When the National Women’s Soccer League was conceived, one team stood out for being the only club at the time to be affiliated with a Major League Soccer side. The Portland Thorns fell under the same umbrella as owner Merritt Paulson’s Timbers and would share front office staff and facilities. It also meant they would have substantially more money than the other seven teams in the league, and their allocation of high-profile internationals like Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath did little to diminish the perception that they had been given the keys to daddy’s car.
They had a high-profile coach hiring, too, bringing on board former United States’ World Cup and Olympics winner Cindy Parlow Cone, who would have to stand up to early hype that has followed the team around since its inception. Her roster that first season was littered with big names, backed by Paulson’s money and already adored by a soccer-mad city. Their first home game drew a raucous 16,479 fans, part of what would be a dominant year at the turnstile:
The Thorns won the NWSL championship that year, but they also finished 11-6-5 and third in the league in the regular season — not stellar results, but overshadowed by the championship win. There were expectations that the Thorns would not just win but would be dominant and stylish given their good fortune.
Now, two years and two coaches later, the Thorns are still searching for somebody who can deliver on that first year’s promise.
Inheriting a champion
Parlow Cone resigned a few months after the 2013 season citing a desire to spend more time with her husband; of course, there was speculation that her resignation was more about the team’s performance, sometimes having to force wins in inelegant fashion. She was not molding the Thorns into ownership’s vision of a flagship team.
On the back of a title, year two brought even bigger expectations. Enter Paul Riley, formerly of Women’s Professional Soccer’s Philadelphia Independence – an expansion team he guided to back-to-back title game appearances, losing as underdogs to FC Gold Pride (featuring Brazilian star Marta as well as Sinclair) and Western New York (Marta, Sinclair with the addition of Morgan, this time). In Philadelphia, he got performances out of confidence players like Amy Rodriguez, who had suffered Tony DiCicco’s mishandling with the Boston Breakers. He handled big personalities, like former U.S. international Tasha Kai, and brought along future NWSL core players like Lianne Sanderson, Leigh Ann Robinson, and Vero Boquete. Winning Coach of the Year in both of his WPS seasons, Riley, it seemed, had the pedigree to take a more talented Portland team all the way again.
But his tenure was almost immediately marred by a gaffe when he failed to protect fan favorite midfielder Mana Shim from the 2014 expansion draft. The Houston Dash, allowed to pick up to two players from every roster, took Shim, forcing Riley to give up a draft pick a week later to bring her back. Why he hadn’t protected her in the first place, fans asked.
The Thorns still put together wins in season two, but rumors of discontent surfaced. It got around that Riley had kept up two-a-days while the team was in season, leaving players tired and disgruntled. The Thorns went 10-8-6 to once again place third and slip into the playoffs, only to lose to FC Kansas City in the semifinals. At the time, Riley said that the team hadn’t “produced in big moments” then went on to criticize FCKC’s facilities and attendance, a criticism he would end up repeating about Chicago.
"When you go to Chicago on a Thursday night and there's a 150 people there… It's not easy to motivate players." – Paul Riley #BAONPDX
— Luke Fritz (@LukeFritz64) September 1, 2015
A second chance
Riley’s record was not as good as Parlow Cone’s, but Portland had signed him to a two-year contract, and there was a sense that perhaps, in the spirit of fairness, he needed one season to adjust. So began season three, an interesting year for a league that would be interrupted by the 2015 World Cup. National team players could be expected to be gone for at least a month, depending on how their countries did in the tournament. Teams knew to plan for at least six weeks without some stars, even with NWSL’s mid-season break to cushion the blow.
Still, Riley stacked his roster with players who were almost certain to be gone, with Canadian allocations Rhian Wilkinson and Kaylyn Kyle as well as England striker Jodie Taylor joining the team. This was in addition to the internationals already on his roster, like Morgan, Heath, Sinclair, German international Nadine Angerer and Australian fullback Steph Catley.
The Thorns struggled all summer. They opened in positive fashion, an enjoyable 4-1 win at home against Boston. Then their season started a slide into a trench of dropped points and limited offense. The team seemed uninspired, in disarray, going winless seven games in a row during a period that overlapped with the World Cup. Even when their international players returned, they struggled, taking just one point from their last four games. They would have multiple-goal games, then droughts.
Riley seemed not in tune with his team, perhaps having lost some of the locker room. He insisted on using a 3-6-1 formation even when it continued to leave his team vulnerable in defense, Their final record, 6-9-5, left them sixth in the league, beaten for fifth by a Houston team that finished dead last in 2014.
Under Riley, the Thorns had gone from league champions to not even playoff material. Fans could look at teams like Seattle and Washington, who had finished in the bottom two in 2013, and see teams that had built something better season by season. The Thorns had gotten worse, backsliding from season one.
Throughout the season, Riley spoke of his long-term plans, claiming that he really needed three years to build something, but fans grumbled and critics puzzled. Three years? To build what? He already had a roster some coaches could only dream of. He had everything, from the players to the resources to the fan support. And he posted less-than-mediocre numbers, leading the Thorns to not renew his contract at the end of the season.
“Not renew his contract” is perhaps a polite way of saying “dismissed.” Either way, the Thorns face a search for a new coach — a coach who will inherit many of the problems Riley faced. His replacement won’t even have the benefit of an intact season to get the team settled, as the 2016 Olympics will interrupt the schedule much as the World Cup did. It seems likely the United States, Canada, and Australia will qualify — but absences by even one of those countries would change the Thorns lineup.
And where does a team find a coach for such a high-profile position? The Boston Breakers, ninth out of nine in 2015, just finished their own coaching search, having poached Matt Beard from Liverpool in the FA WSL. Beard is now the fourth British coach overall to join NWSL, after Riley, Seattle’s Laura Harvey, and Washington’s Mark Parsons. Could the Thorns also look overseas? Or maybe they could look within US Soccer’s youth system? Keep it American with an MLS or NASL-experienced coach? Someone who’s toiled in WPSL or the W-League? Or perhaps they have the pull to grab an esteemed international coach, like former U.S. boss Tom Sermanni, who is currently relaxing as an assistant with Canada? As almost everyone who works in Portland has said, there’s no other experience quite like it in women’s soccer.
And once this coach is hired, they must face not just the 2016 college draft but an impending expansion draft, as Orlando City SC joins the league with a women’s side. Who on that roster do you protect? Who do you let go, perhaps to open up spots for draft picks or trades? A systemic gutting doesn’t seem to be the answer, not with the pieces Portland has.
The job is, to be sure, a role that will come with a fair bit of expectation, perhaps more than some other coaching positions in the league. With greater resources come greater expectations, and rightly so. Are expectations too outsized for the position, though? What is reasonable to ask of a Thorns coach in context of their roster, staff, budget, and team history? Playoffs? Finals? Winning it all? Considering what coaches like Harvey and Vlatko Andonovski (FC Kansas City) do with their resources, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask forat least a playoff spot.
The Thorns head coach position is one of the most prestigious in women’s soccer; at least, it is one of the most desirable club coaching jobs out there. But the variables surrounding this job — the usual needs of a coaching search flavored by greater-than-average fan scrutiny and a cocktail of premium players — combine to make this an intriguing situation. It’s not the same as the Breakers finding a coach; there’s no storm of expectation swirling around Boston, nor is there a numerous and restless fanbase or a very outspoken owner prone to tweet-and-delete.
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