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Becky Sauerbrunn wants NWSL leaders who ‘failed the players’ to go

Sauerbrunn, a USWNT veteran and captain, has also played for the Thorns since 2020. (Lewis Gettier/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Becky Sauerbrunn’s words poured out with poise and clarity.

No, she is not OK. And no, her U.S. women’s national team and NWSL teammates are not OK.

Sauerbrunn addressed members of the media on a Zoom call Tuesday afternoon from London, where the USWNT is training ahead of Friday’s highly anticipated international friendly against England. But instead of talking about how the team is preparing to face the reigning Euro champions on the field, Sauerbrunn spoke at length about the Sally Yates report on abuse in the NWSL, which has the soccer community reeling after its release Monday.

Sauerbrunn, nearing the end of a lengthy professional soccer career during which concerns voiced by players were widely ignored, wants change. And she wants it now.

“We are horrified and heartbroken and exhausted and really, really angry,” Sauerbrunn said. “We are angry that it took a third party investigation. We are angry that it took an article in The Athletic and the Washington Post and numerous others. We are angry that it took over 200 people sharing their trauma to get to this point right now.”

On Monday, the full report on the independent investigation commissioned by U.S. Soccer and overseen by Yates was released, revealing systemic emotional abuse, verbal abuse and sexual misconduct within the NWSL. But Sauerbrunn’s teammates and friends have been reporting wrongdoing for years, with no repercussions for abusers within the league.

“For so long, this has always fallen on the players to demand change,” Sauerbrunn said. “And that is because the people in authority and decision-making positions have repeatedly failed to protect us and they have failed to hold themselves and each other accountable.”

Sauerbrunn, who plays for the Portland Thorns, one of the teams Yates said did not fully cooperate with the investigation, wasn’t afraid to call out her own team as well as every other coach and organization that has enabled abuse.

“It is my opinion that every owner and executive and U.S. Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities and have not participated fully in these investigations, should be gone,” she said. “And at the bare minimum, the recommendations that are in the Sally Yates report should be immediately implemented by U.S. Soccer and by the league.”

The Thorns, the Chicago Red Stars and Racing Louisville were all cited in the report as not having cooperated fully with the investigation. The report also focused on three coaches accused of misconduct when at the helm of those clubs — Paul Riley, Christy Holly and Rory Dames.

Of the three organizations, only the Thorns have released a statement regarding the investigation. JWS reached out for statements from the Red Stars and Racing Louisville but has yet to receive a reply.

Thorns owner and CEO Merritt Paulson said he would recuse himself from all decisions related to the club until the NWSL and NWSL Players Association’s joint investigation is complete in November.

”I cannot apologize enough for our role in a gross systemic failure to protect player safety and the missteps we made in 2015,” Paulson said in a statement released prior to Sauerbrunn’s press conference. “I am truly sorry. Given the Thorns are about to enter the NWSL Playoffs, I have told the NWSL that I will be removing myself effective today from all Thorns-related decision making until the joint investigation, which we are fully cooperating with, is released.”

At no point in the statement did Paulson address the claims that the Thorns organization did not fully cooperate with the Yates investigation.

“My hope is that the joint investigation that is coming out will have recommendations for discipline,” Sauerbrunn said. “I hope that U.S. Soccer and whatever ability they have, whether it’s enforcing sanctions or what not, if teams aren’t complying to any recommendations like the Sally Yates report has put forth, that there will be punishments. But honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know if I have faith or not.”

Sauerbrunn’s uneasiness comes after years of NWSL players not being heard and the understanding that abusive behavior in women’s professional soccer, according to the Yates report, is rooted in youth soccer.

“My hope is that protocols and policies are put in place that parents and children feel comfortable reporting when situations are not right,” Sauerbrunn said. “And my hope is that each and every one of those players can grow up in a situation where their coaches aren’t belittling them or sexually harassing or coercing them, and that they get to enjoy the game and learn what great things that game can provide.”

Enjoying the game is something that Sauerbrunn, a 14-year USWNT veteran defender, wants to do as well. But right now, less than a year removed from the 2023 Women’s World Cup, it’s difficult, she says.

Difficult, but more important than ever.

“I love the game of soccer,” she said. “I want to be passionate and I want to play. We need to bring that joy and accessibility back to the game. And so for me, it’s finding that joy again with my teammates, and not allowing anyone to take that away from me, like it’s been taken away from so many people.”