Investigation finds that U.S. Soccer, Portland Thorns leaders knew about Paul Riley allegations
Monday’s “infuriating” investigative report on player abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League shed new light on the failures that allowed Paul Riley to continue coaching in the league for six years after being credibly accused of sexual misconduct.
Ever since Riley’s accusers went public last year, questions have dogged the Portland Thorns — his club at the time of the alleged misconduct — and other soccer executives about who knew what, and when. Monday’s report, commissioned by U.S. Soccer and produced by former federal prosecutor Sally Yates, revealed that Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinson were aware of allegations against Riley, and nonetheless contributed to his hiring by other NWSL clubs.
In fact, Riley’s sexual misconduct had become something of an “open secret” across the league, the Yates investigation found. And in the hours, months and years after then-Thorns player Mana Shim emailed Paulson and Wilkinson to report Riley’s “sexual harassment,” dozens of soccer officials — including then-U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, then-U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn and multiple NWSL commissioners — became aware of it.
None moved to prevent Riley from coaching and continuing to abuse players until The Athletic detailed Shim’s and Sinead Farrelly’s allegations last fall.
Riley was fired in the immediate aftermath, and NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned. But Paulson still owns and operates the Thorns and their brother club, Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers. Wilkinson, who has played or worked for the Timbers for two decades, was placed on administrative leave and later replaced as Thorns GM, but continues to lead soccer operations for the Timbers.
Here is what they and others knew about Riley, and how they acted, according to the Yates Report.
Merritt Paulson and Gavin Wilkinson, Portland Thorns
On Sept. 16, 2015, Paulson and Wilkinson were direct recipients of Shim’s email, in which she detailed Riley’s persistent and unwanted advances, his retaliation against her when she asked him to stop, and a specific night when he brought Shim and Farrelly back to his apartment and pressured them to kiss each.
Within 24 hours, both Paulson and Wilkinson had spoken with NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush, who told Paulson in an email: “Let’s stay in close communication going forward.”
Seven days later, the Thorns had finalized a seven-page report that Yates’ investigative team found incomplete and “misleading.” It did not include, for example, Shim’s allegation that Riley had texted her that he wanted to “f*** her”; nor did it include the words “sexual” or “harassment.”
Even so, Paulson told Riley: “This is very serious stuff. … At a minimum its [sic] apparent some bad judgment has been exercised and unprofessional behavior has occurred.” Wilkinson told Riley, in part: “You exercised poor judgment in your interaction with one or more players.” The Thorns terminated his contract for cause.
But they publicly stated that they’d simply chosen not to renew his contract. They never told players, team staff, or other NWSL teams about the investigation or the true nature of his firing. That winter, when the Western New York Flash began considering Riley as a coaching candidate, Wilkinson spoke with Flash vice president Aaran Lines. The Flash told Yates’ investigative team that “the only negative reference made during the conversation was a comment from Mr. Wilkenson [sic] that Mr. Riley did not mesh well with all of the personalities in the locker room.”
Wilkinson confirmed that he told Lines that Riley was a good coach, and that he’d hire him again. According to Plush, Wilkinson brought up the “human resource issue” and told Lines that Riley had been “put in a bad position by the player.”
The Yates investigation could not find any evidence that the Thorns made the Flash aware that they’d fired Riley for cause.
Paulson — who told investigators that he thought the league would share Shim’s allegations with the Flash — did not speak with Flash leadership, but later wrote to the team’s president: “Best of luck this season and congrats on the Riley hire. I have a lot of affection for him.”
Riley was again being vetted a year later when the Flash’s NWSL club was sold to Steve Malik in North Carolina. During that process, Malik sought out Paulson, and told Yates’ investigators that he “specifically asked” Paulson why Riley left Portland. Paulson, according to Malik, said that Riley was not retained, and went on to detail soccer issues; he wrote off the incident at Riley’s apartment with Shim and Farrelly as “poor judgement,” and indicated that Riley was essentially cleared.
