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Thorns fired Paul Riley but told his next NWSL club they had ‘no concerns’

Former Thorns and current Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson speaks with Merritt Paulson, the owner of both teams. (Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Portland Thorns fired coach Paul Riley for cause in 2015 following a sexual harassment complaint against him. But when another NWSL club contacted Portland to ask about hiring Riley, the Thorns gave a positive referral, ESPN reported Thursday.

A presentation given by law firm DLA Piper earlier this year to more than 150 Portland Thorns and Portland Timbers employees provides the basis for the ESPN report. The law firm was updating the staff on how the organization handled its investigation into Riley.

Per the presentation, Aaran Lines, then the vice president of the NWSL’s Western New York Flash, called the Thorns to see if the club should hire Riley as its next head coach. The Flash moved to North Carolina and became the Courage in 2017.

The Thorns were asked if Riley was a good soccer coach, according to the law firm, and the Thorns responded positively about his abilities on the pitch and put “aside everything else,” according to ESPN.

“That was asking if there were any issues with Riley as a coach,” a lawyer said at the presentation. “And that was essentially the reaction from the Thorns, you know, putting aside everything else, no concerns with him as a coach.”

Lines spoke with then-Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson,  The Oregonian reported, and Wilkinson could not discuss details of the investigation that led to Riley’s dismissal.

The Flash hired Riley before the 2016 season, and he served as the coach of the franchise until September 2021, when reports of his sexual abuse allegations emerged.

The presentation by the law firm also brought to light a 2019 phone call between Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and Courage owner Steve Malik, in which Paulson told Malik that Riley was fired for cause and that he should withdraw his name from consideration for the position of U.S. women’s national team manager.

Paulson expressed concern that if Riley continued to pursue the USWNT opportunity that details of his tenure in Portland would be unearthed, including the nature of his firing.

When Riley was fired from Portland in 2015, the club said publicly that it was due to poor performance, but behind closed doors, the club had received claims from player Mana Shim accusing the coach of sexual harassment and coercion.

According to DLA Piper, the Thorns fired Riley for “neglect, refusal or willful failure to render services,” among other infractions.

The internal investigation by DLA Piper, on which ESPN’s reporting is based, has not been made public.

Other investigations into Riley’s behavior and the NWSL handlings are underway, while U.S. Soccer has retained former U.S. attorney general Sally Yates to conduct an investigation.