The French revolution: A Pilot’s return to Merlo
She stood with the team waiting for the announcer to welcome them to the stadium. When a booming voice signaled their entrance, she watched players run out ahead of her. Then she ran out, too.
She was back home on Merlo. Only this time, Michelle French wasn’t in cleats, and she didn’t have a number on her back. Instead, she carried a little book in hand and ran straight to the bench.
French allowed herself a moment to stand in awe, to think ‘Wow, I’m actually coaching where I played.’ Then she turned to her team, and switched to game mode.
After being a Pilot defender herself from 1995 to 1999, French is the new head coach for University of Portland’s women’s soccer team. The former All-American hails in what many are calling the ‘French Era,’ bringing with her years of professional experience, coaching insight and, most importantly, a fierce love for her alma mater.
“It was like ‘I can’t turn this down, just can’t turn it down,’” French said. “I don’t think I would go to any other university for a head coaching position. It’s simply because I went here.”
The alumna was approached for the position after it was announced last November that the former head coach, Garrett Smith, would not be returning for another season with the program. But French was faced with a difficult decision: go back to UP or keep the “best job in the world” as the assistant coach for the U.S. Women’s National team.
French worked with the U.S. team staff to the 2015 World Cup in Canada and the 2016 Olympics in Brazil as part of the staff and became an official assistant coach in 2017.
Now back on The Bluff, French is the first female head soccer coach in UP sports history.
“I think it’s cool to be the first of anything, you know, that’s in a positive way,” French said. “I’ve never looked at it as being a female or male coach.”
This comes at a time when women in sports are receiving more recognition, and have a greater platform to for equality. French believes that this positive upturn, despite obstacles women still face in the sports realm, comes from the achievements female athletes have made.
“I think now, because of the success of our women, particularly the...U.S. National team, they’re now using their voices. And it’s appropriate and it’s right,” French said. “I’m proud of that group for taking ownership and hopefully changing the culture in sport.”
French hopes to use her position as coach to not only develop young women into strong players, but also help them grow as people. This philosophy was imparted onto her during her time at UP by her former head coach, Clive Charles, who coached the Pilots from 1989 to 2002, with a National Championship in his last year. He passed away in 2003 due to prostate cancer, and the university dedicated a soccer complex to him the following year.
French credits Charles in helping her decide to leave her position with the U.S. National team to give back to the place that helped shape her as a player and as a person.
“I felt like I owed it to Clive at some point to explore this as an opportunity,” said French. “I want to represent Clive and make him proud.”
Charles saw French play with her club team while she was still attending Kennedy High School in Burien, Washington. After her team came up to Portland to play against F.C. Portland, and Charles saw her, French took five recruiting trips to Stanford, Santa Clara, Notre Dame, University of Washington and, lastly, UP.
“Really what sold it for me, it was really Clive, and then obviously the tight-knit family feel and the community that is here at UP,” French said. “I never thought that I would go to such a small school, but...I just loved everything about the university.”
Although French never reached the National Championships while playing as a Pilot, she did help her team make it to the Final Four three times, and was one of three MAC/Hermann Trophy finalists her senior year.
While at UP, French lived in Shipstad Hall and majored in sociology. Her major choice was intentional, since she saw it as complementary to what she always knew she wanted to do – coach. But French never considered a back-up. For her, it had to be soccer.
“When I was done playing officially, I just knew that I...still had this intense love for the game and wanted to be involved in it, and was fortunate enough to start to coach,” French said.
French had liked coaching since before she started attending UP, having coached teams of eight year-olds while in high school. But her time on The Bluff, playing in front of about 4,000 people every week on Merlo, solidified that interest into a serious career goal. She couldn’t leave soccer. She had to keep playing.
So it’s not much of a surprise that only a year after graduating from UP, French got the chance to compete with the USWNT in the 2000 World Cup after being an alternate for the team.
Although French didn’t see any playing time while she was there, she does have a Silver Medal, a casual souvenir from that one time she went to Australia with her teammates. For a long time, French kept the medal in a ziploc bag in a drawer until her mother told her to take it out and frame it along with her jersey.
The frame is back in her childhood home in Kent, Washington where her parents still live. French says she would never hang it up in her office; it’s just not her. Instead, French keeps her walls pretty simple, with a few pictures of the current UP women’s soccer team, pictures of her dogs, Jacey, Jersey and Jenny, and a pink and white battery-powered unicorn clock – a gift from a friend.
She went on to play for teams like the Washington Freedom (WUSA) in 2001 and the San Jose CyberRays (WUSA) from 2002 to 2003.