Paulson told investigators that he does not remember this conversation. He said he did speak with then-NWSL managing director Amanda Duffy about whether to share the Thorns’ 2015 investigative report with Malik; but Malik claims he and his rebranded club never received it, nor learned that Riley had been fired for cause.
Paulson and Malik spoke again in 2019 when Riley reportedly became a candidate for the U.S. women’s national team coaching job. Paulson claimed in an interview with Yates’ investigative team that he told Malik that Riley had been fired for cause; but Malik claimed that he didn’t, and text messages reveal that Paulson told Malik: “Paul’s contract was up when he left us and we didn’t renew it. A technicality but a distinction.”
The Thorns/Timbers have not yet commented on the Yates report’s findings. They also “interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents,” investigators wrote.
Steve Malik, North Carolina Courage
Malik, upon purchasing the team in 2017, contacted various people at U.S. Soccer, the NWSL, the Thorns and the Flash, and, along with club president Curt Johnson, “learned of an alleged incident in which Riley had players up to his apartment, where two women kissed,” the Yates report states.
Johnson and Flynn, the U.S. Soccer chief, gave conflicting accounts of the conversation they had about Riley. Johnson said Flynn and Plush downplayed the incident.
Malik said that Paulson assured him “that nothing else was reported” beyond the one incident, which Paulson allegedly described as a case of “poor judgement.”
But Malik seemed to learn more when the USWNT job opened up, and Riley’s name appeared on speculative shortlists. An agent had reached out to Cindy Parlow Cone, then U.S. Soccer’s vice president, to describe vague, second-hand allegations against Riley, and warned Cone not to consider Riley in the coaching search. Cone then reached out to Malik. When the two spoke a couple days later, according to Cone, Malik said that he’d talked to Riley and the issue was, per Malik, two players kissing.
Soon thereafter, when Riley publicly said he didn’t want the USWNT job, Malik told Paulson and Duffy in a text message: “Obviously I talked to him.”
In an interview with Yates’ investigative team, Malik “agreed that an incident in which two players were asked to kiss is completely unacceptable for a national team coach and disqualifying, but expressed his view that it did not disqualify Riley from leading an NWSL club,” the report states.
Sunil Gulati and Dan Flynn, U.S. Soccer
Gulati, who served as U.S. Soccer president from 2006-18, and Flynn, the federation’s CEO from 2000-19, could have learned of Riley’s non-sexual abuse in 2014. They were emailed the results of an anonymous NWSL survey, in which players accused Riley of sexism, verbal abuse, manipulation and destructive leadership. “In any other job he would be fire[d] for how he treats his employees,” one player wrote.
Gulati and Flynn, however, both told investigators that they don’t recall reviewing the comments. (Gulati was the one who’d initially suggested the surveys.)
Separately, also in 2014, USWNT players relayed similar allegations of verbal abuse by Riley to Gulati. The feedback was forwarded to Flynn and others, but no action was taken.
Then, in September 2015, shortly after it was sent, Shim’s original email was forwarded to Gulati, Flynn, and then-U.S. Soccer chief financial officer Eric Gleason. They “agreed it was important to monitor the situation.”
As the Thorns’ investigation was nearing completion, Plush, the NWSL commissioner, emailed Flynn and Gulati to inform them that another NWSL club, Sky Blue FC, had asked about approaching Riley. Gulati responded: “Let’s make sure we are up to speed on how the Portland situation is being handled/investigated.”
Months later, when the Flash pursued Riley, “officials from the league and USSF monitored the process,” the report states. “While privately characterizing the hire as ‘not good news,’ league and federation officials generally took the position that there was no role for the league or USSF in a team’s hiring decision.” Gulati, upon learning that the Flash were going to hire Riley, told Plush: “we need to discuss.” But neither he nor Flynn, according to their recollections, ever spoke with Flash officials.
