NWSL announces pause in response to Courage coach controversy

The women's soccer league has postponed all its games this weekend while it works with its players union to 'transform' its culture

CARY — The National Women’s Soccer League has announced that its games scheduled for this weekend, including Friday’s match between the North Carolina Courage and the Washington Spirit, will not be played because of the gravity of the controversy involving recently dismissed Courage coach Paul Riley.

Riley was fired on Thursday after allegations of sexual misconduct against him were published in an investigative report by The Athletic.  

The investigative report by Meg Linehan quoted former players Sinead Farrelly and Meleana Shim — along with more than a dozen others that have been on teams coached by Riley over the past decade — accusing him of a pattern of sexual coercion and other inappropriate behavior.

“This week and much of the season has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff, and I take full responsibility for the role I have played,” NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement announcing the postponements. “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.

“Our entire league has a great deal of healing to do and our players deserve so much better. 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.”

It’s a decision supported by Courage management in a statement that said the decision not to play “was one that put the players first and one that should always be the case.

“It is important for the players to take the necessary means to process their thoughts and feelings at this time,” the statement said.

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.

He has denied the allegations, calling them “completely untrue” in an email responding to questions submitted to him by The Athletic.

The incidents detailed by Farrelly and Shim allegedly took place while Riley was with Portland, which conducted an investigation into 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 Association, which is currently negotiating what would be its first collective bargaining agreement with the league, issued a statement Thursday, saying the union stands with players “who have brought their stories into the light — both known and unknown” — and called on the league to enact measures to prevent similar incidents in the future.

The union also demanded to know how Riley was hired by another club after allegations of misconduct surfaced while he was with the Thorns.

“We refuse to be silent any longer. Our commitment as players is to speak truth to power,” members of the union said in a statement. “We will no longer be complicit in a culture of silence that has enabled abuse and exploitation in our league and in our sport.”

It is not known when or if the league plans to resume competition.

Courage assistant coach Sean Nahas has been named as interim coach for the remainder of the NWSL season.