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MLS commissioner: ‘No reason’ for Thorns’ Merritt Paulson to sell Timbers

Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson sought to keep the cause of coach Paul Riley's dismissal from the club under wraps. (Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Merritt Paulson, the owner of the NWSL’s Portland Thorns and MLS’ Portland Timbers, doesn’t have “any reason at all” to sell the latter — or so MLS commissioner Don Garber said Thursday.

Paulson has stepped down as CEO of both clubs in the wake of a U.S. Soccer-commissioned investigation into abuse in the NWSL. The investigation, led by former U.S. attorney general Sally Yates, found that Paulson helped perpetuate abuse in the league.

When coach Paul Riley was fired by the Thorns in 2015 after sexual harassment and coercion allegations, Paulson kept the reason for his dismissal under wraps publicly, which allowed Riley to continue coaching in the league. Riley’s misconduct, and the Thorns’ role in allowing him to continue coaching, made up a significant part of the findings of the investigation.

“It is devastating to me that my goal of creating the shining example of what a women’s sports team could be, has now become synonymous with abhorrent and predatory behavior,” Paulson said in a statement in October.

President of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business operations Mike Golub were fired in the aftermath of the report.

Wilkinson, like Paulson, obfuscated the reason for Riley’s dismissal, per the report. When another NWSL team expressed interest in hiring Riley, Wilkinson said the coach “was put in a bad position by the player” but that he would hire Riley again “in a heartbeat.”

Golub made an inappropriate sexual remark to current U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone when she was coach of the Thorns in 2013, per the report.

Thorns general counsel Heather Davis is serving as interim president and CEO.

“At this time, we don’t see any reason at all for Merritt to sell the Timbers,” Garber said during his State of the League address Thursday. “Obviously, Merritt has very publicly acknowledged the mistakes that he and the organization have made.”

“He’s taken responsibility for those decisions that he’s made, and I think that the steps that he’s made in terms of stepping aside and bringing in a new CEO and the termination of two long-term employees, which we supported, are steps in the right direction.

“So there was nothing that came out in the report that would have us think any differently from what I just stated.”

Yet the issues with the Thorns and Timbers go beyond the NWSL abuse report.

Former employees of the Thorns and Timbers have alleged a toxic environment at the club for working mothers, the Oregonian reported in August, and the MLS launched a review of the Timbers’ handling of domestic violence allegations against midfielder Andy Polo in February.