PORTLAND, Ore. — In the third minute of second-half stoppage time, with the score tied 1-1 in the National Women’s Soccer League semifinal between the Portland Thorns and the San Diego Wave, Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg prepared to take a corner kick, and the entire north end of Providence Park roared as one.
“P-T! F-C! P-T! F-C!”
The rest of the 22,035 fans in attendance joined in, at which point the fans’ and players’ collective will delivered a moment that the team — and the city — desperately needed.
Klingenberg’s corner was cleared only as far as Crystal Dunn at the edge of the Wave penalty area, who unleashed an unstoppable, rising shot into the net. The black and red smoke was released — so were the collective emotions of the crowd, with the goal ultimately giving the Thorns a 2-1 win and a spot in the NWSL final on Saturday against the Kansas City Current.
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For the Thorns, it was a win that went to 11 on the catharsis meter. For the past 13 months, the NWSL has been rocked by scandal, culminating in the release of the Yates report earlier this month. Portland was central, not just the allegations of sexual harassment and coercion against former manager Paul Riley but also the way the organization handled them, paving the way for Riley to keep coaching.
Merritt Paulson, in conjunction with his father, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, owns both the Thorns and MLS side the Portland Timbers. He has sought to position his own missteps as a single mistake in 2015, when the club kept the real reason for Riley’s exit — allegations of sexual coercion and predatory behavior — hidden from the public, instead saying that Riley’s contract wasn’t renewed for on-field reasons. In a letter this month announcing he’d step down as CEO, Paulson wrote that he vowed to “make sure what happened in 2015 never happens again,” “including not being publicly transparent about Paul Riley’s termination.”
But the Yates report cites Paulson as having received player complaints alleging Riley was abusive and ignoring them in 2014, the year before player Mana Shim’s complaint of sexual harassment and coercion resulted in Riley’s termination. Records obtained by Yates also show that Paulson continued to keep the manner of Riley’s exit from other team owners and downplayed Shim’s allegations as late as 2019, instead expressing support for Riley, which allowed him to stay employed in the NWSL. Paulson is also accused himself of making inappropriate comments to players.
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What has happened in Portland — and elsewhere — has been a betrayal on so many levels. The latest gut punch via the Yates report tested the mettle of the players, as well as the love of one of the most loyal fan bases in the sport. That prior to Sunday the team hadn’t played a match since the report’s release — Portland earned a first-round bye in the playoffs by finishing second overall in the regular season — made it even more excruciating. But for a few moments Sunday, the joy of playing, supporting and winning was back, and it was reciprocated among everyone in the venue.
“I think it’s a new dawn, and the players needed it,” Portland manager Rhian Wilkinson said. “They needed to see that they’re loved. And that the fan base that is the best in the world, and are so vocal and so demanding, and in all the right ways, making sure that we’re leading here as a club, they also just need to be seen and heard.
“It’s hard for people to come to the stadium today. I understand that, and some people couldn’t. But for the players, that atmosphere today was something incredible and the joy that they felt from that — they brought it up in the huddle right after the game — [they had an] amazing moment that they were able to have with the fans that they love so much.”
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For Dunn, who gave birth to her son, Marcel, just 156 days ago, it was a moment to savor.
“This moment today was just so special because it’s been a long year,” she said. “It’s been a long, crazy year and I think my team has battled through a lot. For us going to a final, it’s incredible.
The anger and the pain
Three days before the match, during the Thorns’ scheduled media availability, it was clear some fatigue had set in for the players and coaching staff as it relates to the findings in the Yates report. It’s understandable given that the questions relating to allegations of abuse haven’t been happening just over the past two weeks but for a year, since the release of the first stories about Riley. The emotions had been rubbed raw.
Wilkinson said, “I feel for these players that are just trying to play the game they love and to show up and put on a performance for the fans, and have to instead get derailed. We did a lot of talking as a team. We gave them time and space. We provided them support and then we gave them what they really wanted, which was to get back on the field.”
Forward Christine Sinclair said facing the media and answering such questions is “one of my jobs,” though she added, “I’ve been a part of this team proudly for 10 years, and I’ve seen significant changes be made this past year, and changes for the better. But those players were forced to face questions, day of, minute one of the Yates report coming out, which is kind of unfair for an athlete to be faced with.”
Perhaps, but some of that is because the players are one of the few constituencies doing any talking. Outside of a few curated statements, league owners have been largely silent, insisting that they need to wait until the joint NWSL/NWSL Players Association investigation is complete, which is set to happen by the end of the year.
In the meantime, the fans in Portland haven’t held back while the Timbers and Thorns made a series of incremental steps to placate the public’s anger. On Oct. 4, Paulson, president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub removed themselves from Thorns-related decisions until the findings from the joint investigation are complete. The following day, Gavin Wilkinson and Golub were fired. Then, with sponsors such as Union Wine withdrawing support and Alaska Airlines redirecting its sponsorship dollars to the NWSLPA’s Support the Players Emergency Trust, Paulson resigned as CEO of both the Thorns and the Timbers on Oct. 11.
None of this was enough for some fans, who feel that nothing short of the Paulsons selling the team will suffice. The day before the match, a group calling itself Soccer City Accountability Now held a protest — with about two dozen people in attendance — in the plaza in front of Providence Park. Among the signs displayed were “Sell Now,” “You Knew” and “Don’t Call My Dad,” a reference to Golub calling the father of national anthem singer Madison Shanley when she wore a “You Knew” shirt to what turned out to be her last performance for the organization.
“This is a chance to once again show the leadership of the team, specifically the ownership, Peregrine Sports LLC, as well as Merritt Paulson that we’re not going away,” said Sofia Freja, one of the event’s organizers. “We’ve done rallies like this before and we’re continuing to do this one because it’s a game-day weekend and it gives people a chance to come out and speak their mind.”
