Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Thorns and Timbers, has announced that he will sell the women’s soccer team but maintain ownership of the men’s team. Fans have been calling for Paulson to sell both teams — even before a recent report outlining the Portland club’s role in systemic abuse and misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League. Paulson said that he would donate a million dollars to create a Player Safety Department in the NWSL. Although head coach Rhian Wilkinson was cleared of potential wrongdoing in the report, on Friday she resigned after self-disclosing that she and another player had expressed feelings for each other. Ryan Clarke is the Timbers and Thorns correspondent for The Oregonian/Oregonlive and hosts the “Soccer Made in Portland” podcast. He joins us to discuss this week’s Thorns news, what’s at stake and what comes next.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Portland Thorns and Timbers, announced yesterday that he will sell the women’s soccer team but maintain ownership of the men’s team. Fans had been calling for Paulson to sell both teams even before a recent report outlining the Portland club’s role in systemic abuse and misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League. This morning, more Thorns news broke. Head coach Rhian Wilkinson announced she is resigning. She had previously disclosed to team officials that she and a player had told each other that they had feelings for one another. Ryan Clarke is the Timbers and Thorns correspondent for The Oregonian, and he hosts the Soccer Made In Portland podcast. He joins us to discuss this week’s news. Welcome to the show.
Ryan Clarke: Of course, thanks for having me.
Miller: Why did Paulson say he is going to sell the Thorns?
Clarke: Merritt Paulson said that he believes it is the best thing for the Thorns, for him to move on from them. Of course, the club, as he noted, has gone through multiple scandals in the past year. Plus the primary one dating back to issues in 2015 involving former coach Paul Riley, who was accused of various sexual misconduct when it came to two former players who played for him with the Thorns. And then obviously other issues including the findings of the US Soccer report that had recently come out. Those ultimately factored into a decision. When I sat down with Merritt Paulson for a story earlier this week, he said those factored in. And [in] his own belief, he said that the franchise would be better off under new ownership and with new leadership in that position.
Miller: You noted that one of the most damaging findings from that USAC investigation included an email from Paulson to the Western New York Flash. They hired Riley after Portland let him go. And Paulson congratulated that club and said that he had quote “a lot of affection for Riley.” What did he tell you about that message?
Clarke: He claims that message was disingenuous, and that in the world of sports - if you’re an owner, if you’re a GM, if you’re somebody in the front office - you will often say things to other teams in a congratulatory manner that you may not actually mean. Given what Merritt Paulson knew at the time of Paul Riley’s alleged abuses, that makes it difficult for fans to understand the rationale behind that being disingenuous, because why go out of your way to congratulate someone who behind the scenes you know was fired for misconduct in the workplace involving a player? In addition to that email, he publicly tweeted at Paul Riley and that the teams that he coached, congratulating him on multiple occasions and even sharing quips about Riley’s personality and everything else. So that was not an isolated incident, but Paulson insists that that was disingenuous. His congratulations of the Flash for hiring Riley.
Miller: How did he explain his decision to only sell the Thorns and not the Timbers as well?
Clarke: He believes that he will be in a better position to help support the Thorns from the outside if he maintains ownership of the Timbers. As you know, [the] fans that have called for him to sell both of the teams believe that a fresh start is needed for both and they should still operate under one club umbrella. Under Merritt’s current plan to sell one and not the other, the teams will be essentially cleaved in two as a result of this and will be two separate clubs. But Merritt’s insistence in this, is that as owner of the Timbers, he will be able to provide favorable lease terms for the Thorns to continue playing all of their games at Providence Park. He will continue to help push for a training facility for the team that’s dedicated for just the Thorns, because right now the Timbers have their own facility, but the Thorns do not - they currently practice at Providence Park as well.
So there are a number of factors that Paulson believes if he maintains that position of power with the Timbers, that he can help the Thorns. But that, in the view of some fans, leaves him still in a position of power over the Thorns, as someone who would control the ability for the Thorns to be a tenant at Providence Park, that would have an influential role over the organization, even if he was not the owner. And that’s a concern going forward that Paulson will have to address.
Miller: He told you that quote “he’ll be in a position to set the Thorns up for success, much more so than if they were unbundled and both sold separately.” But was that the most likely option? If he were to sell both teams, couldn’t he have sold them and only chosen to sell them as a package?
