Thorns owner Merritt Paulson urged Paul Riley to opt out of USWNT job

In August 2019, Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson engaged in an effort to dissuade Paul Riley from applying for the manager’s job with the U.S. women’s national team. This came almost four years after Riley was fired by the National Women’s Soccer League team for cause following an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment. According to sources, Paulson even went as far as to tell Riley’s boss at the time, North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik, that it was “a good idea” for Riley to withdraw from consideration, which would keep the manner of Riley’s firing from becoming public.

In 2015, Riley was fired by the Thorns for cause after violating the terms of his contract, following a complaint by then-Thorns player Mana Shim accusing him of sexual harassment and coercion. The allegations were corroborated by then-teammate Sinead Farrelly and were first reported by The Athletic last year. They included Riley inviting Shim and Farrelly back to his apartment and asking them to kiss each other in exchange for getting the team out of a conditioning drill the next day, as well as drinking with players and sending lewd photos to Shim. The Thorns fired Riley following an investigation.

But from the moment Riley was fired by the Thorns, up until the players went public with their allegations, the game’s gatekeepers took steps to shield Riley and themselves from scrutiny. This included the Thorns’ portrayal of Riley’s departure as a non-renewal of his contract due to performance and the coach’s desire to move back to the East Coast.

The nature of his exit also meant Riley was still able to coach again in the NWSL with the Western New York Flash, which later became the North Carolina Courage, despite the Thorns’ investigation being known to the NWSL and the U.S. Soccer Federation, which at the time was running the league.

When the managerial post for the national team became open in July 2019 and Riley’s name appeared on a shortlist by incoming USWNT general manager Kate Markgraf, the impulse to protect Riley’s professional reputation, as well as the teams involved, kicked in again. Sources tell ESPN that in a phone call between Paulson and Malik, Paulson told the Courage owner that Riley was fired for cause and that it would be good if Riley withdrew from USWNT consideration.

According to one source with knowledge of the situation, this came after the U.S. Soccer Federation was warned that details of Riley’s firing would become public if he was named USWNT manager, at which point it informed Paulson of this development.

On Aug. 20, Riley publicly withdrew his name from consideration.

The information relating to the phone call came to light when law firm DLA Piper made a presentation earlier this year to more than 150 Portland Thorns and Portland Timbers employees, updating them on how the organization handled its own investigation into Riley. Some details of the meeting were first published by The Oregonian. During that presentation, a recording of which was obtained by ESPN, DLA Piper revealed the nature of the phone call between Paulson and Malik.

Another source outside the Timbers/Thorns organization has independently told ESPN that Paulson acknowledged that he had a conversation with Malik in which he told the Courage owner that Riley should withdraw from consideration.

There were other efforts behind the scenes to make sure Riley didn’t get hired for the U.S. job. Sources tell ESPN that multiple USWNT players urged the USSF not to hire Riley. Multiple sources told ESPN that Riley was never close to getting the job, and that Vlatko Andonovski soon emerged as the front-runner. But the maneuvering by Paulson, Malik and others highlights the efforts made to keep the manner of, and the reasons for, Riley’s firing from the public.

This impulse continued as it related to Riley’s withdrawal. Riley announced his intentions on Twitter, stating he was “not interested in the job at this time” and that he would remain in his post as manager of the Courage. He added in the tweet, “there is nothing like the day 2 day develpt of players.”

The announcement was met with approval by Malik, who replied on Twitter: “Courage country should be smiling. The rest of @NWSL hasn’t seen our best yet. We appreciate [Riley’s] commitment to constant improvement.”

Shortly after Riley’s alleged transgressions first became public in September 2021, Malik released a statement in which he said, “We were made aware of an investigation into Mr. Riley’s behavior in 2015 and were subsequently assured that he was in good standing. During his employment with the Courage, we had no knowledge of allegations of sexual harassment or coercion. When we learned of the horrific allegations in last week’s reporting, we took those seriously and immediately terminated Mr. Riley.”

But the phone call in 2019 between Malik and Paulson, and its description by DLA Piper, undercuts Malik’s statement.

The existence of the phone call also undercuts public statements from Paulson and the Thorns organization that framed the club’s only misstep as not publicly disclosing the true reason for Riley’s exit in the news release announcing his departure “out of respect for player privacy,” as Paulson said in an open letter after Shim went public with her allegations.

Asked for comment, a Portland Thorns spokesperson said, “Out of respect to the ongoing NWSL investigations, which we are actively cooperating with, we will withhold comment until a more appropriate time.”

The Courage issued the following statement: “There are multiple ongoing investigations with which we are actively cooperating. We look forward to these concluding, and the full truth being brought forward.”

No concerns “as a coach”

The Timbers/Thorns presentation also reveals that when Aaran Lines, the vice president of the Western New York Flash — the club that later became the Courage — contacted the Portland Timbers organization asking if the Flash should hire Riley, the Timbers gave Riley a positive referral. Five months after Riley was fired by the Thorns, the Flash announced they had hired him.

Lines didn’t respond to a request for comment.

During the presentation to Timbers and Thorns staff, DLA Piper said it wasn’t privy to every bit of communication between the Thorns and the Flash regarding Riley, but the law firm did uncover one correspondence: Lines asked the Thorns if Riley was a good coach, and whether there were any issues with him in that role. The Thorns responded positively despite the litany of reasons the club had cited in a written letter terminating Riley months earlier.

