An NWSL coach resigns after inappropriate relationship with a player left the team’s trust ‘irrevocably broken’

Rhian Wilkinson has resigned as the head coach of the Portland Thorns, the leading franchise in the Women’s National Soccer League, just 34 days after assuming the position.

According to a report from The Athletic, Emily Menges and Meg Linehan, two stars of the NWSL team, expressed their concerns about the nature of their relationship with the head coach during the final stretch of the 2022 season. The report states that they felt “lost” in the locker room due to the controversy surrounding the club, which led to the coach and the team parting ways for the first time in his tenure. They had spent several occasions together during the season and even sent text messages expressing their feelings to each other.

The coach, who previously participated in the league herself, eventually notified Portland’s human resources department about the situation. However, both parties maintain that there was no physical connection between them.

The Portland Thorns host the North Carolina Courage for an NWSL game.

The player, whose identity remains unknown, stated, “They were reported and then confronted,” instead. Linehan informed the player from the Thorns that Menges and Wilkinson did not have any intention of reporting themselves.

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) began a fact-finding expedition into the misconduct and abuse within the league, involving both coaches and players. This joint investigation, conducted by the NWSL Players Association and the league itself, is ongoing. The information obtained by Wilkinson from Portland’s staff has been passed on to the NWSL.

Wilkinson’s involvement in the investigation remains unclear, as she recused herself if an investigation into her conduct will continue, and it is uncertain whether Menges will continue to serve on the board. The NWSLPA did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Insider. Menges, who has been intimately involved in the broader joint misconduct investigation throughout the league, is on the board of NWSLPA.

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Emily Menges.

According to a statement from the Thorns, Wilkinson was “exonerated of any misconduct,” immediately following the culmination of the 2022 season — and three weeks after the investigation into their connection commenced.

Expressed in the declaration made by NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman, “The Portland Thorns and Coach Wilkinson adhered to all League procedures and guidelines and actively collaborated with this inquiry.” “No breach of League policies” was determined as a result of a comprehensive investigation carried out by the joint investigative team.

The anonymous group of Thorns players wrote a letter to the league’s chief legal officer, Berman, expressing their concerns regarding the “relationship” and the potential ethical and policy breaches that may have occurred. The investigation’s conclusion left “others in Portland” with an “unsettled feeling” about those findings, which were not solely focused on.

Portland Thorns players huddle up during the NWSL Championship game.

The letter was perused. Moreover, we are aware that these power disparities exist irrespective of gender or sexual preference. As you are aware, there are numerous potential power disparities that arise when a coach socializes with a player, not just because of the influence of the relationship on the player’s professional standing, but also due to the potential disparity in age between coach and player, as well as the coach’s position as an authoritative figure.

Portland Thorns, the NWSL franchise, has a dark history of abuse within its ranks, including several instances of sexual coercion and misconduct, which began with head coach Paul Riley covering up a series of scandals in the front office.

They still believe that an ethical standard has been breached, acknowledging in their letter that no legal wrongdoing was found in the investigation. It’s not surprising that current Portland players would be wary of how the franchise handles such investigations.

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Wilkinson speaks ahead of the 2022 NWSL Championship game.

Working with a staff member who poses a question, “Wilkinson said players the,” no longer makes us feel safe in the most intimate settings of the workplace, requiring an extraordinary level of trust and proper functioning to order in the world.

“Unfortunately, the trust we believe in has been broken in our locker room, creating an extremely triggering environment for those players on the team who have been victimized by authority figures in the past, making it impossible for them to feel safe and fully potential.”

Otherwise, Wilkinson’s employment implied that Menges’ authority was superior, regardless of the power imbalance between them. Both Linehan and Menges insisted that there was no record of Wilkinson speaking up for her report.

Portland Thorns fans hold “Protect the Players” signs at a game against the Houston Dash.

With regards to her “authority over our game time and contractual position,” the players’ collective expressed worries regarding possible reprisals in the event that Wilkinson were to remain as the head coach of Portland.

“They expressed that if they feel uneasy about continuing to work with or under the implicated coach, they should consider finding employment elsewhere,” they notified the informed staff members who were made aware of the investigation and its results. “Since we have voiced our concerns, we suspect that club employees are already facing possible reprisals.” Indeed,

The team is in need of a fresh owner and coach as it currently faces a situation where the locker room is divided. The U.S. Soccer investigation exposed Riley’s mistreatment and the lack of action taken, which has resulted in pressure for Merritt Paulson to sell his ownership in the club. Additionally, the franchise is undergoing changes at the top level, as longtime owner Merritt Paulson has announced his intention to divest his stake in the club.

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