Both were consulted again a year later as North Carolina considered retaining Riley. Gulati advised Malik to speak with Riley’s “previous employers.” Johnson, the North Carolina president, spoke with Flynn, and told investigators that Flynn informed him of a “poor decision” that Riley had made in Portland related to drinking with players. “Johnson said Flynn told him that some players ended up at Riley’s nearby apartment where they continued to drink, and a player accused Riley of suggesting during that gathering that she kiss another female,” the report states.
Flynn, however, said he did not offer such detail, and instead advised Johnson and North Carolina to speak with other NWSL owners. (Flynn, the report states, “agreed only to respond to written questions, rather than sit for an interview.”)
Flynn retired in 2019, and had already announced that he’d be stepping down well before Riley’s name was mentioned as a USWNT coaching candidate. FIFA recently hired Flynn as a “senior executive advisor” for the 2026 men’s World Cup.
Cone, when asked whether U.S. Soccer might contact FIFA about Flynn’s continued employment, in light of the report, said: “There are many people who are not necessarily still under U.S. Soccer’s umbrella that have gone on to other places, whether in our sport or outside of our sport, and those entities will have to make the decision that they want to make. Obviously, discussions will continue.”
Gulati remains active in soccer, but mostly behind the scenes.
Gleason now works for USA Rugby, that sport’s national governing body.
Who else knew about Riley, and when?
The other U.S. Soccer officials mentioned frequently in the Yates report were the federation’s top lawyers, Lisa Levine and Lydia Wahlke.
Levine, who also served as the NWSL’s general counsel until she resigned alongside Baird last year, received the 2014 player comments on Riley’s abusive behavior, and Shim’s 2015 email. “Levine was regularly apprised of the review conducted by the Thorns into Shim’s allegations and received a copy of the resulting report,” the Yates report states.
Plush, who served as NWSL commissioner from 2015-17, was also abreast of most developments. When Shim forwarded him her email, he immediately forwarded it to Levine and wrote: “Not good.” After Sky Blue FC reached out about approaching Riley, “Plush and Levine discussed the need to inform Sky Blue about the reasons for Riley’s termination,” the Yates report states. On a subsequent call to Sky Blue GM Tony Novo, Levine shared “confidential” information and seemingly dissuaded Novo from hiring Riley.
The Yates report indicates, though, that Plush and Levine chose to not circulate the Thorns’ investigation results to other teams. Levine, alongside Baird, was also involved in the NWSL’s failures to act on renewed complaints from Shim and Farrelly in 2021.
Baird, the Yates report reveals, “still actively worked to keep Riley in the league” less than a month before The Athletic brought the allegations against him to the public. “That month, Riley posted angry comments on social media about the league’s proposed postseason schedule,” Yates wrote. “On September 7, 2021, Malik texted Baird that Riley had ‘resigned over his and the Courage’s fury with the League.’ The next day, Baird responded: ‘I had a long talk with [Riley] and strongly urged him not to resign and am glad you didn’t accept it.’”
Wahlke, who resigned as U.S. Soccer’s chief legal counsel in 2020 amid blowback for the federation’s misogynistic legal filings in its equal pay dispute with USWNT players, learned in 2018 about an issue with Riley that “needed further investigating,” according to the Yates report. USWNT Players Association reps again contacted Wahlke in 2019 when Riley’s name emerged as a potential national team coach. Via U.S. Soccer counsel, Wahlke was told that Riley “was having a relationship with a Portland player. There is more history. … This person cannot be the new WNT coach. … I’m told that people at the Federation are aware of the issues because they were raised when he was at the Thorns.”
The following day, Wahlke received and read a copy of the 2015 Thorns’ report. She told investigators that she spoke with USWNT general manager Kate Markgraf, and communicated that USWNT players did not support Riley. The federation did not hire Riley, but took no further action. He continued coaching in the league for over two more years.