Mike Norris is out as Portland Thorns head coach just four games into the 2024 NWSL season, the club announced on Tuesday. 

Norris, who served just over a year as head coach, is being moved into a new role as the club’s technical director. Rob Gale, one of Norris’ assistants, will take over as interim head coach while the club searches for a permanent replacement. 

“After an in-depth review, we have decided to start to reorganize our soccer operations department to better serve our club and our athletes,” Karina LeBlanc, the club’s president of soccer operations, said in a club statement. “Thorns FC have set the standard for excellence in the league. These changes will help us maximize our strengths as we continuously pursue championship-level success.”

The removal of Norris from the head coaching position comes in the midst of the Thorns’ worst-ever start to an NWSL season, with the club mired in last place having picked up just one point from their first four games. It represents a decisive move from the club’s new owners, the Blathals, who took the reins at the beginning of the year. 

Norris was appointed manager during one of the most trying periods of the club’s history, taking over in January of last year after the previous head coach, Rhian Wilkinson, abruptly resigned amid concerns over her relationship with a player.

Wilkinson’s departure wasn’t the only cloud hanging over the club. At the time of Norris’ hiring, then-owner Merritt Paulson had put the club up for sale following revelations that he and then-general manager Gavin Wilkinson had enabled former Thorns manager Paul Riley’s alleged abuse of players and helped protect him in its aftermath.

But while Norris stepped into a tumultuous situation off the field, he also inherited a championship-winning team with a considerable amount of talent and experience from which major success was expected in 2023.

The Thorns got off to an impressive start to last season, but fell off precipitously as the summer wore on — winning just three of their final nine games and falling at home to Gotham F.C. in extra time in the first round of the playoffs. 

The trendline did not improve this spring. The Thorns conceded five goals in the season opener at Kansas City and have yet to notch their first win, with questions mounting about the team’s defensive organization and Norris’ team selection. 

But while LeBlanc and the club’s new ownership, the Blathal family, decided to pull the plug on Norris’ time as manager, they’re happy he’s staying at the club as technical director. 

“He’s a processor,” LeBlanc said of Norris to Meg Linehan of The Athletic. “He’ll be up in the stands. One of his strengths is to analyze and process, then come down to communicate what needs to happen.”

The creation of the technical director role is an investment from the Blathal family in ensuring the Thorns have the front office resources to keep up in a growing and increasingly competitive league. 

Getting the head coaching hire right will be key in ensuring they’re in a position to win, and LeBlanc told The Athletic that the Thorns are preparing a global search.

“We’ve got to go out and get one of the best coaches in the world,” she told Linehan. “Rob Gale may make that decision hard; he has an opportunity to do that. But we’re going to do that global search right.”

In the meantime, the club is turning to Gale—one of the men Norris brought in ahead of last season. 

Gale, who grew up mainly in England, has previous head coaching experience from his time leading Valour FC in the Canadian Premier League and was an assistant on Nick Cushing’s staff at New York City FC prior to joining Norris in Portland. 

The Thorns did not announce any other changes to the coaching staff. Sarah Lowdon, an assistant coach who joined the club during the offseason, twice served as interim head coach of the Houston Dash before arriving in Portland. 

LeBlanc’s statement to The Athletic suggests that Gale will be given an opportunity to prove himself in the job, but, given the backing of the new ownership group, the job will likely attract a number of high-profile candidates. The Thorns have one of the league’s most talented rosters and remain one of its best-supported clubs. 

One potential candidate will have plenty of popular support: Mark Parsons, the manager who led the Thorns for five seasons before leaving in 2021 to manage the Netherlands women’s national team, is available after he was fired by the Washington Spirit at the end of last season.

Parsons, who won a championship and two NWSL Shields during his time in Portland, was at Providence Park with his daughter to watch the Thorns earlier in the year. 

If Parsons does end up returning, it will be to a very different club. When he left to return to Europe less than three years ago, the Riley scandal was still unfolding—Paulson was still the owner, LeBlanc had only just replaced Wilkinson as general manager. 

Since then, the Thorns have moved decisively forward. Their first game under Gale’s leadership will be this Saturday, at Providence Park, against Houston.