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NWSL players want accountability in Portland after Lisa Baird’s resignation

Portland Thorns and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson talks with Thorns/Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson in 2018. (Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

With Lisa Baird having resigned as NWSL commissioner last Friday, attention among players is now turning to the Portland Thorns organization and their role in the Paul Riley scandal. 

The North Carolina Courage fired Riley on Thursday, hours after a report in The Athletic detailed allegations of sexual coercion and emotional abuse against him.

On Thursday night, after Riley had been fired but before Baird resigned on Friday afternoon, a majority of NWSL players participated in a call to discuss The Athletic’s report, the situation within the league and whether they would play in the weekend’s games. (Players eventually asked the league to postpone the weekend’s slate of games, which they did.) 

Sources tell Just Women’s Sports that several players on the call said they wanted Portland Thorns GM Gavin Wilkinson to be fired, with some even arguing that owner Merritt Paulson should sell the team. Players were particularly upset with the fact that no Thorns employee had lost their job over the scandal, despite the organization having admitted to covering up the details of Riley’s 2015 dismissal. 

Thorns players refrained from voicing an opinion on the matter, according to sources.

Sources also tell Just Women’s Sports that while several players on the call voiced the opinion that Baird should resign, there was no consensus coming out of the meeting, and Baird’s eventual resignation was not a result of pressure from either individual players or the Players Association.

Riley served as the Thorns coach from 2014 to 2015, after which his contract was not renewed by the team. At the time, the Thorns only said that Riley would not be retained as the team’s head coach for the 2016 season.

“On behalf of Thorns FC, I would like to thank Paul for his services to the club these past two seasons,” Wilkinson said then.

“Thanks to everyone at the Thorns for the amazing opportunity and to the fans who truly make Portland Soccer City, USA,” said Riley in the same release.

Public perception was that Riley’s contract had simply not been renewed due to poor on-field performance in 2015. Last week, however, the Thorns told The Athletic that Riley’s contract had not been renewed due to an internal investigation into sexual harassment. 

Mana Shim, who played for the Thorns from 2013-2017, told The Athletic that she’d reported Riley’s behavior to the Thorns, who then conducted an internal investigation. According to a statement released last Thursday, the Thorns’ investigation did not uncover “unlawful activity,” but the organization did find “clear violations of our company policies.” 

“Based on this, we chose to sever ties with Riley,” the Thorns said. 

The findings of the club’s investigation were also shared with the NWSL at the time. 

On Monday, Thorns owner Merritt Paulson released a statement which acknowledged that the organization had made a mistake in not being forthright about Riley’s departure. 

“Within hours of receiving a complaint against our then coach six years ago from Mana – the first and only we have ever received from anyone – we: (1) placed Coach Riley on immediate suspension; (2) conducted an investigation of the claims that, within a matter of days, led to his termination; and (3) shared everything we learned in the investigation with the NWSL.

“But we then made an opaque announcement about not renewing Riley’s contract as opposed to explicitly announcing his termination, guided by what we, at the time, thought was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy.”

Paulson’s statement is the first time the Thorns have said they terminated Riley, days after telling The Athletic the club chose not to renew his contract.

“I deeply regret our role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer,” Paulson wrote. 

While Paulson may be apologizing, the fact that no member of the Thorns organization has either resigned or been fired in the wake of last Thursday’s report has rankled players within the NWSL. The lack of clarity in the Thorns’ subsequent statements has done little to quell the matter, and sources tell Just Women’s Sports that public calls for Wilkinson’s dismissal may be coming this week. 

On Sunday, the NWSL announced the formation of an executive committee to manage oversight of the league’s front office operations following Baird’s resignation. This committee will oversee the launch of multiple investigative and reform initiatives aimed at protecting NWSL players and staff. 

The league has retained Covington & Burling to oversee these investigations, led by Amanda Kramer, former Assistant United States Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. 

Before those investigations begin, however, the players may have their own recommendations, particularly for the Thorns.

