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Merritt Paulson’s exit leads to Thorns social media furor

Fans hold up a sign calling out Portland Thorns and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson in March 2022. (Logan Hannigan-Downs/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson announced his decision to sell the NWSL club, a social media furor followed among players.

Several Thorns players, including captain Christine Sinclair and longtime defender Emily Menges, took to Twitter to thank the embattled owner. The Sally Yates report, released in October, implicated Paulson in perpetuating a culture of abuse in the league.

“Merritt, thank you for taking the chance on women’s soccer 10 years ago that so few were willing to make,” Sinclair wrote. “With your leadership, Portland has shown what is possible when our game is invested in.”

Other players, though, pushed back against such sentiments. Angels City FC forward Sydney Leroux offered the clearest rebuke.

“When you have someone in a position of power who has covered up the abuse of your teammates and you thank him for what he’s done for women’s soccer, it’s extremely disappointing,” Leroux wrote. “We ask people to support women’s soccer yet we can’t even support our own. Do better.”

Leroux played for the Orlando Pride for four years before she was traded in June. Amanda Cromwell, who was named coach of the Pride ahead of the 2022 season, was placed on leave in June for retaliatory conduct, then was banned from the NWSL after the season.

Leroux also had stints with FC Kansas City and the Western New York Flash and played for the U.S. women’s national team. While she did not play for any of the coaches named in the Yates report, she took a strong stance in the wake of its release.

“It’s my belief that when serious allegations are brought to you and you ignore us… you should have absolutely nothing to do with this sport ever again. Period,” Leroux wrote in October.

Sinclair and Menges’ Thorns teammate, Becky Sauerbrunn, did not respond directly to their thanks of Paulson, but she took to social media to send support to victims of abuse in the NWSL.

“Giving thanks, and sending strength and love to all the women who courageously came forward to share their experiences and demanded much-needed change in our league,” Sauerbrunn wrote.

The Thorns have multiple holes to fill after head coach Rhian Wilkinson resigned on Friday following an investigation into a series of messages she exchanged with Menges. Wilkinson was cleared of wrongdoing, but a group of unnamed Portland players said they felt “unsettled and unsafe” in a letter to the NWSL.

The Thorns are coming off a 2022 season in which they won the NWSL Championship and Wilkinson was a nominee for Coach of the Year.