Continuity for a Portland Thorns club in transition and the work of a “tactical genius.”
Those are two of the reasons the Thorns chose to elevate Mike Norris to be the head coach for the National Women's Soccer League club, according to general manager Karina LeBlanc.
In a virtual press conference on Monday, Jan. 9, the Thorns' fifth head coach said having the support of current players played a big role in his decision to take on this head coaching job. He said those connections will be critical going forward.
“I’m highly passionate about tactics, strategy, breaking the game down as a team, also just individually from a positional standpoint,” Norris said. “But I think the connections which I’ve built, which I've invested in this year, (are important). It's one thing (tactics) being my skill set where I feel it’s my strength. But if I can't get my message across, and I don't have the connection with the players, that stuff doesn't really mean a lot.”
Norris takes over after a tumultuous 15 months for the club since The Athletic first reported about how former coach Paul Riley sexually coerced players. Norris was introduced on the same day that the National Women’s Soccer League announced lifetime bans for Riley and three other coaches, along with fines. The Thorns were fined $1 million for the mishandling of allegations against Riley during his tenure in Portland.
LeBlanc described her coaching search as “a really good process” that included revisiting past applicants for the job as well as speaking with agents for coaches. She said Norris’ character and his rapport with Thorns players were important factors in this hire, as was player safety.
Norris was a big voice on the Thorns sideline last season. Often he was the coach up shouting instructions during a match. LeBlanc said that makes his voice a familiar one for the players. He also was instrumental in scouting and game-plan development, according to LeBlanc.
“I think over the year you'll see why Mike is more than credible for this and why he's the perfect person to lead us,” LeBlanc said. “We went through different processes, but in the end it was a no-brainer for us.”
A 43-year-old native of Newcastle, England, Norris replaces Rhian Wilkinson, who hired Norris last January to be an assistant coach. Wilkinson stepped down in December after she and Thorns defender Emily Menges acknowledged they had expressed feelings for one another. Wilkinson was cleared of any wrongdoing after an investigation by the NWSL, but cited a loss of the players’ trust in stepping down.
Norris appears to have that support from Thorns players, some of whom posted messages on social media supporting the hire.
“It means a lot,” Norris said about the public support from Thorns players. “I think it's it speaks to the connection I built last year and the trust in terms of how I worked with the players.”
LeBlanc noted that in the process of making this decision, one Thorns player told her that Norris not only improved her as a player, but also made that player a better person.
His familiarity with players and teams around the NWSL was another factor in the decision to elevate Norris, LeBlanc said. Though he has not been a head coach above the youth level, LeBlanc noted that Norris was deeply involved in scouting and game planning last season.
“On the field, tactical genius,” LeBlanc said.
“There's a lot of great coaches, but there's not many coaches who know the players within the league and know how to break down the defenses of the other teams and the tactics of the other team,” LeBlanc said.
Norris said it was a second opportunity to try coaching, when he was in his mid-20s, that started him on the path to a career in coaching.
“I think that the thing that really grabbed me with coaching is just the constant interaction and challenge to push people and push yourself,” he said. “That's really what gets the fire in me going.”
The first order of business with Norris officially at the helm will be Thursday’s NWSL Draft. He noted that he began working on draft preparation during last season and is prepared. The Thorns hold the fifth pick in the first round.
Norris and LeBlanc each said they like that the roster returns most of its core from last season’s championship team.
“If we can add to the roster, great,” Norris said. “But I think we are in a position where we're not necessarily being hurried into anything based on the quality that we have.”
In terms of his tactical philosophy, Norris said he wants the Thorns to continue to play entertaining, attacking soccer.
“As a club and a fan base, we enjoy and expect attacking football,” Norris said. “I am a goalkeeper by trade, so defense is always at the core of everything, I think, in terms of how you attack.”
Norris spent eight seasons as an assistant coach in Canada’s women’s national team system. He was the goalkeeping coach and set-play coach for Canada’s senior women’s national team 2019-2021. During that period, Canada — a team that included current Thorns Christine Sinclair and Janine Beckie — won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
From 2014-19, Norris coached with the under-17 and under-20 women’s national teams for Canada. He was as an assistant coach with the U-17s and the goalkeeping coach and interim head coach with the U-20s. From 2014-16, Norris also worked as the goalkeeping coach for the U-14 and U-15 Vancouver Whitecaps FC Boys Residency teams.
Norris said that we wound up in British Columbia while traveling in 2005 and, though he planned to continue his trip and eventually return to his native England, he never left.
In addition to the $1 million fine, the NWSL announced that it will require Merritt Paulson to go through with his plans to sell the Thorns.
Le Blanc said Monday there is nothing new to report in the search for the next Thorns’ owner and that Norris has been kept in the loop about the status of the club.