NWSL in crisis: Plenty more to be done by the women’s pro soccer league that has lost its way

The commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Lisa Baird resigned on Oct. 1, but the league’s problems go well beyond her. 

Baird did not deserve to maintain her position. It had become abundantly clear following a detailed report from The Athletic of alleged sexual coercion and emotional abuse by former NWSL head coach Paul Riley and Baird’s lack of an adequate response, that she had lost the confidence of the league’s owners and players.

Baird left her post a day after Riley was sacked from his position as head coach of the North Carolina Courage.

The uneasiness surrounding Baird’s ouster instead came down to the optics: She lost her job, while the owners who forced her out continue to evade accountability, for now at least.

Two ownership groups — the Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage — must reckon with their handling of Riley; Portland for not making public the real reason behind his 2015 departure, and the Western New York Flash for its hiring of Riley in 2016 despite his behavior having already been reported to the league and team. The North Carolina Courage kept him in the job in 2017 when the Flash relocated. 

Portland owner Merritt Paulson released an open letter on Monday in which he said: “I deeply regret our role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer.” It seems unlikely that the letter and the announcement of a new investigation from the team will placate many Thorns fans, some of whom have demanded Paulson and GM Gavin Wilkinson step aside.

Two other teams, the Washington Spirit and OL Reign, must, like the Thorns before them, reckon with dismissing a coach this year for misconduct, only to omit that fact when announcing their departures. The CEO and managing partner of the Spirit has already resigned:

OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore told the media that former head coach Farid Benstiti (below) was asked to resign, instead of getting fired, after an incident that happened in training. Because of their desire to remove Benstiti immediately and the legal process that would’ve ensued had he been terminated, Predmore said the team opted to simply say the coach resigned.

“This was not a situation where we were trying to obscure the facts,” Predmore said.


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Racing Louisville, by contrast, did terminate head coach Christy Holly for cause this season, but the club will have to account for why they hired a coach with serious baggage like Holly in the first place, much like the Spirit did with their now-terminated coach Richie Burke. 

These are just some of the teams that had Baird’s fate in their hands. Until all their actions are properly adjudicated, it’s hard to feel like the NWSL will be able to close this ugly chapter in its history.

There is also the matter of the one man who is perhaps more responsible than anyone for Riley’s continuing employment as an NWSL head coach after he left Portland in 2015. Jeff Plush isn’t with the NWSL anymore, but the league’s former commissioner (Baird’s predecessor) can’t be omitted when discussing the fallout from the Riley scandal.

Plush was fully informed of the Thorns investigation into Riley in 2015, Paulson told The Athletic. It was under Plush’s watch that Riley was hired only months later by the Western New York Flash, and again in 2017 when the Flash moved to North Carolina. Plush refused to comment when The Athletic contacted him. Sometimes a no-comment is a wise PR strategy; in this case it is entirely unacceptable. One can only wonder how USA Curling, an organization Plush now leads, feels about having him as their CEO.

The promise of accountability has come through several overlapping investigations that have been announced in recent days.

The NWSL, FIFA, U.S. Soccer, the Thorns and the U.S. Center for SafeSport are all conducting their own investigations. U.S. Soccer has brought the considerable heft of Sally Yates, the country’s former deputy attorney general, to lead their inquiry. 

The investigations, promising as they may be, also bring the specter of inconclusive, muddled or contradictory results. What if the league’s investigation reaches a conclusion, but U.S. Soccer’s reaches a different one? What if they end up blaming one another? Even if the investigations do universally find fault with any particular owners, it is not quite as easy to remove an owner as it is a coach, general manager, or indeed a commissioner. 

Riley is gone. Baird is gone. Their departures must signal the beginning, not the end of accountability in a league that’s lost its way.

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