Mark Parsons in training gear during preseason training in Florida

There’s a lot of intrigue around the Washington Spirit as they head into their first season after a full offseason buildup under majority owner Y. Michele Kang. She started with successfully recruiting legendary college coach Mark Krikorian to run soccer operations, then swung for the moon and landed Dawn Scott to lead a newly formed medical and performance department. While these moves were aggressive and necessary, the Spirit also needed a new coach to hit reset after a disastrous title-defense while charting a course toward an ambitious future.

Kang, as she’d done previously, aimed high and targeted former Washington Spirit coach and architect of the Portland Thorns’ recent powerhouse era (2016-2021), Mark Parsons. But he needed convincing.

“When I first met Michelle in August/September time, it was great to hear a lot of things,” Parsons said of their first meeting. “Then within four to six weeks of meeting her again, things that were supposed to take 6-12 months had happened in 4-6 weeks. That was the game changing moment for me, because I could see that it’s not just words, it was action, and also the speed that she works at.”

After his stint as head coach of the Netherlands Women’s National Team, Parsons planned to stay in Europe with his family. Instead, Kang presented an alluring project by putting pieces in place to build not only something special in the Washington, DC area, but also perhaps “things that have never been done before” in women’s club soccer.

The new Washington Spirit

While Parsons has been around women’s soccer for-seemingly-ever, he’s still only 36-years-old. Yet he’s been involved in a number of ambitious projects, and agreed to a second stint with the Spirit in part because this Spirit are already a brand new club under Kang. “When I was with the Netherlands I got to see Wolfsburg and got to see Barcelona, I’ve also been around Chelsea for years, and I know a lot of people making improvements,” he explained, “but what Michele is doing and how Mark [Krikorian] is building on the sporting side – it’s unheard of.”

“I am proud of some amazing environments I’ve been a part of. I’m very privileged, but I’ve never seen what I see every day here right now. I’ve never seen it, and it’s why I’m here. I wanted to work with this quality of staff, this quality of resources, and a core of a team that’s tasted success but wants and needs more, and is hungry for more. It’s a project that I think is going to also bring out the best in me and get my blood boiled and excited again.”

This, however, is the present dichotomy around the team. While Parsons, Kang, the rest of the front office and players are enthused about what’s being built, Spirit supporters are growing antsy. Moves made behind the scenes are some of the most important, but don’t light a fuse of excitement the way, say, signing Debinha would. Despite that, there’s still plenty of reason for optimism.

“I wanted to be here because of the quality of players, the core of this team. I think it’s something special. We want to compliment and be able to enhance their skills and qualities, which comes to how we’re going to recruit,” Parsons said of the upcoming season. “And it’s got to the point where I’m almost done with talking. I want our team to play; I don’t want to be using words anymore … I’ve been here before, I’ve been throughout the process of building different teams – words are great, but when you can show where you’re going, it’s more powerful. So I’m excited for our team to show that vision.”

Internal optimism, external concern

Parsons is aware of the friction at this stage of building. It’s one thing to keep talking about what’s being built as historic, but at their most fundamental, sports, and professional soccer in particular, are about results – on the pitch (games) and off (recruiting). A primary benefit of soccer being the most popular sport in the world is that the talent pool is global.

At Portland, Parsons not only helped recruit players like Sophia Smith and Crystal Dunn, but also top international talent like Amandine Henry (France), Ellie Carpenter, Caitlin Foord, and Hayley Raso (Australia), Ana-Maria Crnogorčević (Switzerland), Natalia Kuikka (Finland), Rocky Rodriguez (Costa Rica), and, though he never got to coach her, Hina Sugita (Japan).

Parsons was officially hired in November, at which point other clubs had a few months’ head start when it came to recruiting new talent, but he’s not worried. “We’re going to be in a place soon where, hopefully, our work on the pitch can speak for itself. There’s a lot of teams trying to do that great work and trying to win as well, but off the pitch and behind the scenes, I think when someone has seen it or someone hears about it from a player perspective, it’s going to be tough to match.”

While a lack of big name player recruitment in this offseason is understandable, primary contributors to supporters’ wariness have been the departures of Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett. Both USWNT veterans were crucial to the team’s 2021 championship run, although both struggled with injury the year after, with O’Hara only starting three games and Sonnett making just nine starts and ten appearances, playing her final match with the Spirit in mid-June.

