Women’s National Football League playoffs are available here, a time of year when the best players and teams from one of the world’s top leagues are shown. However, for the second year in a row, there is weight about what would otherwise be a festive moment. The NWSL players are once again entering postseason shortly after reliving some of their most traumatic experiences.
It has been just over a year since the allegations of sexual harassment and coercion against former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley First reported by The Athletic. The report came out the same week that former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was fired after an investigation into the alleged verbal abuse. By the end of the year, five of the 10 teams had either fired a coach for some reason or allowed him to resign amid allegations of misconduct.
This time around, the aftershocks of Yates’ report – which detailed not only what happened with Riley but also with former Chicago Red Stars and former Racing Louisville coach Kristi Holly – was still being felt. The outrage of the team and US Soccer executives was also spelled out in more detail, adding to the pain level.
“It’s really sad to say, but somehow, I think we’re used to dealing with one thing or another,” US and OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe said last week, speaking of reality. Now, the players, who have already suffered a lot, must find a way to absorb the contents of the Yates Report, and continue to try to propel their teams into the championship. This requires careful balancing.
Players – at least those who have spoken out since the Yates report were released – are asking to focus on their playing on the field. Their intent is not to ignore what happened, but rather not to let it define them. “I feel like we said our article, we did everything we could,” said San Diego Wave forward Alex Morgan, who reached the MVP finals on Friday.
Morgan is a representative of the San Diego-based NWSL Players Association and last year played a key role in highlighting the allegations of former teammates Manna Shim and Sinead Farrelly against Riley, after they were ignored for years by league executives. Morgan said she has been involved in more NWSLPA calls over the past two weeks than she has all year, and that players — unlike in-game pauses last year to show solidarity with victims of abuse in the league — are supportive of each other. in those NWSLPA channels.
“Players want the world to see our greatest moments, not just our darkest moments,” NWSLPA CEO Megan Burke said in a statement to ESPN. “We are ready for the preliminary matches, even while our joint investigation work continues. The players are asking the fans to pack the stands, speak up, and stand with us now more than ever.”
Over the next few weeks, the hope – the demand – is to move forward, to celebrate the players who have made the league special.
“In terms of solidarity, we players across the NFL are incredibly supportive of each other,” Morgan said. “I’m not sure if you’ll necessarily see something before the game or if we’re wearing a certain thing for the game. It’s been kind of a really heavy two weeks, and I’m not sure we want to put anything more extra pressure on the players to come up with something when we all tried to tackle it at least Appreciation. Yes, it was a fun time, but we really hope to look forward.”
Current Kansas City midfielder Desiree Scott knows that each player deals with the emotions of the moment in their own way. The 35-year-old was at a boot camp with Canada when the Yates report was released, and has been communicating with her Kansas City teammates via Zoom and text messages. She said the point of the talks is to help each other through the highs and lows.
“It’s obviously a long season,” Scott told ESPN. “I think there are some tired mental states, and heavy news comes with that report that came out. And also knowing we have a big watershed ride ahead. So, I think there’s kind of that mix of feelings from the set.”
“Obviously, some excitement there, but also, it’s kind of, you have to swing through this news and kind of deal with it on a daily basis. And I think everyone handles this news differently, and it’s just about being patient with each other but also To get our work done on the pitch as well.”
Alex Morgan shares her frustration with NWSL’s failure to support Meleana Shim after speaking out against Paul Riley in this behind-the-scenes clip from E60: Truth Be Told, now available on ESPN+.
Sophie Schmidt was camping with Canada at the time as well. She said the Yates report got home with the group, because they know the abuse and detailed inaction on the English Football League goes beyond the league and its boundaries. Canada has dealt with its own issues dealing with sexual assault, including the Vancouver Whitecaps Women’s Show, which several players – including Schmidt – once played.
