‘Light at the end of the tunnel’: The night the NWSL returned to play

Players come together during the Gotham FC-Washington Spirit game Wednesday night. (Jesse Louie/Just Women's Sports)

Meghan Klingenberg of the Portland Thorns was the last player interviewed Wednesday night after an evening of three NWSL games, the first ones played since Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim shared their stories about Paul Riley in The Athletic last week.

In front of an online audience of media members, Klingenberg sat calmly in a black folding chair, wearing a casual jean jacket, as she would for any normal postgame press conference. But this evening, in the midst of a league-wide reckoning over a power structure that enabled alleged abusers like Riley, was anything but normal.

The simplest question — “How are you?” — took the longest to answer.

“I feel sad,” she said. “I feel angry. I think it depends on what I feel, depending what time of the day it is. I feel a little bit of guilt … so yeah, I feel a wide range of emotions.”

If there had to be four words to sum up the entirety of Wednesday night, it would be that phrase: “wide range of emotions.”

The evening began with NJ/NY Gotham FC and Washington Spirit taking the pitch at Subaru Park in Philadelphia. At the six-minute mark, both teams’ players and coaching staffs gathered at the center of the field to link arms for one minute in solidarity with Farrelly, Shim, Kaiya McCullough and others who’ve been silenced over the years.

As the teams congregated, the NWSL Players Association released a statement on social media that included a list of demands for the league.

Commentator Kaylyn Kyle’s voice shook on the Paramount+ broadcast of the second game Wednesday night as players came together at midfield.

“If this isn’t a shut-up-and-listen to these players moment, I don’t really know what is,” said Kyle, who played in the NWSL from 2013 to 2016. “I’m devastated, disgusted, but I’m not shocked and that’s the problem. I played in this league where this was normalized. That’s not OK … These players that are on the pitch tonight, I genuinely don’t know how they’re doing it.”

The players formed the circle in the sixth minute to symbolize the six years it took for Farrelly and Shim to have their stories heard.

‘This is a league of strong, strong women’

Half an hour after the demonstration in Philadelphia, Racing Louisville FC and the North Carolina Courage — Riley’s team before he was terminated in the hours after The Athletic report came out — took the same action of solidarity at the sixth minute of their own game.

Later, Portland Thorns FC and the Houston Dash did the same.

Originally, the NWSL Players Association had wanted teams to stand for six minutes to illustrate how long six minutes feels and compare it to six years of being silenced about sexual abuse.

“That was what our movement was about,” said Louisville goalkeeper Michelle Betos. “We honestly decided not to go with a full six minutes because players didn’t think emotionally they can handle it. You may not see it in the way teams are playing right now, because this is a league of strong, strong women, but people are hurting.”

Even though four teams playing Wednesday night had coaches and general managers who were fired this season for violations of the NWSL’s anti-harassment policy, the night was strictly about supporting Farrelly, Shim, McCullough and others. Spirit midfielder and NWSLPA president Tori Huster made that clear to reporters after their game, a 0-0 draw with Gotham.

“What they did was some of the bravest things I’ve ever seen,” she said. “They went through a lot and we are happy to support them. Honestly, all our love to them. They helped. Whether they’re the catalysts of the change that’s needed in this league or not, we are on our way to that change and we’re trying to take this league back and push it in the right direction.”

‘My greatest hope for them was to play like they were kids again’

For probably the first time in NWSL history, all six coaches approached the night with the same game plan. The last week of training was similar for everyone, too.

Players’ well-being was the focus; soccer was the distraction. Training sessions and meetings were optional. When players needed to talk, the coaches were there. If players requested to end the drill early, the coaches did it.

“If they want to watch video, we’re there to provide that, but we’re not demanding that at the moment because there’s so many other things going on,” Spirit interim coach Kris Ward said. “It’s just trying to listen. That’s a big part of it — just giving them the ability to speak and then being ready to listen.”

Multiple teams are fighting for a playoff spot as the NWSL enters the last month of regular season. For now, though, soccer is meant to provide an escape.

None of the players in Wednesday’s postgame press conferences dwelled on the results. That included Gotham FC, who were celebrating Carli Lloyd’s homecoming game before she retires at the end of the season.

“Tonight when I was hyping the team up, I told them my greatest hope for them was to play like they were kids again,” said Klingenberg. “To remember what it felt like when you were on the schoolyard or on the streets or in your backyard, and play with that type of passion and joy.”

“I think when you’ve got 10,000 fans out there, and it’s the GOAT’s last game, and them going through what this group has been through, it’s a pretty easy talk,” Gotham coach Scott Parkinson said. “It’s, ‘Let’s go out there and enjoy this for 90 minutes.’”

‘I hope and wish that this is a huge reset for this league’

Lloyd grew up just 20 minutes outside of Philadelphia in Delran, N.J. Gotham moved Wednesday night’s game to Subaru Park from their usual home at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. to make it easier for Lloyd’s family and friends to attend.

The crowd of about 10,000 was three times bigger than Gotham’s average attendance size, and more than the average of every NWSL team besides the Portland Thorns.

Lloyd, the two-time FIFA Player of the Year, has played at Subaru Park with the United States women’s national team, but Wednesday marked her first-ever professional club match at a Philadelphia pro sports venue.

“Tonight was an amazing atmosphere,” the star forward said. “This team and the league deserve to play in front of so many fans. So, I think for the team and the league, for Gotham, for the union, for the NWSL to have this little farewell game for me was truly special.”

While showing her gratitude for the celebration, the 39-year-old also described the night as part of “one of the worst weeks this league has ever seen.” She told the Philadelphia Inquirer ahead of Wednesday’s game: “We need to speak out and demand better for ourselves and the generations after us. They deserve it. We all deserve it.”

The farewell of one of the best to ever play the game on a night heavy with emotion seemed to symbolize a turning point — the end of one age and the start of something new.

“I hope and wish that this is a huge reset for this league to just start doing things right from the top down,” Lloyd said. “I think that’s the most important thing. We as players deserve the best. I’m going to be leaving this sport and all of these women deserve to have the best — to be playing on the best playing surfaces, to have the best coaches, to have the best owners. So I am hopeful that will happen.”

As Klingenberg addressed the room late into the night, gathering her “wide range of emotions” while sitting in her black folding chair, she perked up a bit.

“I also feel joy,” she said. “That things are starting to change and there’s discussion, and maybe we can see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jessa Braun is an editorial intern for Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can find her on Twitter @jessabraun.