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Mark Parsons: The Best Kind of Leader

A belated farewell to Mark Parsons, the Portland Thorns coach who was a role model, a leader and a friend to so many in Portland.

Portland Thorns FC v Chicago Red Stars

The Portland Thorns and the Chicago Red Stars were preparing to kick off in the 2021 NWSL semifinals when, in the North End of Providence Park, a tifo emerged from a sea of supporters dressed in red.

Immediately evident was a farewell to the Thorns’ coach Mark Parsons, transcribed in Dutch, surrounded by the six trophies won during his time at the club. On the other side of the tifo was a poem written by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863 which read:

Labor with what zeal we will,

Something still remains undone,

Something uncompleted still,

Waits the rising of the sun.

Soccer: NWSL Playoffs-Chicago Red Stars at Portland Thorns FC Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

“We wanted to make sure that no matter what happened after that match, we wanted him to know that we appreciated everything that he’s brought to the club and what he’s done for the club and for us as supporters,” said one of the Rose City Riveters’ capos, Tina Ettlin. “It was really just a big farewell for him and we knew that that’s kind of what we wanted for that last match of the season.”

As fans drifted into the stadium for the semifinal, excitement filled Providence Park because the Thorns were one step away from playing for their fourth trophy of the season. But a wistful feeling was also present. Supporters knew that, regardless of the result, it would be Mark Parsons’ final match managing the Thorns in Providence Park after six seasons, before leaving to coach the Netherlands Women’s National Team.

“It was a little bit heartbreaking walking into the stadium, knowing that whether we were winning or we were going to lose, no matter what, that was probably going to be the last time we saw Mark Parsons in the stadium,” said Ettlin.

The heartbreak continued. The Chicago Red Stars won 2-0 and brought Portland’s special season and Parsons’ time as manager of the Thorns to a devastating end. Unfortunately, that’s how endings often occur in sports. Players, coaches and teams rarely get the fairy tale endings they deserve. The end is often unceremonious and painful. But sometimes these abrupt, saddening conclusions help us realize just how much someone or something means to us - and for many in the Rose City, this Thorns team and their manager Mark Parsons meant more to them than they ever imagined.

“He really seemed to almost be an instant click for the club,” said Ettlin. “He came in, we didn’t make it past the [first round of the] playoffs in 2016, but it just seemed like the team immediately had that trust in him. [It was the] same with the coaching staff, Nadine [Angerer] and everyone, and it just seemed to bring out some really good results on the pitch.”

“We had some disappointments. Obviously, we can’t win every single championship. We can’t win every single piece of hardware but it seemed like once he came in things [got] a little bit better. It seemed like the players were out there just giving it their all a little bit more than maybe they had before and it was just nice to see really.”

Parsons established an astounding legacy as manager of Portland Thorns FC. He compiled a 73-32-35 overall record with the Thorns. During his Thorns’ tenure, Portland accumulated 62 regular season wins and 214 regular season points, more than any other NWSL club. Parsons was named NWSL Coach of the Year in 2016 and finished second in the voting this season.

During the 2021 season, the Thorns set an NWSL record for most shutouts (13) in a season and Parsons became the winningest manager in NWSL history with 82 career victories. The Portland Thorns won three of the four titles up for grabs this season which extended Parsons’ and the Thorns’ trophy collection to six during his time with the club, including an NWSL Championship and two NWSL Shields.

Craig Mitchelldyer/Thorns FC

Parsons’ impact while patrolling the Thorns’ touchline was incredible. But his greatest influence on everyone has been his character rather than his sporting results. In his final post-match press conference at Providence Park, Parsons highlighted the importance of connecting with people.

“What’s my message? People first, people second, people third, and then there’s a bit of soccer there,” said Parsons. “And I’ll take that wherever I go.”

