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Paul Riley Brings Experience and Grit to the Portland Thorns

A coaching change after winning a championship rarely occurs but in this case a change in coach may be exactly what the Portland Thorns need in order to challenge for a second championship

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Brett Carlsen

If his former abode is any indication, new Thorns head coach Paul Riley has got a little swag.

Located in affluent Nassau County, NY, Riley's house was listed at $1.3 million when he put it up for sale in September of 2013. Its amenities include, among other things, a pair of turrets, a koi-filled moat, and a basement that is a faithful replication of a British pub.

Of course, one needn't troll the real estate listings to suss out Riley's character, but it's a good enough place to start as any. After all, any man whose rec room involves a red telephone box and some sort of wooden panther has to be a confident fella, and Riley indeed is known as someone who trusts himself and his own system. He is, as his zebra-stripe carpeting implies, not afraid to speak his mind.

What does this mean for the Thorns?

For a team that couldn't quite find a personality least season, it couldn't bode more positively. In the NWSL's inaugural year the Thorns won the championship, and they did it behind then-coach Cindy Parlow Cone's philosophy -or lack thereof. It was hard to suss out exactly what form Parlow Cone wanted this team to take. From day one the mantra "possession-oriented" passed through her lips and into press conference microphones and journalists' tape recorders, but it never quite made it past there. The phrase merely floated in the ether over Jeld-Wen Field until finally just sort of drifting away. Then Parlow Cone's ruling concept shape-shifted into the narrative that she seemed to enjoy most: That this was a gritty, tough team, that willed its way to wins in the face of adversity and against the odds.

The underdog tale is always a fun one, and the Thorns did display their share of grit, but this team never needed to follow that particular plot line. Given their talent, their resources, and their support, the Thorns' story should have been this: We came out of the gate prepared, physically, tactically, mentally, and we executed until the deed was done.

Paul Riley is the kind of coach who prefers the latter approach, and he goes about manifesting the concept in recognizable ways. Specifically:

He pushes his players hard when it comes to conditioning.

Remember when the Thorns looked embarrassingly gassed in their preseason friendly with the Portland Pilots? Don't expect that to happen again. Riley has already stated he's planning on putting the Thorns through two-a-days. In a league with varying levels of effort and fitness, having a top-conditioned squad should put the Thorns at an advantage even before the first kick.

He can make something from nothing.

In 2010, Riley led the Philadelphia Independence -an expansion team-- to the WPS championship game (they lost to FC Gold Pride). The Thorns have quite a bit more than nothing, so Riley's expertise at getting a team to coalesce gives this team expansive potential.

He has a grasp on tactics, and a tactical philosophy.

He likes to build from the back and he knows how to do it, which will be interesting to see, given our midfield troubles last year. How much of that was injury, how much was Parlow Cone's coaching, and how much of it was just player quality remains to be seen. As it is, the midfield roster has already improved, courtesy of off-season moves in which Riley has had a hand.

He's one of the most experienced coaches in the game.

Having managed teams since 1990, Riley won the 2010 WPS COTY, and was on the short list to replace Pia Sundhage as coach of the USWNT and Lisa Cole of England's women's national team. His record as a head coach is 88-49-13.

He knows how to play it.

It's not as if Riley eschews the underdog tag for his team, if its appropriate. It's just that he doesn't conceive of it as the only tale in the book. As the Equalizer folks quoted him recently:

"I want this locker room to be like the locker room in Philadelphia.We were the underdogs in Philly; it was a little bit different and we were the expansion team. My first speech to the players was, ‘hey, nobody wanted you and now you're here with me in Philly and we've got nothing to lose. I think this first speech is going to be a little bit different. ‘You're a championship caliber team. Don't rest on your laurels; we need to get better, don't get complacent. We need to train harder, we need to get prepared.'"

"Prepared": That's what it boils down to. The Thorns never looked properly prepared last season --not in one game-- and that's what made them the underdogs. Under Riley, you can expect that script to get flipped.

I'd expect nothing less, really, from a man with a pub in his basement.