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Thorns owner Merritt Paulson won’t attend NWSL championship

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)

When the Portland Thorns face the Kansas City Current in the NWSL championship match Saturday at Audi Field in Washington, their owner will not be in the building.

Merritt Paulson, who owns the Thorns and the Timbers of the MLS, will skip the title game as he faces increasing pressure to sell both teams because of his role in perpetuating abuse in the NWSL.

“Given the recent changes implemented at the organization, (Paulson) will watch the game on CBS remotely,” the Thorns said in a statement Wednesday.

Paulson stepped down as CEO of the Thorns and Timbers earlier this month in the aftermath of Sally Yates’ report for U.S. Soccer, which detailed systemic abuse in the NWSL, including within the Thorns organization.

Interim CEO Heather Davis, interim chief operating officer Sarah Keane and general manager Karina LeBlanc will represent the Thorns’ front office at the championship match.

“As Merritt shared with the team and organization, he is committed to ensuring the long-term health and success of the Portland Thorns,” the team said in its statement.

The Thorns featured heavily in the Yates report, which delved into sexual harassment and coercion allegations against former coach Paul Riley. The club fired Riley in 2015 as a result of the allegations, but Paulson helped keep the reason for his dismissal under wraps, which allowed Riley to continue coaching in the league.

Paulson made multiple missteps in handling reports about Riley, according to the report. The owner was told in 2014 that Riley  “created a hostile environment” and belittled and verbally abused players.

Players also told U.S. Soccer investigators that Paulson himself had made inappropriate comments. He also failed to fully cooperate with the investigation.

Since the release of the report in early October, sponsors have pulled or threatened to pull sponsorship dollars from the team. At the semifinal game in Portland, fans held up “For Sale” signs inside the stadium.

Paulson, though, has not committed to selling the team.

“Now that the NWSL will have the authority to make those decisions [about the sale of teams], I think that [league growth] needs to be in their heads,” Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn said last Saturday. “That if we’re keeping people in positions where they have enabled abuse, that it’s gonna start hurting the bottom line.”

The Thorns face off against the Kansas City Current at 8 p.m. ET Sunday on CBS for a shot at their third title.