Parsons’ connection with people is what left many Thorns fans devastated when Portland lost 2-0 to Chicago. It wasn’t just Parsons’ final match at Providence Park, it was now his last match with the Thorns after six seasons in which Parsons left a lasting impression on so many, especially those who reside in the North End - the Rose City Riveters.

“He just gets it,” said Ettlin. “He loves connecting with us on how crazy we are. Honestly… it just feels like he was an extension of the Riveters. He understood our passion. He understands a lot of times when we have issues with maybe what it looks like on the pitch or even with the current stuff going on right now with the front office. He knows that a lot of that may not be personally directed at him - just that we’re passionate. We want to see everyone associated with the club, the players specifically, we want them happy. And if we don’t see that then it makes us sad, which I know, in turn, makes him sad.”

Parsons didn’t just understand the passion of the supporters, he loved it. The Englishman consistently praised the Riveters and lauded them as the best fans in the world. Parsons connected with the supporters in Portland like no coach ever has before for either the Portland Thorns or Timbers.

“We really haven’t [had a connection with a coach like we did with Parsons], even with the Timbers…,” said Ettlin. “I think there was a little bit with Caleb Porter, but not really on the level that we have with Mark Parsons, to be completely honest.”

“He’s still a front office employee. He’s still there, but he still has a huge connection with us. I hope that we… just have a fraction of the connection that we had with him with our next coach. I think we’ll be lucky, to be honest.”

The Thorns volunteer in the community every year during Stand Together Week and Parsons believes it's one of the most important things that the organization does. In 2019, he helped the Riveters paint visitation rooms at the Department of Human Services building in Beaverton, which eventually sparked a video game rivalry between Parsons and another capo, Alex Staller.

“It kind of created a little bit of a back and forth with one of our other capos, Alex,” said Ettlin. “I think they were playing FIFA [and] Alex kicked his ass. It was great. So there’s been a little bit of back and forth between him and Alex there.”

“He loves talking to us capos and kind of giving us grief in that way,” Ettlin said. “And then also having his daughter be a part of the post-match ceremony really meant a lot to us - having her come out with Kling, the rose, cheering with her.”

After every home match, the Thorns conduct their Rose Ceremony. The Thorns and their supporters come together in the North End and celebrate the players and team by gifting roses to them. Until Parsons’ daughter, Edie Parsons, went back to England in the middle of the 2021 NWSL season, she was center stage with Meghan Klingenberg during the Rose Ceremonies. Edie and Klingenberg would take their places at the penalty spot in front of the North End and would raise their arms up and down, conducting the Rose City Riveters as they cheered. It was a tradition that the supporters cherished and will miss greatly.

Kansas City v Portland Thorns FC Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

“It just feels like it’s always been a post postgame thing,” said continued. “And it’s going to be weird, thinking that she’s not going to be there to do that with us anymore.”

Parsons’ people-first and player-first approach, the relationship he and his family built with the city and community, and his down-to-earth personality made him more than just a coach to many supporters - he was a role model to so many in Portland.

“It’s really just how he can kind of go beyond being a coach,” said Ettlin. “He’s not just the head coach of the Portland Thorn​​s - he’s Mark f****ing Parsons.”

“He’s just a leader,” said Ettlin. “He was a front office person, somebody that worked directly with the Thorns [but] he still seemed to be a leader for not only the team but for the Riveters as well. It’s kind of up there with just being that guy that we can always look for to do the right thing, and doing the best that he possibly can to bring results. That’s really what he was to us… It felt like we had the right person in that spot for so long and it felt really good and he really is just the best kind of leader.”

Belarus v Holland -World Cup Qualifier Women Photo by Laurens Lindhout/Soccrates/Getty Images

Although it’s certain that Mark Parsons the coach will be missed, Mark Parsons the person, the leader and the friend will leave an even greater void in the Portland community. His dedication to the humanity of the sport and his commitment to being more than just a coach is why so many Thorns fans will be donning the Oranje this summer - not because they are fans of the Netherlands, but because they will forever be fans of Mark Parsons.