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Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson steps down as club CEO

Merritt Paulson has stepped down as CEO of the NWSL's Thorns and MLS' Timbers. (Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY Sports)

Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson has stepped down as CEO of that club and of the MLS’ Timbers, he announced Tuesday.

Paulson already had removed himself from Thorns-related decisions as a result of U.S. Soccer’s blockbuster investigation into abuse in the NWSL. President of business operations Mike Golub and former general manager Gavin Wilkinson, who had remained part of the parent club PTFC, were fired last week.

Thorns general counsel Heather Davis took on the decision-making roles for the Thorns. She will continue to serve as interim president and CEO after Paulson’s decision to step down, the owner said Tuesday.

When coach Paul Riley was fired by the Thorns in 2015 after sexual harassment and coercion allegations, Paulson kept the reason for his dismissal under wraps publicly, which allowed Riley to continue coaching in the league. Riley’s misconduct, and the Thorns’ role in allowing him to continue coaching, made up a significant part of U.S. Soccer’s findings.

“It is devastating to me that my goal of creating the shining example of what a women’s sports team could be, has now become synonymous with abhorrent and predatory behavior,” Paulson said in a statement Tuesday.

In his statement, he mentioned by name Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, who both have accused Riley of sexual misconduct.

“I owe Sinead and Mana, the Thorns players and the NWSL my tireless effort to actively make sure what happened in 2015 never happens again,” he said.

Paulson described the organization as “at a crossroads” and his decision to step down as a measure of “accountability.” Interim chief operating officer Sarah Keane will lead a search for the next CEO.

“I know Heather and Sarah plan on having players meet final candidates so their voices can be heard,” Paulson said. “Through this process, I have committed to them that I will provide the organization with all necessary resources to ensure both clubs are not only a model of player safety, but the standard by which other organizations are measured.”