she talked about being a fan of the Timbers for many years and that Portland is home,” Parsons said of his captain. “She loves the fans, the community and the people who support this club day in and day out. And she calmly said it multiple times, she wants to do whatever she can to help the team succeed and give to these fans.”

In Sinclair’s case, it is not just lip service. She backs up the words. After a slow start to the season that came with all the joys of slumping at the age when every bad game leads to questions about athletic mortality, Sinclair happily agreed to a more withdrawn role.

“We isolated her a little bit in the beginning,” Parsons said.

“Sort of that middle part of the season when we went through that like month or so where we didn’t win any games (the Thorns drew straight in a 1-0-3 May and later endured a 1-3-1 stretch in June-July that included losses to Sky Blue and the Spirit), I don’t think I did enough personally to help the team,” Sinclair said on Friday in advance of the NWSL Championship. “Sometimes as an out and out 9, especially the way we were playing early this season, you get isolated. You rely on the team to get you the ball. I think, my game has evolved to where I want to be more involved. I want to have more impact on the game.”

Emily Menges was all smiles following 2017 NWSL Championship (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Sinclair’s impact during the second half of the season was enough to have her on some voter’s boards when it came time to vote for Most Valuable Player.

“Oh my gosh, Sinc is the most amazing player and captain and teammate,” Katherine Reynolds, whose Western New York Flash side lost to the Sinclair Thorns in the 2013 NWSL Championship, said. “No matter where she is on the field she makes a difference. Just having her calming presence and obviously her ability. She has helped us so much by dropping deeper and she would never complain. She’s amazing.”

Parsons got Sinclair on board right away, but there were more big personalities about to descend on the locker room. The Thorns traded Alex Morgan to the Orlando Pride in a move that yielded—directly or otherwise—Emily Sonnett, Lindsey Horan, and Meghan Klingenberg. Tobin Heath and Allie Long were already there. Nadia Nadim was added in a 2016 draft day swap. Amandine Henry would come via international transfer that June.

Sinclair, Heath, and Long were all on the 2013 club and it was a big deal in the nascent world of women’s soccer to see them on the same club, winning again four years later. But their presence belies the complete overhaul the Thorns have undertaken since replacing Paul Riley with Parsons after the 2015 season. In fact the only other players left from ’15 are center back Emily Menges and seldom-used Kendall Johnson. (Nadine Angerer was a goalkeeper in 2015, the goalkeeper coach since 2016.)

Many observers—myself included—questioned whether the Thorns were building a team or just a collection of talent. It was up to Parsons to mold the talent into a team.

“Mark’s a cool dude. I love playing for him,” Meghan Klingenberg, acquired indirectly in the Morgan trade, said. Klingenberg said that before the Thorns every trained in 2016 they took a trip to Bend, Oregon where they hung out as a team and discussed their goals for the team. “Everybody participated in that and we created our own culture. It’s a credit to him to create a culture—to help us create a culture—where everybody wants to buy in.” (The Thorns took a similar trip in 2017 to Astoria.)

“He focuses on team first before individual,” Menges added. “We have a lot of big name players and big personalities. He’s really good at making sure that everybody puts the team first. And not because they’re forced to but because they want to. That’s something that he’s really brought that has made us successful.”

Menges was the 25th pick out of Georgetown in 2014 which makes her the lowest drafted player ever to be named to the league’s Best XI. Having emerged as one of the league’s premier central defenders, Menges anchors what was the league’s stingiest defense this season in terms of goals allowed. One opposing coach earlier this season opined that the Thorns and their talent want you to believe they are an offensive juggernaut when in reality they are spurred on by their defense.

“We really have gotten on the same page, the same flow, especially with having AD,” Emily Sonnett, Menges’s central defense partner, said. “When we do end up having a fluke or a mess up, AD is there. But the communicative piece, our movements, our synchronizing, especially the consistency of all that from the halfway mark until now, has been tremendous. I think we’re way further along than we were last year.”

It was Menges who made extraordinary plays that were key in both the semifinal and final wins. Against the Pride, the Thorns defense got caught out when Steph Catley played a remarkable ball that put Marta through, leaving Sonnett and right back Katherine Reynolds helplessly out of position. Menges sprinted over in time to block Marta’s shot/cross after which Sonnett recovered to finish off the play.

“We were trying to put pressure coming up. That was incredible awareness of Emily to come over since I was pulled out,” Sonnett said. “I think everyone understands their job and what’s second, what’s third and how to defend in certain situations. She’s one of the fastest players I’ve ever played with.”

In the final, in one of the only times through the 90 minutes when the Courge were dangerous, Menges got muscled off the ball by Jess McDonald who looked like she would have a personal tete-a-tete with Franch. But Menges recovered and kept McDonald from getting off a quality shot.

“I got myself into that problem to begin with,” a champagne-soaked Menges said in the post match mixed zone. “But everyone had plays like that. Just because mine’s in front of goal doesn’t make it more impressive than somebody else’s up the field. It was a team effort today for sure.”

Few will actually believe that a defensive gem 12 yards from goal is not a more important play that one in midfield. What is entirely believable is that the Thorns arrived on the stage with the NWSL Championship trophy by taking a plethora of big personalities and figuring out how to mesh them into one group with a common goal. Henry, in her final match with the club before returning to France, played with the words “Thorns Forever” written across her abdomen.

Amandine Henry is leaving Portland, but she will be a Thorn forever (photo copyright Allison Lee for The Equalizer)

“Everybody here first and foremost wants to win,” Klingenberg said. “It’s about being able to put aside egos, being able to put aside anything else that’s bothering us off the field. I think it’s a credit to everybody because we were able to do that this year. We were able to do that last year as well but it just didn’t come off. Playing with this group of women is very special because I learn something new every day. They work harder than any team I’ve ever been on. They put in all the time.”

Parsons has said throughout the season that the most difficult element of getting over the 2016 semifinal loss to the Flash was seeing the hurt on the faces of his players as they wandered teary-eyed and brokenhearted around Providence Park. It was an image and feeling still ingrained in him as he watched the celebration Saturday night at Orlando City Stadium.

“Seeing Sincy and this group lift that trophy at the end of a challenging year means everything.”

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