Clarke: Yes, he could have. And there are plenty of people in the Portland soccer community who are concerned about splitting of the clubs and what that can do in terms of the institutional support for the Thorns. Yes, Merritt Paulson can support the club from the outside and in the ways that he described, but he’s not obligated to do so. And the fans, I guess will have to trust him at his word on that, in addition to the fact that without being bundled with the Timbers, there just isn’t the same level of institutional support for the Thorns that there would be if they were associated with an MLS team, that’s valuation is 10 times that of the Thorns. And the NWSL is growing and teams are valued at a much higher level, but it’s a big difference. And having that institutional support from an MLS side and there are other clubs throughout the NWSL that have the same type of support.
Miller: What have you heard from Thorns players, either publicly or on background, about this announcement?
Clarke: There have been Thorns players that have spoken out in support of Merritt Paulson in the last several days. Christine Sinclair, Emily Menges and others who have come out and said that they appreciated what Paulson meant to women’s soccer. But there have been others, both privately and publicly, who have really pushed back against that. And they’re concerned about showing support for someone that, in their view, played a role in largely enabling an abuser in women’s soccer. Paul Riley, who coerced, allegedly, players into sexual relationships and who allegedly sexually harassed players and sent them inappropriate text messages, and lured them into hotel rooms. This is beyond Paul Riley. There are obviously other institutional issues within PTFC which have been reported on over the past year plus, but that is the central concern.
Miller: Over the last six months or so, or maybe more, we’ve heard from a number of different fans who were struggling in their own ways. They were ambivalent about how to support these teams that they love and the players that they really care for, without wanting to give more money to Merritt Paulson. I’m curious if you think that this announcement - if it doesn’t change, if Paulson does not decide to sell the Timbers as well - could lead to some version of exodus of support for the Timbers? If some number of Portland’s soccer fans who have been ambivalent about giving money to Paulson, will now see a clear way to root for a Portland’s team and buy tickets and buy gear without giving money to Merritt Paulson?
Clarke: Yes, I think that there now exists a more clear avenue for that to happen for people. And I have heard personally from Timbers fans who have had enough. They are planning on canceling their season tickets and they do see this path to move away from supporting someone in Merritt Paulson, who they believe played a key role in all of this, in terms of the issues with abuse and misconduct. And there’s a lot of crossover of the fandoms between the Timbers and the Thorns. You’d be hard pressed to find somebody who supports the Timbers, but doesn’t pay attention to the Thorns or vice versa. It’s a lot of crossover, the people in the Timbers Army and the Rose City Riveters. They have different leadership, but at the end of the day, they’re Portland’s soccer fans, and the people that keep up with them closest typically follow both. There’s a lot to unpack as far as continued support of either side, just given the scandals that have hit both teams.
Miller: I want to briefly turn to the other big Thorns news from today: the resignation of head coach Rhian Wilkinson. What did she say in her statement?
Clarke: She said that both she and one of her players . . . which was later identified by the Athletic and its reporting as Emily Menges, a defender who was a former teammate of Wilkinson’s in Portland. Rhian Wilkinson said that she and Menges exchanged texts where they both expressed romantic feelings for each other, but they never acted on those feelings. That resulted in Rhian resigning today as head coach of the Thorns after one season. The team won the championship at the end of this last year. And before this information came out, people were excited about the future of Portland under Rhian Wilkinson. And now this being another scandal involving inappropriate workplace conduct that has led to the unraveling of that situation with the Thorns. And you talk to people in Portland’s soccer community and many of them are devastated by this. They understand the situation, they are parsing through the nuance of it, but it’s a successful first-year coach who was a former Thorn herself who was liked a great deal in the community who is now stepping away because of this workplace issue.
Miller: What have you heard from players about this? As you said, it’s a nuanced issue. She disclosed the fact that they had expressed feelings for each other, but according to her, it never went past that expression of feelings, which is different from the allegations of abuse or misconduct that we have been talking about for years. Nevertheless, there’s a power imbalance here. What have you heard from players about it?
Clarke: Players, from what I have heard, are split on this. But a number of them who have yet to be identified, sent a letter to the NWSL about a month ago, outlining their concerns regarding the investigation into this. They don’t believe that the team handled it correctly. They are skeptical, given the issues that have faced the club in the past. And there are also some players who are supportive of Rhiane Wilkinson and empathize with it being a human moment, and being something that, as you said, is hard to categorize as abuse. But obviously as we know, there is a power imbalance there.
It’s a really complicated situation and one that we’ll continue to hear from players about in the coming days, but right now, it seems that the team was relatively split on this issue.
Miller: Ryan, thanks very much.
Clarke: Of course, thank you.
Miller: Ryan Clarke is the Timbers and Thorns correspondent for The Oregonian, and also the host of the Soccer Made in Portland podcast.
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