Portland Thorns defender Tegan McGrady has been here before.
She performed at Audi Field to nearly sold-out crowds as a member of the Washington Spirit. She also won a championship with the team in 2021.
But as his current team prepares to take on the Kansas City current at Audi Field on Saturday for the 2022 NWSL Championship, McGrady must also relive traumatic experiences off the field.
She is not alone.
The current generation of United States Women’s National Team and NWSL players have spent the majority of their professional careers struggling or recovering from issues other than wins and losses.
More recently, Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson was named in a report by US Attorney General Sally Yates following an investigation into systemic abuses in the league. The report, commissioned by US Soccer and released on October 3, called out Paulson for his role in helping former coach Paul Riley, who was with the organization from 2014 to 2015, get another job after he was fired. following player complaints of sexual coercion and abuse.
The report also mentions McGrady’s former coach, Richie Burke, who was fired during Spirit’s championship season last year for verbal and emotional abuse.
“People are looking to players for some kind of change, but we can’t be the ones asking us to do it every time,” McGrady told USA TODAY Sports. “We want to hold everyone to great responsibility, but we can only do and continue to do so much without hurting ourselves in the process.”
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Following Yates’ report and pending a joint investigation by the NWSL and NWSLPA, Paulson fired two front office executives — football president Gavin Wilkinson and business president Mike Golub. Paulson has also stepped down as CEO of Thorns and MLS affiliate Timbers, and he will watch Saturday’s championship on TV remotely.
In 2021, the Spirit’s former majority owner remained with the team through to the NWSL Finals despite support from the disgraced Burke. Current Washington owner Michelle Kang took majority control of the team after a long offseason battle.
“It’s very difficult for us to be able to do our jobs and find joy and passion when there’s so much around us,” said USWNT and Portland Thorns player Crystal Dunn. “It takes away that light.”
The players support each other; fans show up
For decades, players have fought for equal treatment and resources across three iterations of professional women’s soccer leagues in the United States. The fight began before the decisive 1999 World Cup victory that put American women’s soccer on the map.
It was only this year that the U.S. Women’s National Team took the first major step toward fair compensation with a $24 million settlement approved by a federal judge and a new collective bargaining agreement that pays men and women equally.
“As women, we’ve been really good at compartmentalizing,” Dunn said. “We’re very good at being able to balance a whole bunch of things.”
But when the body and mind are under constant stress, they go into survival mode.
“Obviously the last two weeks have been tough,” Dunn said. “For the players, we always feel like we fall in the middle of everything. Yates’ investigation shed much light on the problems that existed in the NWSL for its entire existence.
The Thorns and Spirit are not alone in their scandals. The Yates report ‘systemic’ and ‘pervasive’ abuse across the league since its inception in 2012. Players said they lean on each other even though they are ‘everywhere’ to deal with anything that had happened, Portland captain Becky Sauerbrunn said.
Fans are also speaking out, especially asking Paulson to leave Portland. Among the 4 largest crowds in league history, thousands held up “FOR SALE” signs ahead of the Thorns’ 2-1 semi-final win over the San Diego Wave.
“Seeing the city show up for us and help us through these tough times makes you realize you’re playing for much more important reasons,” McGrady said.
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A sense of hope with two new leaders
While players said they’re used to avoiding off-field distractions — sometimes, from their employers — new faces in Portland’s front office bring hope.
Christine Sinclair, a Thorns and Canadian national team star, said the new names include head coach Rhian Wilkinson and general manager Karina LeBlanc.
“There’s a different sense of family within the club that maybe hasn’t always been there in the past,” Sinclair said.
LeBlanc is a former Thorns goalkeeper and head of women’s football for Concacaf. She played 18 years of professional soccer in the Women’s Professional Soccer League, Women’s United Soccer Association and NWSL. She recorded 110 selections for the Canadian national team. And she played for Riley and another abuse center coach in Chicago, Rory Dames.
“I was coached by two of those coaches,” LeBlanc said. “I didn’t get along with any of them. So, reading the Yates report, I couldn’t even get away with it as a former player.
The Thorns hired LeBlanc in November 2021 to oversee technical football operations. Until recently, she reported directly to Paulson.
“As GM, I read it and had more clarity on who I wanted to be in the role,” LeBlanc said of reading Yates’ report. “I realized that my life had led me to this moment. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s because it’s to be the leader that they need in this area. And I think that for them, it’s to let them know they’re in a safe place.
LeBlanc stressed that to move forward, players need to be at the table, as the report showed not only abuse, but also a lack of listening when players asked for help.
Portland midfielder Janine Beckie was not with the team in the first season when the allegations against Riley became public. She joined the Thorns in April from Manchester City and said she saw the impact of the abuse from a different perspective.
“I’m hopeful that we get to a point where it’s not about resilience anymore,” Beckie said. “It’s a story of avoiding situations…and having the right people hired for those positions, because that’s what’s important.”