Women’s football in England has taken great strides lately with the top division of the Women’s Super League now fully professional but over in the US, women’s football has being taking giant leaps forward since the foundation of a new professional league in 2013. This year, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was the third most attended women’s sport league in the world. However when English coach Mark Parsons arrived in the States, the league didn’t even exist.
Despite being just 32, Parsons is already at the top of the women’s game when it comes to coaching. He is currently manager of Portland Thorns, one of the most successful teams in the history of the NWSL and the most supported with an average attendance of over 16,000. He was named as NWSL Coach of the Year in 2016 and was nominated for The Best FIFA Women’s Coach 2018 award but it would be fair to say that back in England, he is far from a household name, with his main coaching role back home having been with Chelsea Ladies reserve side. His career across the Atlantic has gone from strength to strength since.
“I traveled to USA with Chelsea multiple times and my wife traveled with her work,” says Parsons. “We would both come back and couldn’t stop talking about how much we enjoyed our time in the States.
“We made the commitment to look for the right opportunity in 2010 and wanted to be in the Virginia area. I accepted a role to become Technical Director with Culpeper Soccer Club and haven’t looked back.”
Culpeper are a youth football team and a long way from the NWSL but developing young players has always been important to Parsons and his big break would come following an offer to continue to work with youth players, albeit at a higher level.
“I accepted a role coaching DC United U20 women’s team during the summer of 2012 to compliment what I was doing in youth development. It was a great fit as it didn’t conflict with my full time job in Culpeper.
“Then when the NWSL was launched and the management of DC United Women created Washington Spirit. which was a founding club in the NWSL, I accepted a role to run the reserve team which was for only three months during the summer.”
Having led the under-20 side to their league playoff final, Parsons’ stock was on the rise and after taking Washington Spirit’s Reserves to the playoff semi-finals in the second tier of US women’s football, his progression continued even further.
“Half way through the 2013 season, the first team staff were let go after a disappointing run,” says Parsons. “I was offered the opportunity to take over until the end of the season.
“Then at the end of the season, I accepted the role as head coach and general manager, leaving Culpeper Soccer and working for Washington Spirit full time.”
The next two seasons he would guide the Spirit to the playoffs before he joined Portland Thorns ahead of the 2016 season and it was not hard to see why he made the move.
“Women’s football is huge in the States. Portland is a football city, with great history of football in the men’s and women’s game and it is a real pleasure to be coaching here.
“We average around 18,000 fans a game and sell out a couple of games a season at 21,144. A stadium expansion (at Providence Park which they share with MLS side Portland Timbers) will be completed in 2019 with an additional 4,000 seats being added.”
In his first year with his new club, he guided his side to the NWSL Shield title, awarded for finishing top of the table during the regular season and then followed that up by winning the playoffs the following season and therefore being named as league champions. This year they again reached the playoff final but were defeated by North Carolina Courage leaving Parsons with plenty of ambition for next season.
“I have mixed feelings about the 2018 season,” he says. “The loss at home in the Championship was extremely disappointing and I was left with a feeling that will fuel me for many years.
“But after the way the individuals and team finished the second half of the season and coming out on top of two epic games versus Seattle [the club’s rivals], I can only feel great pride in the team’s progress and recovery from a tough start.
“We can’t have the Championship game back now but we can work each day in being better individuals and making sure the team are stronger than ever in 2019.”
By the end of next season, it would have been nine years since Parsons and his wife made the move to the States but that does not mean he has completely taken his eye off the state of play back home and because of that, he can compare his new home to football back in England.
“Since [coaching at Chelsea], a lot has changed and thanks to great work by clubs, coaches, players and the Football Association, the game has improved at an very fast rate. Watching from afar I think the standard in England is good and continues to improve.
“My love and respect for the standard in the NWSL is incredibly high and I have no doubt it is the most competitive league in the world with world class players in every team. There is not a moment you cannot play or prepare at your best. The second you take your foot off the pedal, you will fall behind. It’s that competitive every single week.”
In the 2018 season, two English players made a big impact with England internationals Rachel Daly and Jodie Taylor finishing as fourth and fifth top scorers in the league respectively with 19 goals between them and having seen their success, it is a path Parsons hopes more follow.
“The league can offer players the opportunity to grow in so many ways. Due to the competitiveness of the league and the constant demand to be at your very best, it attracts a certain type of player.
“I would love to see more players from England and other countries push themselves out of their comfort zone and play in the NWSL. I also believe there is no league in the women’s game that attracts the media attention that the NWSL does. Players are in the spotlight when they play in the NWSL and have the opportunity to showcase their ability to bigger audience.”
At 32, Parsons is still young in terms of his managerial career but he already has a wealth of coaching experience behind him. Despite that, it is clear there is still a hunger to improve and to continue to win. It seems like the Englishman will continue to be at the top of the women’s game for many more years to come.