But it was the unexpected nature of how they left the Spirit that has the fanbase reeling. O’Hara shocked the NWSL world when she pulled on a Gotham FC sweatshirt on a Men In Blazers live show the day free agency officially began. Then, during the 2023 draft, the Spirit traded Sonnett to OL Reign for the 32nd overall pick in the draft plus a first round pick in 2024.

While it was recently revealed that Dorian Bailey is moving to right back and will likely take on O’Hara’s minutes at the position (particularly after Anna Heilferty’s torn ACL), the Sonnett move continues to stand out, as no clear starter was brought in as a replacement.

“I worked with Emily for four years at Portland, she won a championship there and she won a championship here. She’s not just a great person, also a great player who I hope can continue her development and her success,” said Parsons. “After the draft I was pretty clear that the structure of our roster, for multiple reasons, was going to be a big challenge in the future. I was very honest with her as well around the Christmas period, of this challenge and that we hoped that we could work together, which sometimes is possible and sometimes isn’t.”

While the move didn’t happen with the timing either he, or surely Emily Sonnett, would have wanted, it was a move that was likely to happen eventually. “The timing and the nature of it is always going to be very difficult, but this is a tough piece of this, and I wish that it was done earlier or…a bit later, but we were heading in that direction.”

In the moments after the draft Parsons noted that the Spirit roster is depleted when national team duty calls, making it difficult to maintain balance and performance when those players are away (which will be a lot in a World Cup year). In our conversation he also detailed how previous moves shipped away draft picks, leaving the Spirit without vital assets to utilize – whether trading picks or drafting players – in the future.

So when OL Reign came along offering draft picks, particularly a first-round pick, which were valued at $200-300,000 (or $100-150,000 plus a player) and should hold even more value in 2024, Parsons couldn’t ignore the opportunity while in the early stages of building for the medium and long term.

While Sonnett and O’Hara were losses, Parsons has a strong belief in the defensive unit that remains, believing a new style of play will bring out the best in multiple players. “In the defense, I’m excited for you to see some of the progress of established players in the new way of playing,” Parsons explained, “but I’m also excited for you to see some new players that have adapted to new positions – it’s going to be a good journey for everyone.”

“When you dig this deep, and you’re building something really special, you’ve got to dig deep and build strong foundations, and that takes time,” said Parsons. “We’re a bit behind some others, but I see the trajectory, and I think we’re going to be working quietly doing our business, being professional, and we’ll let our soccer performance do the talking.”

If you build it they will come

One of the ‘some others’ Parsons may be referring to is Kansas City Current, who went from bottom of the table to a championship game, to winning the offseason. In the NWSL’s first free agency period, Kansas City successfully signed Chicago Red Stars stalwart midfielders, Morgan Gautrat and Vanessa DiBernardo, and kept Brazilian attacker Debinha in the NWSL by beating out Arsenal for her signature.

A vast portion of Kansas City’s success in recruiting is their brand new team-specific training facility, and the building of the first NWSL-specific stadium, which is set to debut next season. The allure of something tangible along with the optimism and excitement of something to come helped the Current turn a very good team into a potentially great, possibly dynastic, one.

“We could have signed some very good players this offseason but they were going to be short or medium term players, and we can’t make decisions like that right now,” Parsons revealed. “We need to be thinking big picture, we have to win now – and we’ve got great players already – but long-term we need to get the right player in the right person, and invest in them.”

Sustainable change takes time to take root and even longer to bear fruit, and this is where we return to the dichotomy between internal optimism and external wariness. Spirit fans celebrated a championship just two seasons ago, had a very poor follow-up season, and are eager to celebrate a winning team again. However, it’s for that very reason – hitting a high, then immediately a low – that patience in restructuring and building is necessary.

“These players have gone through a lot in the last two-to-three years, the core of this team has not had the environment that they would have loved to have – and here they are with Michele driving this change. They’re about to have a professional environment that women’s soccer has not seen before; with the technical staff, with the performance and medical and innovation departments.”

Parsons mentioned that he caught up with D.C. United coach Wayne Rooney, who commented on the number of staff the Spirit have, to which Parsons joked that he should send a note if he needed to borrow five or ten. While I’m sure it elicited a chuckle, it’s also revealing of the level of support the Spirit have built behind the scenes, which benefits current players, but can also pique the interest of potential recruits. “The biggest recruitment tool you have are your players at times,” said Parsons; and players at the Spirit, particularly those who have been around the club for a few years, are already benefiting from drastic, and deserved, improvements. Ashley Hatch, who has been with the club since 2018, shared her perspective on what it’s like for players, now, behind the scenes.

