The National Women’s Soccer League will not play the games scheduled for this weekend as it deals with the fallout from allegations of sexual misconduct against a former coach.
Friday’s matches, including Washington at North Carolina and Gotham FC at Louisville, were postponed along with Saturday’s slate, which featured Orlando at Chicago, Houston at Kansas City and Reign FC at Portland.
The NWSL did not specify Friday whether the games would be made up. In a statement, commissioner Lisa Baird said the decision was made with the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association.
The North Carolina Courage fired coach Paul Riley on Thursday amid allegations, spanning over a decade, of sexual coercion and inappropriate comments about players’ weight and sexual orientation.
Later on Friday, FIFA also announced that it had opened an investigation into the sexual harassment allegations against Riley.
“Due to the severity and seriousness of the allegations being made by players, we can confirm that FIFA’s judicial bodies are actively looking into the matter and have opened a preliminary investigation,” FIFA said in a statement to the AP. “As part of this, FIFA will be reaching out to the respective parties, including US Soccer and NWSL, for further information about the various safeguarding concerns and allegations of abuse that have been raised.”
Baird said in a statement: “This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff, and I take full responsibility for the role I have played. I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling. 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.”
The NWSLPA called Thursday “a profoundly painful day for us, as players” in a statement issued Friday.
“For many players, the pain has stretched across years,” the statement said. “The outpouring of support we have felt has been a beacon of light on a dark day.
“Last night, we made the difficult decision to ask NWSL to postpone this weekend’s games to give players space to process this pain. Commissioner Baird and the Board of Governors worked overnight to grant that request.”
The announcement came after The Athletic published an investigation in which it talked to more than a dozen players from every team Riley has coached since 2010, including two named players who went on the record with allegations against him.
A club statement on Thursday read: “In light of today’s reports, the North Carolina Courage have terminated head coach Paul Riley, effective immediately, following serious allegations of misconduct.”
Riley, in an email to The Athletic, said the majority of the allegations are “completely untrue.”
Riley was head coach of the Portland Thorns in 2014 and 2015. After he was let go by the Thorns, he became head coach of the Western New York Flash for a season before the team was sold and moved to North Carolina.
Riley was Women’s Professional Soccer coach of the year in 2011 and earned the same honors in the NWSL in 2017 and 2018. The Courage won the NWSL championship in 2018 and 2019.
The NWSLPA has also called for an independent investigation of the allegations leveled at Riley.
The union also demanded the suspension of any league or club staff who have been accused of violating the league’s anti-harassment policy or of failing to report misconduct, no matter when it occurred.
The union also demanded to know how Riley was hired by another club after allegations of misconduct surfaced while he was with the Thorns. The union is currently negotiating its first contract with the league.
“We refuse to be silent any longer. Our commitment as players is to speak truth to power,” the union said. “We will no longer be complicit in a culture of silence that has enabled abuse and exploitation in our league and in our sport.”
The league did not immediately respond to those demands.
In its ninth season, the NWSL has been rocked by several recent scandals involving team officials.
The Athletic’s report came days after another head coach in the league, Richie Burke of the Washington Spirit, was terminated with cause. He had previously been suspended following allegations of abuse detailed by the Washington Post.
The league formally dismissed Burke and sanctioned the Spirit on Tuesday after an independent investigation.
Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was fired in July after an investigation connected to the league’s anti-harassment policy. She has denied any wrongdoing.
Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly was fired in September, but the reasons for his dismissal were not made public.
OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti abruptly resigned in July.
On Friday, OL Reign chief executive officer and minority owner Bill Predmore said Benstiti was asked to resign after an undisclosed incident during practice.
Benstiti had previously been accused by U.S. national team midfielder Lindsay Horan of sexist behavior during his time as coach of Paris Saint-Germain.
Horan has said she was berated by Benstiti because of her weight.
Racing Louisville, whose Friday match against Gotham FC was postponed, issued the following statement.
“We commend the bravery of those who have shared their stories to help eradicate this reprehensible behavior in the league,” Racing’s president Brad Estes said. “We joined the NWSL, in part, to empower women in our community. We also see the necessity to raise standards within women’s professional soccer. It’s going to take real work and humility to effect the change these athletes deserve. Now more than ever, we are committed to this effort, and we fully support our players.”
The report sent shockwaves through the sport. The players’ association demanded sweeping changes across the league, as some of soccer’s most prominent figures — including two-time World Cup winners and NWSL players Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan — voiced their outrage.
The NWSL has met to try to determine a makeup date for the matches, keeping in mind that FIFA has set an international window of Oct. 18-26, during which time NWSL players would be made available to their respective national teams.
Information from Jeff Carlisle, The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.