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Merritt Paulson steps down as Thorns & Timbers CEO

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Merritt Paulson announced on Tuesday that he is removing himself as CEO of the Portland Thorns and Timbers as part of “holding [himself] accountable” for his role in the club’s failure to report Paul Riley’s alleged sexual misconduct in 2015.

“Our organization’s failures and mistakes were ultimately my responsibility, and my responsibility alone,” his statement reads.

Paulson, the longtime owner/operator of the club for over a decade, said nothing of selling the team, as fans and prominent players have called for him to do. He said in a statement that “our organization is at a crossroads, and the future is not necessarily a clear path.”

“Given the complexities involved on several levels finalizing the correct path forward will take time,” his statement reads. “I love this organization as if it was part of my family, and to me, what is most important is getting it right.”

Last week, United States women’s national team captain and Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn said that any owner or executive who enabled abuse “should be gone.” She later clarified that included Paulson and anyone from the Portland organization, although she did not mention any names directly. Two days later, U.S. teammate and OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe named Paulson and Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler in reiterating Sauerbrunn’s statement.

Among the details in last week’s Sally Yates report into systemic abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League is confirmation of the layers of failures within the league, and specifically from the Thorns organization, that allowed Paul Riley to continue coaching in the league years after his contract was terminated in 2015, but the Thorns publicly thanked him for his time at the club.

According to the Yates report, Paulson told North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik that Riley had been cleared of wrongdoing but used “poor judgment” with a player (a conversation Paulson told investigators he did not recall having). The Western New York Flash (a franchise that became the Courage) hired Riley in early 2016. The Yates report retrieved an email from March 2016 in which Paulson tells former Flash president (and player) Alex Sahlen: “Best of luck this season and congrats on the Riley hire. I have a lot of affection for him.”

Paulson announced on Oct. 4, moments before Sauerbrunn took the microphone in London, that he was removing himself from all Thorns-related decision making until the conclusion of the NWSL’s joint investigation with the NWSL Players Association.

President of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub, who combined were involved with the club in various roles for three decades and worked closely with Paulson, were fired on Oct. 5.

“I apologize to our players, the organization, and the Portland community for the mistakes we made, including not being publicly transparent about Paul Riley’s termination,” Paulson said in Tuesday’s statement.

Heather Davis is now the club’s interim president and CEO. She was first named interim president following the ousting of Wilkinson and Golub. Davis appointed Sarah Keane as interim COO, Paulson said, and Keane will lead a search for a new CEO. Players will “meet final candidates so their voices can be heard,” Paulson stated.

Whether Paulson removing himself as CEO, but retaining ownership, is enough to earn back the trust of players and fans remains to be seen. Collective player pressure resulted in the eventual ousting of Steve Baldwin as Washington Spirit principal owner in early 2022. On Monday, Chicago Red Stars players released joint statements calling for the removal of Arnim Whisler as principal owner after “the extent of his dishonesty became clear” in last week’s Yates report on abuse in the NWSL.  

A team source said that Paulson’s priority is keeping the Thorns in Portland. There is significant new interest in the NWSL from prospective owners and there could be several dozen groups vying for only one expansion spot in 2024 alongside the return of a Utah franchise. Potential sales of existing teams open up other entry points into the league.


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