On Soccer: Ownership, coaching changes latest turbulence for Portland Thorns
Of the two club-shifting announcements from the Portland Thorns on the first days of December, one was predictable, the other stunning.
The predictable news, of course, was that Merritt Paulson will sell the Thorns.
Rhian Wilkinson resigning after one season as Thorns head coach — a championship season at that? Well, that came out of left field.
If you're reading this, chances are you've followed the story. At some point in October, Wilkinson and longtime Thorns defender Emily Menges expressed feelings for each other. According to reporting from The Athletic's Meg Linehan, who spoke with both Wilkinson and Menges, coach and player quickly realized a line had been crossed and reported their interaction to the club's human resources department.
A subsequent investigation by the National Women's Soccer League and the NWSL Players Association determined that Wilkinson had not violated any team or league policies.
But, according to Wilkinson's comments both in reporting by The Athletic and in her own goodbye post on social media, fallout from the interactions with Menges and the investigation eroded trust for the coach among Thorns players to the point that she no longer could be their coach.
Wilkinson on social media said Thorns players learned of the situation before she had the chance to tell them about it herself. Part of her goodbye on Twitter read:
"The narrative regarding my actions has now taken on a life of its own, and as a result I can understand that the Portland players feel hurt and have to deal with another non-soccer related situation. The result of this being that the players have asked for my resignation, and I have agreed to it."
One sad part of this episode is that Wilkinson and Menges, after their initial text exchanges, appear to have followed the processes established by the league and its union to help ensure that coaches don't mistreat players — and the episode still ended with Wilkinson out of a job.
That's not to criticize Thorns players who understandably would wonder if the person with control over their careers is being influenced by factors other than soccer performance.
But it does raise questions about where the line should be drawn when it comes to investigating coaches. If a coach follows the process, is exonerated, but loses her job anyway, doesn't that discourage self-reporting?
Again, that's not to downplay the problem Wilkinson's actions created. Workplaces have rules about fraternization between supervisors and employees for good reasons, not the least of which is the balance of power in any relationship.
Bottom line: The Thorns are losing a coach who seems to be a high-quality human, one who now stands as an example of both what not to do as a supervisor and of how to take responsibility for said action.
Which brings us to that other announcement.
Had Merritt Paulson taken swift responsibility for mistakes in his handling of the Paul Riley debacle when The Athletic broke the story of Riley sexually coercing players, perhaps he could have held onto the club he founded and helped make one of the most admired organizations in women's sports.
That won't be his legacy now. The Portland Thorns and the NWSL wouldn't be around today without Paulson's support. But, it's been clear for more than a year that for the club to thrive going forward, new ownership is a must.
Paulson's Dec. 1 announcement generated social media statements from players welcoming the news. Several posts — including one from Thorns captain Christine Sinclair — thanked Paulson for his contributions to the NWSL.
Selling the club is Paulson's only choice. It's also true that his investments in and advocacy for women's soccer have been significant. That doesn't in any way absolve him of his mistakes, but remains a significant piece of the Thorns history.
The ownership change won't happen quickly. Paulson, in announcing his decision to sell the Thorns, emphasized his priority is finding the right owner or owners so that the Thorns can continue to be among the most successful sports organizations in the world.
A significant reason for the club's success has been the connection between players and fans, a tight bond that is evident throughout every match, and especially during the traditional post-match rose ceremony.
A similar bond has made the Portland Timbers a success in Major League Soccer.
It remains to be seen how Paulson retaining ownership of the Timbers impacts the MLS club. There is an outspoken segment of unhappy PTFC supporters who have said they won't buy tickets or merchandise as long as Paulson and his family remain in control of the MLS club.
Perhaps it'll help some supporters of PTFC feel better about that decision because this week the Timbers were expected to announce the acquisition of a talented young Brazilian midfielder. Winning, we all understand, can hide blemishes.
But, in Portland, the fans' investment in their pro soccer teams goes well beyond the price of a ticket. After a year of troubling revelations, investigations and separations, that bond is weakened.
Throughout her one season coaching the Thorns, Wilkinson said she appreciated the trust her players placed in her. Her departure is another example of how fragile trust can be.
Let's hope that whoever next owns the Thorns, and that whoever Karina LeBlanc hires as the next Thorns coach, can restore pride and respect to the club so that Thorns matches can again become a fun, celebratory experience.
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