According to DLA Piper’s presentation, in the termination letter dated Sept. 23, 2015, the club’s grounds for firing Riley included “neglect, refusal or willful failure to render services,” “gross negligence and willful misconduct in performing his duties,” conduct “which brings the club in a public disrepute scandal,” behaving in an “adverse manner” including “dishonesty, fraudulent behavior, unethical behavior and the like,” and “breaching his fiduciary duty” to the club.

But when the Flash sought a positive referral for hiring Riley, none of that factored in for the Thorns, DLA Piper said.

“That was asking if there were any issues with Riley as a coach. Essentially, putting aside other things, saying, ‘As a coach, how is Paul Riley?’ Well, we know that at the time, Paul Riley was viewed as a good coach,” a lawyer from the firm said at the presentation. “He was viewed as somebody who was a prominent coach of women’s soccer, didn’t succeed at the Thorns, but the idea was he could succeed elsewhere. That was the prevailing view. And that was essentially the reaction from the Thorns, you know, putting aside everything else, no concerns with him as a coach.”

The lawyer did not state who in the Timbers organization Lines spoke with. But a source with knowledge of the situation confirmed The Oregonian’s reporting that the person in question was president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson, who was advised by outside counsel that he was only allowed to speak on soccer matters, with anything beyond that — including the team’s investigation into Riley and his subsequent termination — to be referred to the NWSL. The presentation made no mention of this limitation. Lines and Wilkinson have a longstanding relationship dating back to their playing days with the Portland Timbers and New Zealand’s national team.

As for why Riley was allowed to keep working, that was ultimately the purview of the NWSL. But a key component was the conclusion reached by the Thorns’ investigation in 2015, conducted by the law firm Stoel Rives, that “no unlawful conduct” by Riley was found to have taken place.

Perhaps more critically, that conclusion was written into Riley’s termination letter, which, according to the presentation, read in part, “While our investigation did not reveal any unlawful conduct by anyone, we did confirm that on occasion, you exercised poor judgment in your interactions with one or more players.”

During the presentation, DLA Piper acknowledged it was uneasy with such a conclusion and “such a statement is unusual.”

“I would agree that that process they followed in 2015 was generally the process that you did back then,” the lawyer said. “But saying that you have no unlawful conduct, that is a little tougher, and something that is a little more difficult to understand, especially with how it’s being used right there. Because generally speaking, in an investigation, it’s really hard to exonerate somebody. Right? It’s like, there’s so much other conduct. There’s other times that around the investigation, we just we can’t tell for sure that somebody has not done this thing because we haven’t looked at the entire universe. It’s impossible to.”

“There was one interview of Sinead. That was it.”

A missing piece of the 2015 investigation was that while Farrelly corroborated much of what was contained in Shim’s complaint, including the alleged incident in Riley’s apartment where he coerced Shim and Farrelly into kissing each other, there was no follow-up with Farrelly on her experience playing under Riley, which she alleges included a sexual relationship and other coercive behavior.

DLA Piper added that once the threshold of deciding to terminate Riley’s contract was reached, no further investigating was done. The firm added that investigations of sexual harassment are conducted differently now than they were seven years ago, and that 2015 was “before tools like trauma-informed questioning were developed, before concepts like grooming were really understood as well.” Trauma-informed investigations are designed to draw out the relevant information without retraumatizing the victim.

“With a trauma-focused investigation, you often are trying to have multiple discussions with people, help them feel comfortable about that,” the firm said. “Follow up when you see different flags and all that. You really are trying to get to the core of what is going on and trying to help people overcome the other very, very many and valid reasons why they don’t want to talk about these things. That obviously didn’t happen in 2015. There was one interview of Sinead. That was it.”

The assertion that the concept of grooming wasn’t well understood back in 2015 seems deferential to those who conducted the Thorns’ investigation back then, according to one expert. David Kruckenberg is an associate with the San Francisco-based law firm Messing Adam & Jasmine, who has conducted or assisted on about 100 investigations relating to sexual harassment, sexual discrimination or racial discrimination in the workplace and is also a member of the Association of Workplace Investigators. In an interview with ESPN, he stated that the concept of grooming “has been around for decades.”

“[Grooming] might have been called different things over the years, but it’s been common knowledge that especially historically, men have been accused of grooming subordinates for sexual relationships,” Kruckenberg said.

He added that while trauma-informed investigations were around in 2015, it is possible the investigators hadn’t been trained in those techniques.

“The basic idea of trauma-informed investigations has been around for a long time, but in terms of the widespread use of those techniques, that is a relatively new phenomenon,” he said. “We’re talking really just in the last few years that it’s been more commonplace.”

While the lack of experience in trauma-informed investigations might explain why an investigator couldn’t draw the information out of Farrelly, it doesn’t entirely explain why multiple interviews weren’t conducted.

The Thorns’ internal investigation described by DLA Piper in the presentation, which reviewed the club’s initial handling of Shim’s 2015 complaint, has not been made public, despite Paulson’s promises that it would be.

At present, other investigations into the behavior of Riley and several now-former NWSL managers — as well as the clubs who employed these managers — are underway. U.S. Soccer has retained former U.S. attorney general Sally Yates to conduct an investigation, and a joint investigation involving the NWSL and NWSLPA is also ongoing.

The next step is to await their findings.