‘You’re playing for bigger reasons.’ Ahead of NWSL final, players fight on

Portland Thorns defender Tegan McGrady has been here before. 

She played at Audi Field in front of near-sellout crowds as a member of the Washington Spirit. She also won a championship with the team in 2021. 

But as her current team prepares to take on the Kansas City Current at Audi Field on Saturday for the 2022 NWSL Championship, McGrady  has to relive traumatic off-field experiences, too. 

She’s not alone.

The current generation of U.S. women’s national team and NWSL players have spent the majority of their professional careers fighting or recovering from issues outside of wins and losses.

Most recently, Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson was named  in a report by U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates following an investigation into systemic abuse in the league.The report, commissioned by U.S Soccer and released Oct. 3, called out Paulson for his role in helping former coach Paul Riley, who was with the organization from 2014-15, obtain another job after he was dismissed following players’ complaints of sexual coercion and abuse.

The report also mentioned McGrady’s former coach Richie Burke, who was fired during the Spirit’s championship season last year for verbal and emotional abuse.

“People look to the players for some sort of change, but we can’t be the ones asked to do it every single time,” McGrady told USA TODAY Sports. “We want to hold everyone to a high accountability, but there’s only so much that we can do and continue to do without harming our own selves in the process.”

Following Yates’ report and pending a joint investigation by the NWSL and NWSLPA, Paulson fired two front office executives — president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub. Paulson also stepped down from his role as CEO of the Thorns and MLS affiliate Timbers, and he will watch Saturday’s championship remotely on TV. 

In 2021, the Spirit’s former majority owner remained with the team through the NWSL final despite having backed the disgraced Burke. Washington’s current owner, Michelle Kang, gained majority control of the team after a lengthy offseason battle. 

‘It’s very difficult for us to be able to do our job and find joy and passion when there’s so much around us,’ USWNT and Portland Thorns player Crystal Dunn said. ‘It takes away from that light.’

Players supporting each other; fans showing up

For decades, players have fought for equal treatment and resources through three iterations of professional women’s soccer leagues in the United States. The fight began before the pivotal 1999 World Cup victory that put U.S. women’s soccer on the map.

Only this year did the U.S. women’s national team achieve the first major step toward equitable pay with a $24 million lawsuit settlement approved by a federal judge and a new collective bargaining agreement that pays the men and women equally.

“As women, we have been very skilled at compartmentalizing,” Dunn said. ‘We are very good at being able to just balance a whole lot of things.”

But when body and mind are under constant stress, they go into survival mode.

“Obviously, the last couple of weeks have been hard,” Dunn said. “For the players, we always feel like we fall in the middle of everything. The Yates investigation shed a lot of light on the issues and problems that have existed in NWSL for its entire existence.”

The Thorns and Spirit are not alone in their scandals. The Yates report detailed “systemic” and “pervasive” abuse throughout the league since its inception in 2012. Players have said they lean on one another even though they are ‘all over the place’ in processing everything that has happened, Portland captain Becky Sauerbrunn said.

Fans are also vocal, especially about demanding Paulson leave Portland. Among the top 4 biggest crowds in league history, thousands of people held up “FOR SALE” signs before the Thorns’ 2-1 semifinal win over the San Diego Wave. 

“Seeing the city show up for us and helping us get through these hard times makes you realize that you’re playing for much bigger reasons,’ McGrady said.

A sense of hope with two new leaders

While players said they’re used to tuning out distractions off the field — at times, coming from their employers — new faces in Portland’s front office bring hope. 

Christine Sinclair, a Thorns and Canadian national team star, said those new names include head coach Rhian Wilkinson and general manager Karina LeBlanc.

‘There’s a different sense of family within the club that maybe wasn’t always there in the past,’ Sinclair said.

LeBlanc is a former Thorns goalkeeper and head of women’s football for Concacaf. She played 18 years of professional soccer in the Women’s Professional Soccer league, Women’s United Soccer Association and NWSL. She recorded 110 caps for the Canadian national team. And she played for Riley and another coach at the center of abuse in Chicago, Rory Dames. 

“I was coached by two of those coaches,” LeBlanc said. “I didn’t get along with either of them. So reading the Yates report, I couldn’t even get through it as a former player.”

The Thorns hired LeBlanc in November, 2021 to oversee technical soccer operations. Until recently, she reported directly to Paulson.

“As a GM, I read through it and I had more clarity of who I wanted to be in the role,” LeBlanc said about reading Yates report. “I realized that my life led me to this moment. It hadn’t been easy, but it’s because it’s to be the leader that they need in this. And I think for them, it’s to make them know that they’re in a safe place.”

LeBlanc emphasized in order to move forward, players need to be at the table because the report showed not only abuse but failure to listen when players asked for help. 

Portland midfielder Janine Beckie was not with the team during the initial season when the allegations against Riley became public. She joined the Thorns in April from Manchester City and said she’s seen the impact of the abuse from a different perspective. 

“I do have hope that we get to a point where it’s not a story about resilience,” Beckie said. “It’s a story about having avoided situations … and that the right people are being hired for these positions, because that’s what’s important.” 

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