After a Portland Thorns player accused then-coach Paul Riley of abuse, then-general manager Gavin Wilkinson blamed the player for Riley’s exit from the team, the U.S. Soccer Federation found in its investigation into coach misconduct in the NWSL.
After Riley was fired by the Thorns in 2015 as a result of the allegations, the club kept the reason for his exit under wraps. And when another NWSL team spoke with Wilkinson about hiring Riley, the general manager said he felt Riley “was put in a bad position by the player” and he “would hire him in a heartbeat,” per the U.S. Soccer report.
The Thorns’ front office features prominently in the wide-ranging report on the abuse scandal that shook the NWSL in 2021 and has continued to reverberate through the league.
Thorns player Mana Shim first accused Riley of sexual harassment and coercion in 2015, which led to his dismissal. But her account, corroborated by then-teammate Sinead Farrelly, only became public in October 2021 via a report published in The Athletic.
Because the Thorns kept the claims made against Riley quiet, the coach was able to continue his NWSL coaching career with the Western New York Flash, the franchise that later became the North Carolina Courage — and indeed received a positive recommendation from Wilkinson, who is no longer general manager of the Thorns but remains in that position for the Timbers of MLS, as the new U.S. Soccer report has revealed.
The report also details that Riley’s hiring by the Flash was not met with enthusiasm by the league. Then-NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush, in an email to then-U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, then-U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn and then-NWSL general counsel Lisa Levine, wrote that it was “not good news” that the club would be announcing Riley as head coach.
The NWSL and USSF both refrained from influencing the hiring decision.
Following the hire, Thorns and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson emailed the Flash’s president, wishing them luck on the season and congratulating them on hiring Riley, writing that he has “a lot of affection for him.”
The U.S. Soccer investigation also found that Paulson knew of the alleged abuses by Riley but did not act upon the information. He also knew of other alleged, non-sexual abuses as early as 2014 but did nothing.
This comes after ESPN reported in early September that Paulson discouraged Riley from pursuing the head coaching job for the U.S. women’s national team in 2019. Paulson warned North Carolina’s Steve Malik that Riley should withdraw his name from consideration because he was fired for cause.
Former Thorns player and USWNT star Alex Morgan also spoke out about the former Thorns coach in an upcoming ESPN documentary, saying she warned U.S. Soccer against hiring Riley.
“I did my part in stopping him from becoming head coach,” Morgan said. “And that was sharing as much information as I could with the people who were in charge of selecting the next head coach.”
As a player for the Thorns in 2015, Morgan helped Shim email her complaint about Riley to Paulson, according to The Athletic.
According to the U.S. Soccer report, after “at least fourteen conversations among 11 people at the Federation, the League, the Portland Thorns and the North Carolina Courage, Riley publicly withdrew himself from consideration” for the USWNT job.
Other transgressions from the Thorns front office also are included in the report. One Thorns player recalled Wilkinson jokingly asking her, “Why can’t you just stop being a b—?” Players also remembered Paulson making inappropriate comments, including attempting to talk with a player about former USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo’s nude photographs.
When current U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone was head coach of the Thorns in 2013, she reports that team president of business Mike Golub asked her, “What’s on your bucket list besides sleeping with me?”
Upon her departure from the Thorns seven months later, Cone told Paulson about the incident. According to the report, the owner “told her he wished she had told him about the remark at the time it happened.”
According to the Thorns, as quoted in the U.S. Soccer report, “there was no formal complaint made, and the concerns were addressed with Golub at the time.”