PORTLAND, Ore. — During a press conference Monday introducing new Portland Thorns head coach Mike Norris, the club's general manager gushed about his character and said he has the full support of the players.
Norris' high character and the buy-in of the players seemed to be the clear message from the club Monday as the Thorns attempt to move forward after a wide-ranging sexual misconduct scandal heavily implicated the Thorns. The scandal led to the firing of two Thorns executives in October 2022. Team owner Merritt Paulson also stepped down as CEO of the club that month, before announcing he was putting the Thorns up for sale in December.
One day after Paulson's announcement, head coach Rhian Wilkinson, who'd joined the team just a year earlier, announced her resignation. She said she'd developed a "friendship [with a player] that turned into more complex emotions" and that the two had expressed "feelings for one another." She said the relationship didn't go any further and she reported it to the Thorns and the league office. Wilkinson, the Thorns and the league said Wilkinson violated no league policies, but she said after the players learned about the relationship, they asked her to resign and she agreed to their request.
Then, before Monday's news conference even got underway, the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) announced new disciplinary actions in response to the reports that found systematic and widespread misconduct and abuse had been going on in the league for a decade. Among the punishments: former Thorns coach Paul Riley is permanently banned from the NWSL and a $1 million fine for the Thorns.
Given all that, it's no surprise that Monday's news conference focused so much on Norris' character and his support from the players.
Norris, 43, joined the Thorns as an assistant coach at the start of the 2022 season and helped lead the club to its third National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) championship. Karina LeBlanc, general manager of the Thorns, said Monday that one of Norris' greatest assets is his ability to connect with the players.
"The players love him, they've bought into him," LeBlanc said during a Monday news conference, adding that the players had internally thrown their support behind Norris and that some publicly tweeted their support for him earlier in the day. "As a club, he has our absolute buy-in. His character is phenomenal."
Norris is the Thorns' fifth head coach in its 10-year history.
"It's a huge honor," Norris said. "I'm very grateful to be named the head coach of the Portland Thorns, a club with a great history of success and a terrific fan base, which I got to experience last year. Just really proud and excited for the challenge ahead and to get started."
LeBlanc said the hiring process was heavily focused on player safety as well as continuity, with the club coming off a championship season. "He's loved by the players, loved by the club," she said.
On Monday, Thorns forward Sophia Smith, the reigning NWSL Most Valuable Player and US Soccer Female Player of the Year, tweeted that Norris is "a great coach and a great human." Midfielder Christine Sinclair called him a "great coach, great person" in a tweet. Goalkeeper Bella Bixby tweeted, "A wonderful person. So happy to have Mike stay on." Forward Janine Beckie referred to Norris as "a great coach, incredibly knowledgeable and passionate! But an even better human." Defender Kelli Hubley tweeted that he's "such a great coach and most important, a great person." And defender Tegan McGrady called him "a great coach and a great person."
Norris said buy-in from the players was "huge."
"That was one of the big things I said to Karina [LeBlanc] and the club was if this is not what the players want, I can put my desires to the side and move on," he said. "It means a lot. It speaks to the connection I built last year and the trust in terms of how I work with the players. ... To get that public support, it means a lot, but I think internally, getting those messages of support has been huge."
Before he came to Portland, Norris was heavily involved with Canada Soccer, including as a set play and goalkeeper coach for the women's national team that won a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Before that, Norris was an assistant coach and a goalkeeping and interim head coach for the U-17 and U-20 women's national teams for Canada from 2014-19. He also was a head goalkeeping coach for the U-14 and U-15 Vancouver Whitecaps FC boys residency teams from 2014-16.