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Thorns coach says abuse issues go beyond NWSL: ‘This is everywhere’

(Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

Portland Thorns coach Rhian Wilkinson made a strong statement about issues of abuse and sexual misconduct in sports ahead of the NWSL championship match.

Wilkinson was asked at a press conference Friday if the misconduct allegations in the Thorns’ organization made her wary of joining the club. The 40-year-old coach joined Portland in November 2021 after a brief stint as assistant coach of the England women’s national team.

“I’m Canadian, and I was working in England, and this is everywhere,” Wilkinson said. “And it’s a horrible thing to say. This is not only about soccer. It’s not about the NWSL. It’s not just about women. It’s everywhere, and it’s a problem everywhere.”

Wilkinson will lead the Thorns in the NWSL title game against the Kansas City Current at 8 p.m. Saturday at Audi Field in Washington, D.C., capping a turbulent month for the franchise and for the NWSL.

Sally Yates released the findings of her U.S. Soccer-commissioned investigation into “systemic” abuse in the NWSL at the start of October. The report heavily featured the Portland Thorns, who fired former coach Paul Riley in 2015 after a player accused him of sexual harassment and coercion.

Members of the Thorns’ front office, including owner Merritt Paulson, kept the reason for Riley’s dismissal under wraps, and Riley went on to coach for the North Carolina Courage until the allegations against him became public in September 2021.

Paulson will not attend the NWSL championship amid the fallout from the Yates report. He is facing increasing pressure to sell the Thorns and the Timbers of the MLS from the fanbases of both teams.

When Wilkinson was presented with the opportunity to coach the Thorns, though, she was not deterred by the club’s issues, she said. Rather, the former Thorns and Canada women’s national team player saw an opportunity to coach “one of the best clubs in the world” and also “to try and be world leaders” in terms of club and league culture.

“I mean it,” she said. “It’s an opportunity, and we have to see it as that.”

While she did not downplay the misconduct in the NWSL, she made clear that the culture of abuse in sports extends well beyond one league.

“I need to continue to state this: I’ve played in a lot of different countries. I’ve lived in a lot of different countries. It’s everywhere,” Wilkinson said. “So people that are finger-pointing at the NWSL, I’m glad they’re holding us to a standard, and we’re going to take that mantle and lead the way and be best in practice. But it is not unique to the NWSL and it did not scare me away from joining this league.”