The National Women’s Soccer League has canceled all five of its scheduled matches this weekend amid misconduct allegations against Paul Riley, the now-former head coach of the North Carolina Courage who was fired on Thursday. Riley has denied the allegations.
In a statement Friday, the player’s union said it “made the difficult decision” to ask the league to postpone this weekend’s games “to give players space to process this pain.”
NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird granted the request and said the league has a “great deal of healing to do.”
“I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling. Recognizing that trauma, we have decided not to take the field this weekend to give everyone some space to reflect. Business as usual isn’t our concern right now,” Baird said in a statement. “We have made this decision in collaboration with our players’ association and this pause will be the first step as we collectively work to transform the culture of this league, something that is long overdue.”
On Thursday, The Athletic published an article in which Sinead Farrelly, who played for Riley on multiple teams, claimed he coerced her into having sex with him. Farrelly and colleague Mana Shim also alleged that when they played for him on the Portland Thorns for the 2014-2015 season, he coerced them into kissing each other. They also claimed he made inappropriate comments about their bodies, sexual orientation and relationships.
In a statement to The Athletic, Riley called the allegations “completely untrue.” While he acknowledged making comments that some players may have found offensive, he said, “I do not belittle my players, comment on their weight, or discuss their personal relationships.” He denied ever taking his players out drinking or making any sexual advances towards them.
The women claimed Shim filed a complaint against Riley to the Thorns at the end of the 2015 season and said they both spoke with an HR representative about her alleged experience. The team announced soon after that Riley’s contract would not be renewed, but did not cite a specific reason, The Athletic reported. Riley then worked with the Western New York Flash and the North Carolina Courage. He was the National Women Soccer League coach of the year in 2017 and 2018.
The Thorns said Thursday that they conducted a “thorough investigation” when they received the complaint about Riley and did not discover illegal activity, but did find “clear violations” of company policy.
Several NWSL stars and Olympians, including Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn and Becky Sauerbrunn, applauded the women and condemned the league’s initial response to the allegations.
“The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate the allegations,” Morgan tweeted. “The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse.”
Sauerbrunn, the U.S. Women’s National Team’s captain, said, “NWSL, it’s time to get your s*** together.”
“To be where we are today is unacceptable,” she said in a statement. “The league and every club have to do better.”
On Friday evening, U.S. Soccer announced it would launch its own independent investigation into the allegations.
“Player safety and respect is the paramount responsibility of every person involved in this game. That is true across every age, competition and ability level,” Cindy Cone, president of U.S. Soccer, said. “We owe it to each athlete, each fan and the entire soccer community to take every meaningful action in our power to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. We hope to work together with all parties in this important effort.”