“Michelle has done a lot to help push our club in the right direction and invest in us,” noted Hatch. “I think the obvious place that she’s invested is staff and all the help that we’ve had, like our staff has doubled or tripled! We have so many staff members and tons of help on the pitch with coaches and stuff, but also off the pitch in the gym with Dawn [Scott] and her team. As a veteran that’s seen this club in many different forms, I’m really excited and really optimistic for not only this year but the future of the club.”

Parsons knows that proof beyond words is required for full buy-in from the fanbase. “You guys need to start seeing it, and over the next 12-24 months, you’re gonna start to see the outcome of some of the foundations that are being laid now – but it’s not going to happen in a month or six months.”

“There are some top, special players we believe will be in Washington in the future, but that could be the summer or it could be next offseason,” he divulged with a slight smirk of excitement. However, the season kicks off in under two weeks. “And as I say this, I really understand the importance that winning now is the business we’re in. My philosophy regardless of ownership or leadership around the team – which is aligned – but regardless of how they feel, I won’t ever coach anywhere where it’s only ‘win now.’ It cannot be at the cost of the medium- or long-term; we need to perform now, but we want to be building for the medium- and long-term. I can only operate in that way.”

Righting the wrongs of last season (and beyond)

If there’s one thing Parsons knows will help bridge the gap between the team’s optimism and fan wariness, it’s winning. However, fans are aware enough to know that their happiness cannot be purely results-based. An exciting and high-performing team is capable of leaving fans happy and enthused on a week-to-week basis throughout the season.

Perhaps that’s what was so deflating last season. Though there were lots of injuries, fatigue and a lack of continuity, the team also struggled to find the identity that secured their championship in 2021. Individual players dazzled at times, but as a unit the team started games flat or finished jittery – sometimes both in the same game.

But Parsons relishes the challenge and believes that with this unit, and the style of play he’s implementing, supporters will have something to be proud of again. 

“I want to be able to show, whether it’s staff or player recruitment, that this is where we’re going,” lamented Parsons. “Look at this team, look at the identity, look at what we do when we have it [the ball] and how we want to attack the opponent, and look when we don’t have it…look at this energy and mindset.”

He also mentioned that multiple players on the team have the capability to be principle-based rather than relying on game plans, allowing them to react to solve problems during games. While tactical plans are important, the best players, and therefore best teams, typically find ways to adjust on the fly. In fact, and somewhat confusingly, that was the 2021 team’s biggest strength. Across multiple opponents, from a high octane North Carolina Courage in the first round of the playoffs, to the cerebral approach by OL Reign in the semifinal, and the 12-round championship bout with the Chicago Red Stars – Spirit players found solutions.

“We have, in quality and personality, key ingredients that allow us to play our style of soccer. We’ve got decision makers in possession, we’ve got people that can play this game of soccer based off principles, not game plans. When I say ‘basic principles’ [it’s] that we know who we are and we know how we want to play, and the opponent has a choice when they play us: when we have the ball, they got to stop some space, and give up some other space. If we’re principle-based, we’ll be able to see where space is and have solutions for that.”

Attack, attack, attack – attack; attack

If you speak with Parsons beyond glancing small talk, he will tell you that he wants this Spirit team to attack, with and without the ball. It’s a high energy, intense approach, particularly in a league as athletic as the NWSL. But this is also where staff, particularly Dawn Scott’s performance department, will help manage players and keep them as prepared as possible week in and week out.

Another, and possibly even more important, benefit Parsons has when implementing this aggressive style is that key players already have this as their default setting.

This naturally brought us to a discussion about Andi Sullivan, who he believes epitomizes the role of the #6, defensive midfielder. “I’ve only seen one six in the league that has the ability to influence games like Andi, and she’s now an assistant coach for this team, Angela Salem.”

Parsons lights up when discussing those qualities. He sees her as eager to do the simple stuff like connecting passes and being positionally sound, but able to do the hardest part of the job too. He compliments her passing range, ability to constantly scan the pitch, switch play, and most of all her intelligence to consistently make the right decision. “There are a couple of core positions you got to have the players you want, otherwise you ain’t gonna play the soccer that you want to play. Andi Sullivan is that player in that position.”

