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Riley out of contract; future unclear as Thorns coach

Paul Riley is out of contract as head coach of Portland Thorns FC. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Paul Riley is out of contract as head coach of Portland Thorns FC. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Paul Riley’s future as Portland Thorns FC head coach will be determined in the next month, Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson said on Tuesday. Riley’s contract ended at the conclusion of the Thorns’ season, which saw the team miss the playoffs for the first time after finishing in sixth place.

“It has to be right for both Paul and the organization,” Wilkinson said. “It’s a decision that we are evaluating, to be honest. It’s a situation where we had clear objectives over the last two seasons — especially this season — that need to be met, and also need to be met moving forward. The Thorns need to be recognized as a team that have a style and a system, and this year did present many, many challenging aspects to that.”

Riley is 16-17-11 in two season as head coach of the Thorns. He took over the team following the exit of Cindy Parlow Cone, who led the Thorns to the inaugural NWSL title in 2013 despite some struggles in that regular season and a No. 3 seed in the playoffs.

Riley told Thorns supporters last week at a season-ticket holder event that his future in Portland was unclear, citing family reasons. Riley’s wife remained in New York while Riley, 51, coached in Portland for the past two seasons.

Wilkinson stressed that the decision for Riley to return must be mutual between the club and the coach. Conversations regarding Riley’s future will start in the coming days, with a final decision to be made in three-to-four weeks, Wilkinson said.

“He has a lot of respect from us as an organization, and we do understand that there are a lot of variables that happened this year that could not be foreseen,” Wilkinson said.

Injuries to Alex Morgan, Stephanie Catley, Rhian Wilkinson and Jodie Taylor — combined with their extended absences due to the World Cup — meant that the Thorns were without significant firepower for most of the season, Wilkinson reminded reporters on Tuesday. Those four players combined to play only 15 games this season. The GM said that the Thorns will not keep all 10 players who went to the World Cup. The Rio 2016 Olympics will interrupt next season’s schedule as well.

Wilkinson also took culpability for the Thorns’ struggles this season and said that players need to perform as well.

“To pin everything on Paul, while some may believe that’s fair, I disagree,” Wilkinson said. “It’s a collective effort with everyone involved, and that would mean going to every single player and asking, ‘Did they perform to their capacity? And did they perform as expected?'”

Asked what specific types of players the Thorns need, Wilkinson said the club lacks a holding midfielder who can free up Portland’s more creative, attacking players. He also wants to see the Thorns add a central defender to provide leadership in the back.

Wilkinson noted that the three-back defensive system Riley used most of the season was not part of the preseason plan, but was a product of injuries and personnel. He noted on several occasions that the Thorns need a distinct style of play, and the three-back is not it. The Thorns need to be a “perennial playoff team,” Wilkinson said.

“With what we have in Portland, we should be able to do a lot better on the field,” he said.

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