The surprise release of previous head coach Mark Parsons has placed the Spirit in an unfortunately common position. While a new head coach will be taking the helm soon, when they do they’ll be the fifth head coach to patrol the sidelines for the Spirit since August, 2021. To be fair, Kris Ward, Angela Salem and Albertin Montoya (recently announced as Bay FC’s first coach) were openly interim options. However, Parsons was not.
Process over results, or win now?
When the ownership battle was over and Michele Kang could focus on implementing her vision for the Spirit, Parsons’ hiring seemed a statement of intent. He is one of the most successful coaches in NWSL history, and built a club soccer machine in Portland that lured players from around the world while competing for trophies every year of his tenure (2016-2021).
It seemed a natural fit for an ambitious owner who’d invested heavily to upgrade the infrastructure of the team. Architect of the Florida State University juggernaut, Mark Krikorian, was brought in as President of Soccer Operations/General Manager, and Dawn Scott, the legendary performance coach and sports scientist, was lured by the opportunity to build her own holistic performance, medical and innovation program. All the pieces appeared to be in place, until the Spirit missed the playoffs on the final day of the season and Parsons was let go forty-eight hours later.
The decision came as a surprise to anyone following the league, as nothing about the Spirit’s hires or talk of process and building signaled there would be immediate pressure on a well-decorated and proven head coach.
So what happened?
As much as the final matchday loss that combined with other results to bounce the Spirit out of the playoffs seems the simplest answer from afar, it might be too simple an equation. However, looking elsewhere leads to more speculation than substance, primarily because the Spirit’s statement on Parsons’ release didn’t provide much information and no one from the Spirit front office has spoken to the media since Parsons’ dismissal.
Since we’re forced to delve into speculation, let’s!
Beyond the ‘miss the playoffs, get the boot’ theory, the one with the most believability centers on the Spirit’s style of play. They started the season as a rugged defensive team in a 4-4-2 Diamond filled with runners and athletes to harass the opposition, but were mostly reliant on moments of individual brilliance in attack.
After the World Cup and the signings of Ouleymata Sarr and Anaïg Butel, the Spirit shifted away from the diamond formation and into more traditional 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 shapes. Still, sharp and reliable patterns of attacking play never stuck, and the defense struggled to hold up under the team’s continued inability to use the ball – leading to over four months between regular season clean sheets.
But style of play is heavily reliant on the available squad. While the Spirit have key pieces, plenty of USWNT-caliber talent and superstar Trinity Rodman, the squad overall was limited in the styles of play they could collectively achieve, and struggled with depth at multiple positions. Some of this falls on the coach, but Mark Krikorian must also share a chunk of the blame.
An inflexible squad
Parsons was hired November 29th, just two weeks before the 2022 free agency period, and a month and a half before the 2023 NWSL College Draft. Additionally, moves like Tara McKeown’s conversion from forward to center back were in the works prior to Parsons’ second stint in D.C. In the draft, the Spirit weren’t able to move up, and ended up using late round trades to stockpile picks and select multiple collegiate forwards, all of whom faded from the team once different formations were deployed. The only free agents signed by the Spirit were ones already with the team (Barnhart, Brooks, Huster), while Kelley O’Hara signed with Gotham and Emily Sonnett was traded to OL Reign during the draft.
With the ball, the Spirit were remarkably direct. According to FBref, they were last in the league in overall touches (nearly 500 fewer than Houston, who were historically bad in attack), bottom of the league in midfield touches, bottom in carries (number of times a player advanced the ball with it at their feet), and last in passes received (again, nearly 500 fewer than the Dash).
The question is what led to this, and what or who was responsible. The Spirit front office seem to have answered from their perspective by letting Parsons go after one season. It’s also true that the Spirit leaned heavily on two players undertaking massive learning curves in undrafted rookie midfielder Paige Metayer and forward turned center back, Tara McKeown. Both had individual seasons to be proud of, but, to no fault of their own, lacked the experience to adjust to multiple styles of play.
Metayer’s ability to cover space and get in the way of the opposition was a delight all season, and even pulled off nutmegs that generated ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from Audi (all of which should have led to her being on the rookie of the year shortlist). At the same time, she was also settling into a new speed of play and therefore wasn’t the most creative or consistent passer from midfield. Parsons could have shifted Dorian Bailey into midfield more, but losing Metayer’s defensive abilities made it a difficult decision and pragmatism often won out.
Meanwhile, McKeown was learning center back, a completely inverse position to forward, where she’d excelled enough to be selected 8th overall in the 2021 NWSL Draft. She did brilliantly to learn on the job in one of the most difficult leagues in which to defend. McKeown was a clearance machine, leading the league with 113, was also top-10 in interceptions and made herself a difficult defender to beat 1v1. In possession though, passing angles, options and her on-pitch perspective were all completely new.
Add to this the disruption of a World Cup and a knee injury causing midfielder Inés Jaurena to play her last regular season game July 8th, it probably shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that the Spirit ended the season two points away from the playoffs.
Hindsight suggests there were other decisions Parsons could have made, but it’s also worth noting that while Krikorian was a highly successful coach at Florida State, this is his first front office role at a professional club, and the squad he helped construct went into the 2023 season with limitations.
So what now?
With not only another free agency period starting soon, and another college draft to prepare for, this offseason will also feature an expansion draft as Bay FC enters, and Utah Royals re-enter, the league. Following a similar timeline to Parsons’ hiring seems unwise, particularly if it’s a coach unfamiliar with the NWSL’s restrictions on team building (salary cap, squad size, international slots, etc).
But as I write this it’s November 9th, the NWSL Championship will kickoff in two days, free agency begins November 20th, the expansion draft takes place December 15th, and the 2024 College Draft will likely occur in early or mid January. There’s a lot to do, and Krikorian should be making decisions in collaboration with a head coach as they work toward implementing the coach’s style and vision.
Releasing Parsons without a coach ready to be announced suggests the decision was made with lots of work still to be done to identify, interview, and come to terms with the coach who will lead the Spirit in 2024. So far nothing has leaked to give us a sense of what the club might be looking for, but here are some available coaches who could (he said supremely knowing nothingly) be on the Spirit’s radar.
- Lluís Cortés – Cortés is the architect of the Barcelona side that dominated Liga F and dismantled Chelsea in the 2021 UWCL Final. However, his relationship soured with the players, who reportedly requested for him to be replaced (though Cortés spoke of a more mutual decision). There’s also the reality that the squad would need a substantial overhaul to have a chance at succeeding with his style of play in the NWSL.
- Carmelina Moscato – Moscato was most recently coach at Tigres in Liga MX Femenil. In one year she won a league trophy, made it to a semifinal, then became the first foreign-born (Canada) coach to win a league championship. Moscato is only 39, a former player, and just a couple years into her club coaching career, but is an exciting coaching prospect who will likely snag one of the many open jobs in the NWSL.
- Pia Sundhage – Truthfully, this one comes from confirmed reports of Sundhage being at Audi Field for what turned out to be the Spirit’s final match of the year. She most recently coached the Brazil national team, which underperformed at the World Cup by failing to get out of their group. However, she has international success in her past, winning two Olympic gold medals with the USWNT, and a silver medal with Sweden. However, her last club coaching job was in 2005/06.
Parsons seemed to be the perfect combination of name and reputation that Kang and Krikorian would’ve wanted to fast track the club toward a similar Portland-esque dominance, for whatever reason it didn’t last beyond one season. It remains to be seen whether Parsons simply wasn’t the right prestige hire, or if the Spirit will go in another direction altogether.