Parlow Cone couldn't pass on Portland

Courtesy Portland Thorns

Cindy Parlow Cone had playing experience at all levels, but never served as a head coach before signing on with the Portland Thorns.

Cindy Parlow Cone wasn't sure how she could leave North Carolina.

Her Tar Heels had just won another NCAA championship in women's soccer last fall, the sixth title Cone had been a part of and the program's 21st overall. She won three as a player (1995-98); and after a stellar international career -- she was a starter on the epic U.S. squad that captured the 1999 Women's World Cup -- Parlow Cone won three more titles as an assistant coach for the Tar Heels (2008-09, 2012).

Parlow Cone had even gotten married in Chapel Hill six years ago, so she wasn't exactly itching to pull up anchor and start somewhere fresh. It would take a pretty special situation to make that happen.

And then she visited Portland.

Last fall, Parlow Cone flew to the City of Roses to interview for the head coaching job of Thorns FC, Portland's entry in the new National Women's Soccer League. Walking around town, she was amazed by people's enthusiasm for the game -- not just for the Timbers, the city's Major League Soccer franchise, but also for the Thorns, who hadn't even played a match yet.

"It was an environment I wanted to be a part of," Parlow Cone said in an interview this week with espnW. "I also felt like this was the last opportunity for us to really get professional women's soccer right in the U.S. I wanted to do everything I could to help that succeed."

The 35-year-old Cone knows a thing or two about fledgling soccer leagues. She was an original member of the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), which launched in 2000 and folded in 2003, and she closely followed Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), founded in 2007, until its demise last year.

The way Parlow Cone sees it, if the NWSL fails, women's soccer in the United States -- and Mexico and Canada -- will have a difficult time maintaining the kind of depth necessary to compete on the international stage, because all but the biggest stars would be forced to make a living away from the game. The U.S. would essentially lose a generation of players and likely struggle to compete for World Cup titles and Olympic gold.

Parlow Cone officially joined Thorns FC on Dec. 19, and although she had no prior experience as a head coach, let alone building a team from the ground up, she brought an intimate knowledge of each role she would need to fill on the roster.

"I understand where the players are coming from," said Parlow Cone, who scored 75 goals in 158 international appearances. "I have played many different roles: the starter, the reserve, the go-to person, the one getting water for everyone. I know how each role affects you psychologically, and I know how to get players to embrace each one."

The process of building the roster began in January, when Portland received its allocation of national team players. (The Thorns' headliners are Canadian forward Christine Sinclair and American forward Alex Morgan.) After that came the college draft, followed by a free-agent period when each team was allowed to sign four players. The final piece was the supplemental draft to fill out rosters.

Courtesy of Portland Thorns

Cindy Parlow Cone has worked hard to build a fun, hardworking culture for her team and its fans.

"It's an interesting challenge to create a team from nothing," Parlow Cone said. "In my previous experiences, we always had a core. In college, you lost the seniors and gained the freshmen, but you always had a core group and you built around them. Here, we had none of that."

Once the Thorns actually had a team, Parlow Cone set about creating the next crucial element -- a culture. She wanted her players, as well as fans, to have a distinct sense of what the Thorns are about. A vibe, if you will. "Fun, but also hardworking," is how midfielder Becky Edwards described it. "We like to enjoy ourselves at practice, but when it comes down to it, we work hard and get the job done."

Portland enters this weekend's match against Seattle Reign FC with a record of 7-2-1, good for 22 points and a spot atop the NWSL standings, tied with New Jersey's Sky Blue FC.

Edwards, who played at Florida State and in the WPS, joined the Thorns during the free-agent period, signing with Portland after watching the allocation process play out and speaking on the phone with Parlow Cone.

"Cindy didn't know what formation she wanted to play, but she had a sense of the style," said the 25-year-old Edwards. "She wanted to play possession style and occasionally play direct, especially when we have such a talented player in Alex Morgan, who can run onto balls and finish that way. I knew I would fit in."

The Thorns have quickly become the marquee franchise of the NWSL, averaging 13,118 fans a game and making good on the hunch Parlow Cone had when she visited Portland last fall.

"The build-up we had going into the season, and then the atmosphere at our opening game -- it felt like the World Cup or the Olympics," Parlow Cone said. "It was just contagious, and it invigorated all of us. I'm so fortunate to be a part of it."

Leaving North Carolina was hard, but loving Portland is easy.

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