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Portland Thorns players embrace fans amid NWSL abuse fallout

(Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

When Portland Thorns players take the field on Sunday, it will be the first time they have done so since the Oct. 3 release of the Sally Yates report on systemic abuse in the NWSL. And players are taking note.

The Thorns were one of three teams at the center of the report, which detailed U.S. Soccer’s yearlong investigation into cases of sexual assault and coercion, emotional abuse, verbal abuse and failure by officials to stop it. In the aftermath, players have been left to deal with the fallout while also playing out the rest of the NWSL season.

Among the changes, Portland owner Merritt Paulson stepped down as the club’s CEO as calls have increased for him to sell the team as the No. 2 seed Thorns prepare to host the San Diego Wave in the semifinals on Sunday.

“The Yates investigation I think shed a lot of light on the issues and problems that have existed in the NWSL for its entire existence,” Thorns defender Crystal Dunn told reporters Saturday. “It was hard for players to see what was written in the investigation. As players, a lot of times it’s very difficult for us to be able to do our job and find joy and passion in doing that when so much around us takes away from that light.”

Dunn added that, since the beginning of the season, Thorns players have focused on leaning on one another to get through the challenges. Portland first came under scrutiny last year, when a report in The Athletic detailed allegations of sexual coercion and emotional abuse by former Thorns head coach Paul Riley and the Thorns’ failure to report it, allowing Riley to coach in the NWSL for another six seasons.

Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn said Saturday that the players have learned to compartmentalize “bad things that have happened” as they focus on competing for their first NWSL championship since 2017.

“We’re really flying right now on the field,” she said. “I’m expecting it to be quite supportive and energetic and lively and with that support from the fans, we’ll feel it on the field. I’m absolutely sure that we will. Hopefully we can put on a performance that makes everyone proud of us.”

For Dunn, who returned in September after giving birth to son Marcel, it’s been about taking it day by day. She noted that the heaviness of the situation has made it difficult for her to continue to be the positive one in the locker room as she has at times found herself to be burnt out. It’s in those times that she, like others, has been leaning on her teammates for support.

“Some days are easier than others,” she said. “As women, we have been very skilled in compartmentalizing. We are very good at being able to balance a whole lot of things. This is one of those really challenging tasks that we’ve been given, which is embracing what’s going on in the league and trying to be a part of that change, but at the same time understanding that we can’t solve all the problems.”

In the aftermath of the report, players like Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby have pleaded with fans to continue to turn out in support. The team has sold nearly 20,000 tickets for the semifinal game at Providence Park, Sauerbrunn said.

“I’m just excited, hopefully for a full stadium, for our fans to be loud, cheering for us because it’s been a long season,” said forward Sophia Smith. “We’ve gone through a lot of stuff. I think these are the things that we look forward to. The positive things and the exciting things that we have and the fans make that for us. They make it the best place to play in.

“I think everyone’s just excited to have a stadium full of fans who are supporting us and allowing us to come out and do what we love to do.”