NC Courage coach’s firing leads to NWSL pause

The women’s soccer league had its commissioner resign and stopped play following allegations against Paul Riley

Allegations of sexual misconduct against North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley led to his dismissal and has forced a reckoning in the NWSL and women's soccer. (Anne M. Peterson / AP Photo)

An investigative report published by The Athletic last Thursday has set off a chain reaction that led to the firing of North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley and a systematic overhaul in the way the National Women’s Soccer League does business.

The firestorm began with revelations from former players Sinead Farrelly and Meleana Shim, among others, accusing Riley of a pattern of sexual coercion and other abuses of his leadership position.


Riley, who has denied the allegations, was subsequently fired by the Courage and replaced on an interim basis by assistant Sean Nahas.

But that was only the beginning of the fallout.

Reacting to a call by the NWSL Players Association to enact measures that would provide its members with a safer working environment and a more reliable system for reporting abuse, the league announced its decision to postpone all games scheduled for the weekend — including the Courage’s home match against the Washington Spirit. The Spirit’s CEO, Steve Baldwin, resigned Tuesday after 27 players signed a letter calling for his departure.

Before the weekend was over, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned both her position with the league as well as her spot on the U.S. Soccer board of directors, and the league had formed an executive committee to manage oversight of its front office operations made up of three women: Amanda Duffy of the Orlando Pride, Angie Long of Kansas City NWSL and Sophie Sauvage of the OL Reign.

“On behalf of the entire league, we are heartbroken for what far too many players have had to endure in order to simply play the game they love, and we are so incredibly sorry,” the three players said in a joint statement issued by the league.

“We understand that we must undertake a significant systemic and cultural transformation to address the issues required to become the type of league that NWSL players and their fans deserve and regain the trust of both. We’re committed to doing just that and recognize that this won’t happen overnight, but only through vigilance over time.”

Riley, a 58-year-old native of Liverpool, England, coached the Philadelphia Independence of the defunct Women’s Professional Soccer and the New York Fury and Portland Thorns of the NWSL before joining the team that would eventually become the Courage in 2017.

He is a two-time Coach of the Year who led the Courage to league championships in 2018 and ’19.

“The NC Courage supports the players who have come forward and we commend them for bravely sharing their stories,” a statement issued by the Courage’s players, staff and principal owner Steve Malik said.

“The North Carolina Football Club is united together in our commitment to creating a safe, positive, and respectful environment, not only within our club but across the league and our great sport. As previously stated, players and staff are encouraged to report any inappropriate behavior in accordance with NWSL policy as we prioritize efforts to maintain the highest professional standards of conduct throughout our organization.”

The incidents detailed by Farrelly and Shim in The Athletic report allegedly took place while Riley was with Portland, 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.

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.

U.S. Soccer, the international governing body FIFA and the NWSL have all begun inquiries into the allegations against Riley in addition to broader issues involving the culture of the league.

“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,” U.S. Soccer president Cindy Cone said in a statement. “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.”

The league plans to resume play on Wednesday.