Whereas Disney movies will have you believe that 99% of coaching is delivering the riveting speech before The Big Game, with Sullivan, Parsons’s job is slightly different. “She’s a competitor, she just wants to push and sometimes she wants to push too much,” he explained, “I thought she did very well in this tournament [the 2023 SheBelieves Cup], and she’s already telling me what she didn’t do well – that’s a driven mindset, some of the best have been around, that’s their mindset, but they also got to go easy on themselves sometimes.”

Sullivan and other leaders on the team were heavily involved in the fight between previous ownership, releasing statements and spending time in postgame availability – minutes after stepping off the pitch – to respond in a tug-of-war they never should have had to be part of. Parsons is aware of this, and thinks the lightening of these players’ loads is key for them as people and will benefit their play and the team.

“She had a lot to do and think about and help the last few years with this club, she’s had a lot of weight in her backpack, we now try to get the weight out of that backpack and just let her be Andi and let her play like herself,” he said. “And we’re already seeing the result of her being in a professional environment and not having to deal with some other stress.” He added that he’s seen a freshness about her and her play already.

Another key piece on the pitch is 20-year-old superstar Trinity Rodman. Since coming to the Spirit, Rodman has become a fan favorite for everything from her talents, which reach the outer edges of the absurd, to her time spent signing autographs and taking selfies after every match.

On the pitch, Rodman is known for her pinpoint assists, 1v1 abilities and tenacious ball winning. On the surface, Rodman seems a plug-and-play piece of Parsons’s preferred style of attacking with and without the ball. However, he’s also looking to refine, or perhaps more accurately, redirect, some of these qualities.

Parsons mentions having a conversation with Rodman in December about her defensive contributions and number of times she wins the ball back – which he referred to as “ridiculous” – but that there was a problem. There were many instances when she, or the team, would win the ball back but Rodman was far away from goal and not in position to be better utilized in attack. Parsons’s plan is to work on Rodman pressing higher.

In 2022 Rodman’s goal contribution numbers dipped from her rookie year, from six goals to four and from five assists to two. A lot of that was the team’s overall disjointed nature which played into Rodman’s total assist number being half her expected assists (xA), 4.2. If Parsons and the team can make the adjustment and execute a successful high press, Rodman being within 20 yards of goal when possession is won, rather than 50 or more, is going to become a defense’s worst nightmare.

Parsons also spoke about Ashley Sanchez, who he likened to current Arsenal midfielder Kim Little. He points out her ability to receive the ball, dribble by players at will and make the final pass as something he hasn’t seen since Little was at then-Seattle Reign in 2014-15.

Time to stop talking

While the front office and coaching staff are optimistic behind the scenes and inspired by the foundations they’re laying, they know results don’t come overnight. However, this Spirit squad has the benefit of veteran know-how in key positions, which could allow them to continue pushing at the pace Michele Kang set in the offseason. Parsons himself can be counted among those with the experience to move forward at speed too, and the resulting product has typically been well worth the relatively short wait required.

“I’m excited. Things take time, and I’ve been here before in Portland as well, I was here in Washington, I’ve been here before [at] this stage of building a team. So it’s tough at this stage, you’re just talking, you’re just talking for talking sake about things, but step-by-step, we’re going to need time, but we’re going to get there. We have to stay in line with the vision, and we have to stay in line with the identity of what this team will be.”

When it comes to building a culture of winning, high standards and expectations are important, but so is balancing that against the realities of a situation. So when asked about his expectations for the upcoming season, Parsons was level-headed. He mentions the difficult road ahead with teams like Portland and Kansas City being championship quality, also San Diego and the job Casey Stoney is doing and that OL Reign will be determined after a disappointing finish to their season. He also notes good additions made by Orlando Pride and jokes that Louisville signed ’25 international players’ who he expects to be good. But he also backs his Spirit team against anybody on any day.

“We’re not going to fear anyone, we know that we’re going to have some hard games and we’re going to have some results we don’t like but we’re going to have some special games,” he projects. “It’s going to be a very, very competitive season, and short-term we want to be right there and fighting with everyone, but we also know this is a medium and long-term game, and it’s gonna be a fun first season.”

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