John Murray is the Editor-in-Chief of Just Women’s Sports. You can find him on Twitter @heymynameisjohn

KC Current GM Camille Ashton Resigns

KC Current GM Camille Ashton
Former KC Current GM Camille Ashton left the undefeated organization early this week. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton has resigned, the club announced Wednesday.

The staffing shakeup comes as somewhat of a surprise after the Current started off the season undefeated under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski, sitting second in the NWSL standings through 10 games.

No further details were given about her departure, other than that the club "wishes her the best in her future endeavors."

"I am thankful for my time in Kansas City," Ashton said in a team statement. "It was important to me to dedicate my time and efforts to ensure a successful 2024 season by building the championship-caliber roster that's currently near the top of the table. I am proud of what we have accomplished here. I look forward to the next step in my personal and professional journey."

Ashton, who played in the league from 2014-17, helped rebuild the Current roster, including picking up then-free agent Debinha in 2023 — the biggest free agency signing of that offseason. This past offseason, she brought in international players Temwa Chawinga and Bia Zaneratto

But the club has also encountered some rough patches throughout Ashton's tenure. Following her daughter's dismissal from the Current last year, mother of 2023 draft pick Mykiaa Minniss also accused the club of mistreatment during the preseason. While both the league and NWSL Players Association looked into the comments, no formal reprimand or consequences were publicly issued.

Players like Lynn Williams, Alex Loera, and Cece Kizer voiced concerns over what they described as unexpected trades, with Kizer adding that there was "no conversation this could happen." Williams, meanwhile, was informed of her trade moments prior to its execution while she was in New Zealand with the USWNT.

"There could be a lot of debate about that on its own, but at the end of the day, that’s the mechanism that we work with right now in the league," Ashton told reporters earlier this year when quested about the Current's player trade procedures.

While the club made an NWSL championship appearance in 2022 — the year Ashton came on as general manager — the 2023 season kicked off with the team firing head coach Matt Potter just three games into the season and hours before a road game. 

At the time, the club cited "issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities" as the reasoning, though players were reportedly confused with the decision making.

Last October, the Current hired former UWSNT coach Vlatko Andonovski as head coach, in addition to giving him the title of "sporting director." Whether or not that role overlapped with Ashton’s responsibilities as general manager was cause for some speculation.

NWSL Honors UWSNT Great Lauren Holiday With Impact Award

Lauren Holiday at nwsl impact award event
USWNT legend Lauren Holiday has long been involved with social activism off the pitch. (NWSL)

The NWSL announced today that the annual civically focused Nationwide Community Impact Award would now be known as the Lauren Holiday Award in honor of the National Soccer Hall of Famer.

Since 2021, the award has recognized one NWSL player each season for their character and contributions to community service off the pitch, according to a league release. The winner of the newly retitled award receives $30,000 toward a charitable organization of their choice.

"The NWSL is proud to honor Lauren Holiday as the namesake of this award recognizing exemplary athletes and their commitment to service and activism," said NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. "Lauren’s influential work in the community and her outstanding character both on and off the field epitomize the values we look to uphold and celebrate in the NWSL every day. 

"I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition than Lauren and look forward to seeing the continued positive impact this program has on our clubs and communities with her example guiding our efforts."

In a statement, Holiday said that throughout her career she has always "believed in the power of giving back and creating positive change." A two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup winner, and former NWSL MVP, Holiday founded the Jrue & Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund alongside husband and fellow professional athlete JRue Holiday.

The fund contributes to programs that combat systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. Holiday has also long been an advocate for legislation to help close the racial inequality gap in maternal health.

"This award is a testament to the important work that athletes are doing to strengthen and uplift their communities every day and I am deeply humbled to take on its namesake," Holiday said. "I hope it inspires others to continue their efforts in making a lasting impact on the lives of those around them."

