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Is Mark Parsons the right coach for the Spirit’s rebuild?

Mark Parsons returns to the NWSL as the new head coach of the Spirit. (Joris Verwijst/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

On Monday, the Washington Spirit announced their new head coach and the return of a familiar face.

Mark Parsons is back in the NWSL after a year away. The 36-year-old coach got his start in the NWSL with the Spirit, coaching the team from 2013-15 before taking the helm at the Portland Thorns and leading them to the 2017 championship. In 2021, Parsons left the U.S. for a short-lived role as manager of the Netherlands, with whom he parted ways this past summer after a disappointing Euros campaign.

There’s no question that Parsons has the NWSL experience to guide the Spirit back into the playoff picture in 2023, but his appointment also begs a few questions for the upcoming year.

A new era in Washington

The Spirit’s 2021 championship run appeared to set a foundation for long-term success, but since Michele Kang took over as primary owner in March, the club has undergone a full operational overhaul.

Kang hired famed Florida State coach Mark Krikorian in June to build out Washington’s infrastructure, and his influence became clear right away. Kris Ward was removed as head coach in August after an incident at practice, and youth and college coach Albertin Montoya stepped in as interim manager. The season ended in disappointment, with the reigning champions and 2022 Challenge Cup finalists finishing in 11th place with a 3-9-10 record and failing to make the playoffs, and indicated that more broad-stroke changes might be necessary.

Then the real work began. Krikorian hired Morinao Imaizumi (also formerly of FSU) to the team’s technical staff and made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason with the hiring of former U.S. women’s national team high performance director Dawn Scott. The appointments have been an ambitious attempt at assembling some of the biggest names in the sport in the U.S.

The team also made early offseason roster decisions that indicated a work in progress. USWNT veteran Kelley O’Hara opted to leave the club, signing with Gotham FC in free agency last week. Washington then chose not to retain Taylor Aylmer, Averie Collins, Devon Kerr, Karina Rodriguez, Audrey Harding, Alia Martin and Gaby Vincent.

According to Parsons, what happens next begins with Krikorian, and the rest goes back to Kang.

“He’s got the main job of executing this vision. I’m just grateful to be able to come in and play a part in it,” Parsons said.

“After multiple conversations with Michele, it’s clear that not only does she have the vision, but she’s acting and she’s putting everything into that vision. Every time I speak with her and Mark, something else has happened, the club has moved forward again.”

Parsons left the NWSL in 2021 after eight years in the league, at the time citing his desire to be closer to family in England as a major part of that decision. Kang, he said, tipped the scale in his willingness to return. The Spirit are attempting to modernize their staff and create a formidable infrastructure that can remain competitive no matter who is on the sideline.

Michele Kang has made several high-profile hires since taking over as majority owner in March. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

‘The star of the team will be the team’

Parsons’ reputation upon his return to the NWSL can be looked at multiple ways. He led the Spirit to two playoff appearances and won a championship and two NWSL Shields with the Thorns. The decision to leave Portland was a personal one, and not driven by results.

His approach, however, did not translate well to the Netherlands, which he readily admitted on Monday.

“I gave everything, I think the staff gave everything, I think the players did,” he said. “But in the end, I felt passionately that for the better of the team, and also for the better of me, that this challenge was probably too much.”

Parsons isn’t the first coach with club success to run into problems at the international level, but his issues with the Netherlands underline some of the specificities of his coaching style. Reports of hours-long team meetings centered around culture that might be galvanizing in a club environment did not have the same effect on Parsons’ Dutch squad. Although the team struggled with injuries, the results never changed.

That approach is likely what Kang and Krikorian are looking for as Parsons returns to the Spirit. He will have control over the team’s draft and other transactions before a full preseason with the team. He will also have to figure out how to manage the team’s young stars in Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez, creative playmakers who have thrived with a certain amount of freedom.

Parsons cited assistant coach Angela Salem, a former Thorns midfielder, as an important part of that process.

“Having someone who has been on the playing side is important, but also speeds up the messaging for the staff and also the players,” he said. “She knows the good side, but she also knows the parts where I’m going to be challenging because I want to be able to support these players with my heart, with everything I’ve got. But I’m also going to challenge and push.”

Parsons’ fit in Washington will likely hinge on his mentality that “the star player is the team” as well as his ability to manage high-level talent.

“I had an opportunity to talk to the team earlier on, and I said, ‘You’re going to hear a lot from me on values, behaviors and trust, and how we can build authentic trust,” Parsons said.

The success of that trust could make or break a season.

And while Parson is a proven hire, having yet another NWSL coaching search end with a familiar name might move the needle forward for the Spirit, but not for the league at large. Krikorian told the media that while he felt the hiring process was fair, the Spirit did not use a hiring committee in their search.

“It was just a couple of us that were making the choice,” Krikorian said.

As the NWSL struggles to make significant strides in opportunities for both women in leadership roles and coaches and executives of color, Washington will try to turn back the clock with Parsons under the watchful eye of fans.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.