PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — When Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson was contacted in 2019 about former coach Paul Riley's interest in becoming coach of the U.S. women's national team, he disclosed Riley had been fired by the team for cause but Paulson didn't try to shape a decision, the team said.
The team's statement came in response to a report by ESPN that detailed a presentation for Thorns employees by a law firm investigating how allegations of sexual coercion and harassment made against Riley were handled. Riley coached the Thorns in 2014-15 before he was dismissed.
Riley went on to coach the North Carolina Courage until last year, when he was fired after the allegations came to light. He has denied them.
The Thorns informed the National Women's Soccer League and U.S. Soccer about Riley's alleged misconduct when he was fired but did not make the reason public.
Riley was a candidate for the national team's head coaching job after Jill Ellis stepped down from the team following the 2019 World Cup. Vlatko Andonovski was ultimately named the team's coach.
ESPN cited unidentified sources that said U.S. Soccer was warned that details of Riley's firing would become public and that Paulson was informed about it. During the presentation to Thorns employees by the law firm, it was revealed Paulson had spoken to Courage owner Steve Malik and suggested Riley should withdraw, which Riley eventually did.
“In 2019, when Merritt Paulson received inquiries from interested parties related to the 2015 termination of Riley, he responded to them and confirmed that Riley had been terminated for cause from the Thorns,” the team said in a statement. “Paulson initiated none of these conversations but agreed with Riley's decision to step aside from USWNT consideration when that decision was made and did not seek to manage that outcome.”
The presentation was made in January when the club's internal investigation was still incomplete. The NWSL and the players union are also investigating the matter, as is U.S. Soccer.
Paulson is owner of both the Thorns and the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer. Because of the open investigations, the club said it cannot comment further.
NWSL and national team star Alex Morgan was critical of the Thorns' response, posting: “We (the players of the NWSL, especially players in Portland) deserve so much better than a boys club protecting their own. Also, that statement in response by @ThornsFC is just pathetic.”
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