Job is about more than winning for new Portland Thorns' coach
Rhian Wilkinson is a bit of an accidental coach. It wasn't her lifelong dream, or anything. Her parents are English professors, and, until she got a taste of coaching late in her playing career, she figured education might be her path beyond soccer.
But, at 39 years old, the road has led to becoming the head coach for the Portland Thorns, one of the more visible and successful women's professional sports teams in the world. She was introduced on Nov. 30 as the successor to Mark Parsons, who left after six seasons to coach the women's national team for the Netherlands.
"This is really a dream job. This is a team that likes each other, has a strong culture, a winning culture, a high-performance culture and a staff that's exactly the same," Wilkinson said. "No, I don't find it intimidating at all. I find it really exciting, and I mean that genuinely. This is just the perfect opportunity to walk into and to get to lead."
This will be Wilkinson's first head coaching position at the professional level. She has coached Canada's age-group national teams and most recently was an assistant coach for England's women's national team.
The magnitude of this opportunity isn't lost on Wilkinson or on her new boss and longtime friend Karina LeBlanc, who last month was hired to be the Thorns general manager. Wilkinson and LeBlanc are charged with winning as many soccer games as they can, but they see their jobs as being about much more than just adding to the Thorns' trophy collection. They see a chance to support players as people and to be examples for future generations of women.
Wilkinson, whose first name is pronounced "REE-in," made a strong first impression when she was introduced to the media on Tuesday, Nov. 30, at Providence Park.
During a 50-minute press conference, she and LeBlanc addressed subjects including the need for more coaching opportunities for women, Thorns' roster challenges, their friendship and how they'll work together — and the need for accountability in women's sports.
Wilkinson came off as a straight shooter with a quick smile. Her playing experience — both in fledgling pro leagues and internationally for Canada — provides her with credibility as she steps into one of the more visible coaching positions in women's pro sports.
"I'm so proud to be here and to be an example I hope to a lot of those women in the locker room who want to continue in the game, be it as a coach, be it as a medical practitioner, be it as a GM. Whatever their role, there's a place for them in the game," Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson is the first former National Women's Soccer League player to hired as a full-time head coach in the league. In part, that is testament to the fact that this project, for its many shortcomings, will play its 10th season in 2022.
Wilkinson sees herself not as a trail blazer, but as one of the few female players lucky enough to have coaches who encouraged her to pursue coaching.
"Because I'm female, I think that there's this piece where people doubt your understanding of the game. There's just a piece and it's internalized — I don't even think people recognize it. So, for the players, for the staff, it's making sure they understand I know what I'm talking about," Wilkinson said.
"I haven't just landed this role because straight-up we need women (coaches) straightaway. I haven't come out of nowhere. I've earned my stripes as a player, but also as a coach. I've done my due diligence. I've put in the work, and now it's about making sure that people see that. I still have to earn it every single day just like Mark (Parsons) did, just like every coach does, but making sure (evaluating her as a coach) is not gendered."
Wilkinson praised Parsons, both for his on-field success during six seasons guiding the Thorns and for the types of people and team-first mentality she is inheriting.
The interview process took months. Wilkinson said she vetted the Thorns and the club did its due diligence, which gave her confidence Portland would be a great fit for her — until Nov. 1, when LeBlanc was hired as the Thorns new general manager.
"It's something that I joke about. I was interviewed for a month and a half before Karina came on board," Wilkinson said. "I was thrilled for my friend and devastated for me because I was like, 'Well, now there's no way that I'll get hired.'"
Except, according to LeBlanc, Wilkinson was the first choice of everyone who participated in a club-wide interview process. So Wilkinson is back in Portland, where she spent the 2015 season and appeared in one game for the Thorns.
"You can probably pretty quickly tell that we're very good friends, but we're also very different people," Wilkinson said about her relationship with LeBlanc. "That's the blessing that is a team sport. There's a lot of different characters that that end up playing together and having to work together. Karina and I started playing together as teenagers. We grew up together. And, as any good siblings, we've had our fights or disagreements and we know how to how to work together through hard times as well as good times."
These are hard times for women's soccer — and specifically for the National Women's Soccer League. The epidemic of alleged abuse by mostly male coaches of female players is a blight on those whose leadership came up short. Wilkinson said the problems that have come to light are not exclusive to the NWSL.
"The NWSL is going through a pretty momentous moment. And I'm proud to be a part of that moment. I'm part of a club that is taking it very seriously and wants to promote the Thorns and make sure that our players are looked after," she said.
Wilkinson praised former coach Parsons multiple times, and said her job is to build on his success with her own vision of how the team will play.
"In terms of what's already being done here, this book does not need to be rewritten. There are absolutely things I want to change and bring in my own style and personality to what this team is going to be doing. An easy example would be using a bit more width in the build-up," she said.
Wilkinson credits John Herdman, who coached Canada's women's national team from 2012 to 2018, for hiring her to coach Canada's youth national teams. She said as she got into coaching, she saw the parallels with a teaching career — and the opportunity to stay in the sport she loves.
"Coaching is teaching and I fell in love with that piece of the game," Wilkinson said. "I do love the game. It's been a huge part of my life, but understanding that I wanted to be a coach came later, recognizing that coaching is such an interesting role. It's the teaching element on the field. It's the human relationships with the players as they become women."
LeBlanc described Wilkinson as the "moral compass" of the Canadian Women's National Team as a player. Among the characteristics that made Wilkinson the right person to coach the Thorns was her ability to help players become their best selves on and off the field, LeBlanc said.
"I know she will help players feel seen and heard," LeBlanc said. "I think everybody, coming out of this pandemic you forgot some things about yourself. Everybody wants to feel valued. And when you feel valued, you can do things you've never done before."
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