Portland Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson might have been known by her team this year as the coach that holds the most meetings, but it paid off. Finishing second in the regular season standings, Wilkinson and the Thorns tallied the most goals in the NWSL with 49, ranked first in clean sheets and had the most shots on target per match as they played their way to the NWSL Championship.
The former Portland player, inexplicably to her players, was never nominated for Coach of the Year, but on Saturday, she ended the season with the biggest statement yet. The Thorns claimed their third NWSL title with a 2-0 shutout of the Kansas City Current, and now own the most championships in NWSL history.
Wilkinson achieved all of this in her first season coaching in the NWSL, and as the club was being investigated for its handling of sexual misconduct allegations against former head coach Paul Riley.
“I think it’s bulls–t that she wasn’t up for Coach of the Year,” Thorns forward and 2022 NWSL MVP Sophia Smith said after the final. “To come into a team like this, a club with this reputation, is hard in itself. To come in with all of this happening, all these distractions going on…”
“I keep calling her Coach of the Year,” added goalkeeper Bella Bixby. “I think she’s our Coach of the Year. I think she definitely should have been nominated. I think it’s easy to overlook because historically, this is a successful club. So it’s like, ‘Oh, she inherited a successful team,’ but it’s not easy to come in. … She’s a big part of why we’re here and lifting a trophy.”
OUR Coach of the Year dropping the mic on the night 😏🎙️@rhirhi8 x @JakeZivin pic.twitter.com/QWXnPSiU2t— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) October 30, 2022
OUR Coach of the Year dropping the mic on the night 😏🎙️@rhirhi8 x @JakeZivin pic.twitter.com/QWXnPSiU2t
Implementing a 4-3-3 formation on Sunday, Wilkinson has never been one to stick to one system. She rotated players through the starting lineup and tried at least three or four different formations throughout the season. That flexibility, Bixby says, has allowed the Thorns to play more freely.
Wilkinson’s intention since taking the job was not to change too much of what former head coach Mark Parsons had built over the past six seasons, but to add her own twist, which included playing the ball out wide more often.
By the time the championship came around, Portland knew how to spread teams apart and how to play in any shape. There was nothing new they had to do to prepare. They just went out and played.
And they dominated.
Sometimes the pressure can be overwhelming in big games like Saturday’s, but Smith, who scored the winning goal four minutes in, genuinely had fun.
“To come in with this team and to implement her style but also take on what we had already built with this club is a really hard thing to do, and I don’t think people give her enough credit for that,” Smith said.
Wilkinson says it helps that her players have been open to trying new things all year.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I continue to. And I hope I don’t hide from them,” she said on Friday. “I think it’s a real testament to this group that they’ve allowed me to come in, and they were extremely successful last year and had a fantastic coach. They’ve allowed me to come in and try things … They could so easily have just turned on me after one mistake and then that would have been it, but instead they gave me great feedback, which I welcome.
“As long as it’s done professionally and with courtesy, I think it has to be a conversation. They’ve been brilliant all season, and I’m really proud of that.”
The moment we worked all season for. WE. ARE. THE. CHAMPIONS. #BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/oMaE3tQEOt— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) October 30, 2022
The moment we worked all season for. WE. ARE. THE. CHAMPIONS. #BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/oMaE3tQEOt
Part of the journey has been navigating professional relationships with her best friends and former Canada teammates, Thorns general manager Karina LeBlanc and captain Christine Sinclair. Wilkinson kept Sinclair out of the starting lineup for Portland’s semifinal against the San Diego Wave, making it Sinclair’s first playoff game since the league’s inception in 2013 that she wasn’t part of the starting XI.
“We’ve definitely set our boundaries that we are a player and coach, and for right now, that’s it,” Sinclair told Just Women’s Sports earlier this month. “I mean, that sounds so mean, but right now it’s, ‘How can we help the Thorns win and succeed?’”
And that’s just what they did. After the game, Sinclair and her teammates took their shiny new trophy to their champagne-ready locker room, where Bixby cued up the DMX, and the celebrations could be heard loud and clear from where Wilkinson spoke to the media in the press conference room next door.
When Wilkinson was asked to sum up her thoughts into one word following the win, she said “proud.”
“Proud of this group of women who’ve had a year — we’ll just leave it at that — and the way they showed up today,” she said. “I just thought they were fantastic, and I’m a very proud coach today.”
And now, after all she and the Thorns had accomplished this year, there was only one thing she had left to do.
“I want to go to sleep,” she said.
Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.