The Portland Thorns have hired Mike Norris, who served as an assistant coach under Rhian Wilkinson in the 2022 season and worked for Canada Soccer in various roles before that, as the team’s new head coach.
Thorns general manager Karina LeBlanc jokingly warned reporters about Norris's Newcastle accent before introducing him in a virtual press conference on Monday, January 9—though, as the Thorns have had an Englishman as coach for all but two years of their existence, there is little novelty. Norris called the promotion "a huge honor" and praised Portland's "terrific fanbase, which I got to experience last year."
"If you watched a lot of our games last year, Mike was on the touchline," said LeBlanc, touting continuity, player safety, and locker-room buy-in as big reasons for the hire, which comes at a time of uncertainty for the club. In December, just over a month after the Thorns claimed the National Women's Soccer League Championship, primary owner Merritt Paulson announced his intent to sell the team—part of the fallout from management's handling of a former coach who was accused by multiple players of sexual coercion and other abuses. The next day, first-year coach Rhian Wilkinson, a former Thorn and Canada national team player, announced her resignation after a friendship with a player “turned into more complex emotions,” as she reported on Twitter. (Wilkinson was cleared of wrongdoing in an NWSL investigation.)
The head coach announcement also comes at a busy time. Preseason starts at the end of the month, and the annual NWSL Draft takes place this Thursday, January 12. Last week the team traded away two-season Thorns midfielder Yazmeen Ryan for a no. 5 pick.
LeBlanc promised that the due diligence involved in draft preparations this winter is more in-depth than it was prior to last year's draft, when team leadership was caught by surprise as fans promptly raised concerns about a draftee's Twitter likes and retweets, which included posts seen as racist and transphobic. (The player was eventually waived and joined a team in Spain's women's league.)
"Learning from last year ... we've been thorough, we didn't just start the process at the end of the season," said LeBlanc. "Social media checks and all those other things are important parts of making sure we don't repeat our mistakes. But I think we're excited about the upcoming draft. It's a great draft. There's some phenomenal players in there and we're doing our due diligence."
"It's about adding to the roster," Norris said of the draft plans, later noting that he is "a goalkeeper by trade, so defense is always at the core of everything."
Introduced by LeBlanc as a foodie, Norris clarified that he is simply someone who eats a lot and looks forward to trying more places around town. He describes himself as a "a pretty keen road cyclist" and says he looks forward to exploring Portland, the Columbia River Gorge, and beyond on his bike.
Norris will be the team's fifth head coach. One of the founding teams of the NWSL, the Thorns started play in 2013 under Cindy Parlow Cone, a former national team player who is now the president of the US Soccer Federation.
In 2014 and 2015, the head coach was Paul Riley, who has been accused of sexual coercion and other abuses that led to his termination, but the team only stated publicly that his contract was not renewed. He went on to coach six more seasons in the NWSL before the allegations were made public, leading to multiple investigations that faulted Thorns owners and executives for enabling Riley to continue coaching and detailed reports of leaguewide, systemic abuses and a gross failure to protect players. (The same day Norris's hire was formally announced, the league issued a permanent ban on Riley and a handful of other coaches from working in the NWSL, plus a $1 million fine for the Thorns, one of several teams fined.)
The Thorns’ third head coach, Mark Parsons, held the role for six seasons before departing to coach the Netherlands national team and be closer to his native England. Under Parsons the team had the best record in the league three times and won the league championship in 2017. After a short stint with the Dutch, he has been named the head coach for the NWSL’s Washington Spirit for the 2023 season. (Washington, DC, is about 1,300 miles closer to England, as the crow flies.)