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Tina Ettin, one of the capos for the Thorns supporters group the Rose City Riveters, and who leads chants in Providence Park’s north end, was also in attendance. A bright red streak running through her otherwise black hair reveals her devotion to the Thorns, and a black hoodie with “Anti-racism Social Club” shows her alignment with the ethos of the Riveters. She admits she hoped more people would show up, but for her the message is still important.
“These are the people that have been doing this all season, so I’m really proud of them for still coming back and showing up, and making sure that their voices are heard,” she said.
Yet there is a range of inner conflict for even the most devoted fans. On the one hand, there is a strong desire to continue to support the players, who are the victims. On the other, there is reluctance to do anything that will put more money in Paulson’s pocket. Freja distills the competing desires down to, “Today it’s front office out, tomorrow it’s going to be support the players.”
The sentiments are in alignment with Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby, who tweeted: “I understand that a lot of folks are having a hard time deciding whether or not they want to come to our semifinal match; some have already chosen against it. I would like to say that I respect anyone’s decision not to come.
“However, if you are on the fence, this is what I offer to you, from a player’s perspective — whether you support the Thorns alone, any other team in the league, or women’s soccer across the globe, we need you now more than ever.”
Gabby Rosas is the president of the 107ist, the organizational and charitable arm of the Riveters, as well as the Timbers Army. She says the $16 cost of her ticket for Sunday’s match — and its minimal impact on Paulson’s bottom line — is enough for her to go, especially when combined with the fact that she believes things are moving in a positive direction.
“Because there has been so much action taken in three weeks, it isn’t that much of a conflict for me. Actually, I expect it to be a little bit more cathartic, because this might be the first match I’ve been to in a year where I don’t feel like things aren’t changing.”
The push for new owners
Sunday marked the last professional soccer match to be held in Providence Park in 2022. The question now is whether SCAN, the Rose City Riveters, the 107ist and other fans will continue to keep pressure on Paulson during the offseason. Ettin, who is also a member of the Rose City Riveters steering committee, says the organization doesn’t plan to stop.
“The offseason doesn’t mean that we’re done working,” she said. “We have a very well-connected community. We have a lot of people that are constantly thinking about this 24/7. Our volunteer work doesn’t stop, so we still do a lot of work within the community. And we’ll find ways of making sure that this stays at the forefront of people’s brains.”
Perhaps the greatest pressure can come in the form of offers to buy the team.
So far two groups have emerged, at least publicly. A group calling itself Onward Rose City is taking the approach of a fan-owned model akin to the NFL’s Green Bay Packers or that of Spanish giants FC Barcelona. To that end, the group has started a website in which fans can pledge money to own a part of the organization. According to Chris Bright, a local tech entrepreneur and one of the individuals spearheading the effort, nearly $7 million has been pledged from 1,383 supporters. Not bad given that the website went live only last Friday.
The headwinds against such an approach are considerable, beyond actually getting people to contribute real money. Bright is also aware of the fact that MLS’s rules prohibit fan ownership of teams. But he also sees positives to the idea. “The problem [with current ownership] is you don’t have the transparency and accountability,” he said. “I think that’s where we feel the failure area is.”
The second group, led by former Nike executive Melanie Strong and first reported by The Oregonian, has also stepped up. A source with knowledge of the all-women investment group said it has enough capital to acquire both the Timbers and the Thorns, which would be between $600 million and $700 million. The source added there is a third group that they declined to identify expressing interest as well.
Strong’s group has also had at least one meeting with Bright, with the idea that in such a scenario, fans would have a seat at the table, albeit a limited one. But for Bright, it’s a possible way forward. “Protest is one thing, but manifesting your own change is another,” he said. “We are going to take that into our own hands.”
The question of course is: Will the Paulsons sell? As angry as the fan base is, it’s certainly possible that ownership could hunker down and still try to ride things out.
A first step toward healing
As game day beckoned, the energy did indeed shift toward player support. One of the SCAN protesters, Stephanie Gafford, a training coordinator from Portland, says that Saturday was her “chant and rant day. Today is all about the players, right? So we’re here to win. We’re here to support the ladies who do great things in this community.” Still, she makes a sign that says, “Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Thorned.”
Interviews with 10 fans outside Providence Park reveal a similar consensus. There is awareness of the Yates report and the controversy surrounding the Paulsons, but there is agreement that this is a moment to support the players. The time for protest can come later.
“The Thorns are, I still believe, the best team, and has the most depth of any team in the league,” fan Christine Romo said prior to the game as she waited for the stadium gates to open. “I think that everything else going on is distracting from what they need to do today.”
John Lawes, another Thorns fan, said he has emailed sponsors and the club, but that the game wasn’t the time for protest or convincing Paulson to sell. “That’s down the road. That’s not for today,” he said. “Today is about the club. Today is about the players. Today is about the city. Today is about moving on to the final and that’s why I’m here.”
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Yet not everyone in the venue was in a forgiving mood. Just before kickoff, “For Sale” signs with the Thorns’ phone number were visible in the north end. Whether Paulson saw them is unknown: The lights in his suite were off, though there was a security guard outside, while multiple Thorns staffers said they didn’t know if Paulson was on the premises.
But soon after, the venue settled into its usual match rhythm to the steady drumbeat — and the cathartic roar — of the Riveters, and the joy of the players.
“Our fans have been through a lot as well this year, along with players,” Dunn added after the win, “and I think them showing up is exactly what we want for this community. We want everyone to obviously be able to voice their opinion and be able to share their feelings.
“But at the same time, we also understand that without the fans, I mean the game’s just not as fun. And being able to deliver that moment today for them was just really special because it just made me feel like we’re all in this together.”