Abuse Scandal Rocks Portland, the Epicenter of Women’s Soccer

Abuse Scandal Rocks Portland, the Epicenter of Women’s Soccer

In many ways, Wednesday night was a typical match in Portland, Ore.

Thousands of fans of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Portland Thorns streamed into Providence Park, decked in red and black and chanting their support of what might be the most successful women’s pro franchise in any sport, ever. The Thorns have become profitable in less than a decade and their pre-pandemic average attendance of more than 20,000 was higher than many NBA, NHL and MLS teams. 

Yet the game’s sights and sounds were anything but typical. Fans chanted and brandished signs saying, “Protect our Players!” The Thorns and their owner, long lauded as champions of women’s soccer, are under attack for not doing enough to protect players from abuse.

In an explosive report in the Athletic last week, former Portland players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly alleged that former coach Paul Riley had pressured them to kiss each other as he watched, sent them lurid photos and greeted one player at a purported film session in his underwear. At an earlier coaching stop, Riley also coerced Farrelly into having sex, she told the Athletic. It’s not clear how many of the allegations in the story Thorns executives were aware of when they parted ways with Riley.

Riley has denied having sex with or making sexual advances toward the players. 

The Thorns dismissed Riley as coach in 2015 after a brief investigation, but didn’t publicly disclose why he was cut loose. Fans say that that allowed him to resurface at other teams, including the North Carolina Courage, where he was fired shortly after the Athletic story came out. The U.S. Center for SafeSport has suspended Riley, as has U.S. Soccer. Several other investigations into reports of abuse and toxic workplaces across the 10-team NWSL are ongoing.  

The strong reaction from Portland’s large and highly organized supporters’ groups—which include fans of the Thorns and Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers—underscores the conundrum in this soccer oasis. A statement from the groups called on fans to stop buying stadium concessions and team merchandise until a list of demands was met—a partial boycott that fans appeared to support on Wednesday.

But neither the fans nor Thorns players have formally called for the departure of the man at the top, owner and CEO Merritt Paulson.

The dilemma centers on the fact that Paulson, whom fans have slammed for not publicizing Riley’s behavior or doing more to stop him from coaching elsewhere, has been integral to building the Thorns franchise.

Portland Thorns goalkeepers Abby Smith, left, and Bella Bixby, right, wear ‘No More Silence’ shirts.



Photo:

Steve Dipaola/Associated Press

“I have always thanked Merritt for bringing the Thorns into my life,” said Gabby Rosas, chair of the supporters group the Rose City Riveters and president of the 107 Independent Supporters Trust, which oversees the Riveters and a Portland Timbers fan group, the Timbers Army.

“And I’ve always been very thankful for his willingness to help women’s soccer find a way to be successful in the United States. But now it really makes me wonder, at what cost?”

The Thorns announced on Sept. 23, 2015 that they weren’t renewing Riley’s contract. It was one week after Shim, then a Portland midfielder, sent an email to team executives—including Paulson and Timbers and Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson—detailing the alleged incidents between her and Riley, according to The Athletic. The terse news release announcing Riley’s departure made no mention of the allegations.

The Portland fan groups listed cutting all ties with Wilkinson as one of their demands this week. That was one step further than Thorns players went in their demands, which called for the team to place Wilkinson on leave pending the results of the team’s outside investigation. On Wednesday, the team said it was doing just that.

Merritt Paulson has been integral to building the Thorns franchise.



Photo:

Diego Diaz/Zuma Press

Still, Paulson’s attempt to make amends with supporters has fallen flat. In an open letter to supporters this week, he apologized to the former Thorns players who had spoken out about Riley and wrote, “I deeply regret our role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer.” 

The supporters groups said his letter demonstrated that the organization still needed changes to address past failures. 

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Portland claimed the moniker “Soccer City USA” as the Timbers of the North American Soccer League played to adoring crowds. That feeling revived with Paulson’s purchase and 2011 launch of the MLS Timbers. Henry Paulson Jr., the former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and Merritt Paulson’s father, is a partial owner of the Timbers and Thorns.

Merritt Paulson was the only MLS owner to buy an NWSL team when the league launched in 2013, and the Thorns were an overnight hit, adopted by many Timbers fans and embraced by new fans. John Galas, an assistant coach of that inaugural Thorns team, recalled being recognized by a knowledgeable fan at a pub after Galas was thrown out of a game for spouting off at an official.

“I wasn’t wearing any Thorns gear, and a woman walked up to me and said, ‘Great job today!’” Galas recalled.

Paulson has been an outspoken and visible owner of both teams, pacing the sidelines at matches and tweeting about everything from Seattle fans flipping him off to his awe at an airport packed with fans to greet the Thorns when they returned with the league’s first championship trophy.

While some owners viewed their NWSL teams as a kind of donation to women’s sports, Paulson saw the Thorns as an asset to invest in. Players benefited from the approach in top training facilities and promotion. 

“It’s not a niche product,” Paulson told The Wall Street Journal in 2018. “It’s not charity work where you’re making an altruistic gesture for gender equity. It’s something that there’s a real market for.”

Recently, however, fans have unearthed tweets by Paulson in recent years praising Riley’s work in North Carolina as further evidence that Paulson didn’t take seriously enough the need to call out wrongdoers. 

“In light of the reporting, that was just offensive,” Rosas said of Paulson’s tweets, which have been deleted.

Paulson is intertwined with the Timbers and Thorns, even marshaling extensive renovations of the century-old, beloved stadium where both teams play. Some fans want him gone, but is that realistic? 

“That’s a great question, and one that I don’t necessarily know the answer to,” Rosas said.

Portland Thorns and Houston Dash players, along with referees, gathered at midfield, to demonstrate solidarity with two former NWSL players who came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against a prominent coach.



Photo:

Steve Dipaola/Associated Press

Write to Rachel Bachman at Rachel.Bachman@wsj.com

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