With all of her impressive achievements, French still looks back at UP as a pivotal era in her life. She says the proudest moment of her soccer career is a game she played her senior year against North Carolina.
It was the semifinal at the final four. There were no “superstars” on the team, according to French; the Pilots were just playing together and for each other. The game went into fourth overtime – the rule of only two overtimes was established because of this very game – and her team lost with only eight seconds left before penalty kicks.
There had been no substitutes, the team had exhausted itself, yet French references that moment as her proudest, saying it was “so amazing and so fun.”
And that Pilot pride hasn’t left her over the years. Although French has coached many teams at several levels, including the Seattle Sounders (2012) and the U-20 Women’s National Team (2013), she refers to Clive as an influence in her coaching approach, along with a “sprinkle” of her own style.
“I think (what I learned) from Clive was make it fun, make sure you’re having fun if you’re doing it,” French said. “We knew leaving here we were going to be better players in regards to soccer, but I think more importantly, (Charles) helped to make all of us better people.”
The former Pilot also looks to her UP years as she takes on a holistic style of coaching, hoping to form her team as players and as students that will take what they learn forward into the rest of their lives.
“If I look at the common thread through all the levels that I’ve coached at, the one piece for me that’s really important is the relationship with the players,” French said. “And I feel like the college age is (one) that you can help, impact and influence.
“I can help them become better soccer players, for sure,” she continued. “But I feel like being able to help them as they grow and mature over their four-year process I think is something that’s really, really cool. So, I was like ‘this will be awesome.’”
During her first season coaching this generation of women’s soccer, French focused on turning the team culture around. Attendance to women’s soccer games is lower than it used to be when she was here, so she sees the revival of student engagement as something influential is setting the tone for UP’s soccer culture in general. According to French, the Villa Drum Squad and the Christie Crazies, both of which were leading chants when she was at UP, really do contribute to the game day experience.
“I want the students to come to our games...see the dedication that these players have to their sport and know how much...our team feels like they are representing this university in a really positive way,” French said.
She took the preseason to focus on the culture within the team itself. When looking for new players, she says she looks for attitude in addition to technique. French looks to create a light yet communicative environment.
“I just really believe in the power of team chemistry,” French said. “I believe in the power of being very transparent as a coach. I believe in communication with the players so they always know, I think, where they stand. I just believe that, as a staff, if we can be genuine, caring people, I think we can have a really good impact on this team, on and off the field.”
Her approach seems to be working so far as the Pilots finished their season with an overall record of 11-9, a huge improvement from last year’s 5-13-1. The players are excited to have ‘Frenchie’ as coach and are positive about what is to come.
“I don’t even know how to describe it. She’s awesome,” said sophomore Taryn Ries. “She always has positive energy and good insight for us. She knows what she’s talking about and I just love working with her.”
“She brings a lot of energy, she motivates us, makes us want to be better each game, and really focuses on the things that we need to do better,” said junior Larkin Russell.
French has also settled in well with her coworkers, who enjoy her light-hearted manner as she walks around the offices with a smile, singing Taylor Swift songs.
“She’s kind of a clown like that. She can be funny,” said assistant coach Maite Zabala, who knew of French growing up through the West Region youth soccer teams, which they both played for.
“I think Frenchie’s brought a real positive, refreshing perspective to Portland, and I think (the players) really feed off of her energy,” Zabala said. “And I think that the fact that she was a student athlete here, a soccer player in their shows previous themselves, I think helps them buy into her vision of what she wants to do here at the school.”
Despite the anticipation around French and the new ‘era’ she is expected to bring in, she acknowledges that setting the program on an upward trajectory and back to where it used to be will be no easy task.
“I’m very realistic in that I know that this is going to be a process for us to return to...the national ranks or even to make the playoffs,” French said. “So, there’s a reality in that, and I think the goals and the standards and expectations that we’ve set for this year are gonna hopefully allow us to get there.”
But French doesn’t feel any pressure to succeed. She wants to make a positive impact and change the culture of women’s soccer in honor of her alma mater and former coach, but what she wants most is to do what she loves to do.
“I think the biggest thing is just the love of the game that you have to have when you want to play,” French said. “And as a coach, the more that you love it and the more that you can express that you love it to the players, I think the more that they’re going to hopefully jump on that.”
And they have jumped on that, on board with French’s vision and excited to see how she brings Portland women’s soccer program back on path to its former glory.
“It was kind of like playing under a clean sheet and it was just great to get a different perspective on how to play the game and how to get some wins in,” senior Hanna Armendariz said. “So I’m actually honored to be coached by her.”
Ana Clyde is a sports reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.