Courage players show solidarity in return to soccer field

Playing for the first time since the firing of coach Paul Riley in a controversity that has shaken the entire NWSL, the NC Courage beat Racing Louisville 3-1 on Wednesday

North Carolina Courage and Racing Louisville FC players pause and gather at midfield during the first half of an NWSL soccer match in Cary. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Members of the North Carolina Courage were not made available to the media after the team’s 3-1 win against Racing Louisville on Wednesday.

But that doesn’t mean the players didn’t let their feelings be known about the controversy sparked by accusations of sexual coersion and other misconduct by former Courage coach Paul Riley.

Six minutes into the game at Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park, the players on both teams came to a halt, gathered at midfield, and linked arms in a show of solidarity with Meleana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, the two former players that came forward with the allegations against Riley.

“Players will join together in solidarity at the center circle for one minute in recognition of the six years it took for Mana, Sinead and all those who fought for too long to be heard,” a statement issued by the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association, issued before the game read. “We call on fans to stand in silence with us. During that time, we ask you to stand in that pain and discomfort with us, as we consider what too many of us have asked to sit with for far too long.”

Shim and Farrelly, among others, accused Riley of a pattern of sexual coercion and other abuses of his leadership position in an investigative report published by The Athletic last week. 

Riley, who has denied the allegations, was subsequently fired by the Courage and replaced on an interim basis by assistant Sean Nahas. Washington Spirit CEO Steve Baldwin and NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird also lost their jobs in response to demands by the players union for the league to provide a safer working environment and a more reliable system for reporting abuse.

After postponing all its games over the weekend, the NWSL has also formed an executive committee to manage oversight of its front office operations.

The incidents detailed by Farrelly and Shim allegedly took place while Riley was with the Portland Thorns in 2015, which investigated the coach while he was with the team and reported the findings to the league. He was subsequently dismissed by the team.

Despite that, he was hired shortly thereafter by the Western New York Flash, which subsequently relocated to Cary in 2017

The NWSL players union, which is currently negotiating what would be its first collective bargaining agreement with the league, has demanded an investigation to find out how Riley was hired by another team after allegations of his misconduct surfaced while he was with the Thorns.

The issue was addressed by Courage principal owner Steve Malik in an open letter issued Thursday afternoon.

“Following the news of last week, many of you were left with a key question — what did we know?” Malik wrote. “When we bought the Western NY Flash in 2017, we conducted due diligence to continue with Mr. Riley and the coaching staff. 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.”

Malik added that he and his team support Shim and Farrelly for their courage and apologized “for our part in the failure to create an environment where players feel safe and comfortable coming forward.”

Once the game resumed following the sixth minute break, the Courage took over with goals from Lynn Williams and Amy Rodriguez five minutes apart. Then after Savannah McCaskill answered for Louisville to cut the lead in half, Brazilian star Debinha — playing in her first game since returning from the Tokyo Olympics — tallied just before halftime to provide what proved to be the final margin.