Waylaid Seattle Rookie Nika Mühl Makes WNBA Debut

seattle storm's nika muhl guarding indiana fever's caitlin clark
Mühl spent her first few pro minutes repeating her college assignment: guarding Caitlin Clark.(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Seattle rookie Nika Mühl made her long awaited WNBA debut in last night’s 85-83 win over Indiana after missing the first four games of the season due to visa issues. 

A Croatian national, Mühl had been waiting on P-1 visa approval in order to work legally in the US. While the paperwork came through Friday, she had to travel to Canada in order to get her status changed.

The former UConn star poked fun at the delay ahead of the game, walking into Climate Pledge Arena wearing a t-shirt displaying her approved visa.

Mühl checked into the game on Monday in the third period to a standing ovation, immediately diving over the baseline to save a loose ball. She spent her first few minutes of the game the same way she completed her career at UConn: guarding Caitlin Clark

Mühl, who had two rebounds in two and a half minutes, held Clark to five points, a rebound, and a turnover when the two were matched up. 

"I threw her in the fire," Storm coach Noelle Quinn said with a smile after the game. "It’s tough to come into the game at that rate and think that you’re going to stop the player, but I like… her physicality, her poise, her confidence. She took an open shot and I thought that was a great look for her. We’ll continue to put her in the mix in practice, and she’ll have opportunities to show what she can do on the defensive end to start."

An instant fan favorite, the UConn star donned the No. 1 jersey — in part because her usual No. 10 was retired by Seattle after Sue Bird, who wore it for her entire WNBA career, retired last year. Mühl's new number was chosen by none other than Bird herself. 

"I actually FaceTimed Sue and asked her what number I should wear. She took a day to think about it and came back to me with an answer of No. 1," Muhl said in a WNBA video posted to social media. "When I asked her why No. 1, she basically said 'This is a new beginning, but you’re not starting from scratch.' I loved that whole analogy and story, so Sue actually picked it and I love it."

WNBA Confirms Toronto Expansion Team for 2026

Fans at a game between the Chicago Sky and the Minnesota Lynx in Toronto
Canadian fans asked and the WNBA delivered: Toronto's getting a team. (Jordan Jones/NBAE via Getty Images)

The WNBA is officially expanding to Toronto, with the league announcing its 14th franchise early Thursday. 

Kilmer Sports Ventures has been awarded the team, said WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert at a press conference attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and others. 

"Growing internationally, I’ve been trying to think through next steps on a global platform," Engelbert told the Associated Press ahead of the official announcement. "It helps us reach new audiences and bring in new partners. The thing I love about going to another country is that the young girls and boys get to see professional basketball for women is important, too."

The CBC was the first to report on the expansion franchise back on May 10th. 

With the Golden State Valkyries set to begin play next year, the Toronto franchise will begin play in 2026. The goal, per the WNBA, is to then add two more franchises by 2028 for a total of 16. 

Toronto will play at Coca-Cola Coliseum, which holds 8,700 seats. On occasion, the team will play games in Scotiabank Arena. The WNBA has previously hosted sold-out preseason games at Scotiabank Arena and Edmonton’s Rogers Place. There are also plans to play games in Vancouver and Montreal, according to majority owner Larry Tanenbaum. 

This will be the first WNBA franchise outside of the United States, and joins PWHL Toronto as just the second professional women’s sports team in the city.

"Our Toronto sports franchises are thriving but, we have been missing one critical piece — women’s professional sports," Tanenbaum told the AP. "The world is finally taking notice of something that’s been there all along — the immense talent, passion and competition in women’s sports. 

"I saw an opportunity and knew we were in the right place at the right time to bring Canada’s first WNBA team to Toronto. And now we have, making sports history."

Similar to Golden State, the Toronto franchise paid a $50 million expansion fee. They’ve also committed to building a dedicated practice facility, but will train at the University of Toronto’s Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport in the meantime. 

"Women’s sports is good business," Tanenbaum said. "Just look around — it’s not a moment, but a movement and it’s just the beginning."

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