“That’s what we’ve been doing for a long time, and it’s also part of being professional,” Schmidt told ESPN. “When you cross that line, you kind of have to split it up and do the job. Unfortunately, we have to do it more. [often] Who does not, especially in the NWSL. It’s a challenge but I think the guys have done a really good job. The next two weeks are going to be tough.”
A dizzying split looms in the coming weeks. On Sunday, Houston’s Schmidt’s Dash will play the first playoff game in franchise history, against Kansas City. The Dash organization waited eight years for this moment, which, after a meltdown late last season, felt it might never come.
Dash announced Friday that 17,000 tickets have already been sold, which will break the previous record for team attendance. In the vacuum, it’s a massive moment for a string of companies that have historically struggled to attract fans and for years have faced questions about the viability of the market. Later that day, San Diego hopes to fill the Snapdragon Stadium with another 32,000 fans.
But Sunday – and the rest of the play-offs – cannot be looked at in isolation. Even in Houston, this year has been a “challenging year,” in Schmidt’s words. Head coach James Clarkson has been suspended on the eve of the regular season following the preliminary results of a joint NWSL and NWSLPA investigation into intra-league misconduct. The investigation is still ongoing, and the league has not released any updates since the suspension was announced on April 27.
Fans, at least anecdotally, feel torn. How can they support players as they protest the institutions that have failed them? Nowhere is this question more pressing than in Portland, where the Thorns will host a semi-final on October 23. Team owner/operator Merritt Paulson announced Tuesday that he is stepping down as CEO, but Portland supporter groups maintain their call for a sale due to the role he played in allowing Riley to continue training at the NWSL.
The Thorns publicly thanked Riley when the two broke up in 2015, announcing that the coach’s contract would not be renewed. It was revealed in a 2021 report from The Athletic, and confirmed in a Yates report, that Riley was terminated for breach of contract following complaints by Shim. A few months later, in 2016, Riley was hired by a rival team whose executives claimed they were unaware of what happened off the field in Portland. Riley went on to win three more leagues, and coached until 2021.
Strikers Thorns and MVP finalist Sophia Smith called on fans to support the players in the stands on October 23, 2022, saying that support is “one of the positive things we left behind in Portland”. Smith said that just days after Portland and fellow American Becky Sauerbrunn called for the firing of any executive who empowered abusers — including those in Portland, Smith said.
Fans face a dilemma about how to act at this important juncture of the season.
“It’s tough,” Schmidt said. “I can’t imagine being a fan and how I’m thinking and feeling right now. They’re grieving all of this with us too. There will be a time that has to happen. [to heal]but it is hard. People who have made the decision that they don’t want to be supported physically, in the stadiums, that’s their decision and that’s okay.”
Watch the powerful story of the account in women’s professional soccer from the perspective of those who have experienced it firsthand. E60: Truth Be Told is available upon request on ESPN+.
“I’ve read some of the things the Portland girls have put up, about ‘we need you as fans.’ I think sometimes not showing up hurts the players too. So, I don’t know. It’s twofold and it’s hard, and I think everyone has to make a personal decision for themselves and what they are comfortable with. I think at this moment in time, we should be OK with that.”
Sunday will undoubtedly be another emotional return to play for the NWSL athletes. Many of them played for their countries during the international break while processing the news. As Sauerbronn said last week from the US camp in London, “The players are not doing well. We are terrified, sad, frustrated, tired and really angry.”
However, players are once again being asked to do their job. Not just to show off, but to put together their best performances this season and play for the championship. This is, after all, what they have always wanted to do – and do it safely, while providing protection. There is also hope that they will find something that was stolen from them and buried in hard-to-find places. This is the joy of playing, competing and, with some luck, enjoying a victory that brings them one step closer to their ultimate goal.
“I think for a lot of us being on the field is our happy place,” Scott said. “It’s a place where we have those connections. We love our jobs, we love being in the field, and I think this is kind of our freedom place where we can’t think for a minute, we can just enjoy the game and practice each other’s company and get better. So I think it’s great to keep going. And to continue with our season because it allows us to refocus, laser a little and enjoy the game as it is.”