The Portland Thorns have a new general manager.
The club announced early Monday morning that it has hired its former goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc as the club’s second-ever general manager to replace the embattled Gavin Wilkinson as the club prepares for a pivotal offseason.
“I thought I might come back as a player, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be coming back as the general manager of what is for me, the greatest club in the world,” LeBlanc said in a statement. “My experience as a Thorn helped shape me into the woman I am today.”
LeBlanc, who grew up in Dominica and then British Columbia, was a fan favorite during the Thorns’ inaugural 2013 season, when the club won the first NWSL championship under manager Cindy Parlow Cone.
Despite that success, the Thorns traded LaBlanc to Chicago after the conclusion of the season to make way for star German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, who spent the next two seasons as the team’s number one goalkeeper before retiring and joining the club’s coaching staff.
Angerer was signed to a multi-year contract extension last month, with club owner Merritt Paulson calling her a “key force of stability” as the club transitions to a new manager next season. Angerer last week released a statement on Twitter in part praising Wilkinson, which drew both support and condemnation from current and former Thorns players.
LeBlanc spent two years in Chicago before retiring herself, having made 110 appearances for Canada, took part in five FIFA World Cups, collected an Olympic bronze medal, served as a UNICEF Canada Ambassador, and won that 2013 NWSL championship in Portland.
Following her playing career, LeBlanc turned not to coaching, but to an executive position. For the last three-plus years, she has served as Head of Concacaf Women’s Football, tasked with growing and strengthening the women’s game in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean.
The Thorns general manager job will be her first experience as a club executive—a high-risk, high-reward proposition for a club seeking to replace its successful and well-liked manager Mark Parsons, who is departing to become manager of the Netherlands women’s national team following the conclusion of the season.
The club is also, of course, aiming to rebuild bonds of trust with its supporters following revelations last month that former manager Paul Riley sexually coerced, intimidated, and harassed multiple players during his time in Portland.
The Thorns let Riley go shortly after one of those players, Mana Shim, complained to the club about her experiences, but did not publicly say that Riley was being fired for improper conduct.
Riley went on to manage two other NWSL clubs before being fired earlier this year after the allegations against him were made public in reporting by The Athletic, while Paulson continued to exchange friendly tweets with him and praise his coaching performance.
Shim also alleged that Wilkinson, who served as the general manager of both the Thorns and Portland Timbers, asked her to stop speaking publicly about non-soccer related matters like her sexuality in a conversation following the 2014 season.
The Thorns placed Wilkinson on administrative leave pending the results of an ongoing independent investigation into the club’s handling of Riley’s misconduct in early October. Wilkinson has not been placed on leave from his position with the Timbers.
The Rose City Riveters, the club’s independent supporters’ group, has demanded that Wilkinson be fired from both roles and announced a boycott of club merchandise and stadium concessions until that demand is met.
But the press release announcing LeBlanc’s hiring made no mention of Wilkinson, and the club has not provided any update regarding his status with the Thorns. The club has also not announced any findings from the investigation, which is presumably ongoing.
While the press release did not include any information on Wilkinson’s status, it did include a quote from Thorns captain Christian Sinclair, who said that having LeBlanc, her longtime teammate at the international level, back in Portland is a “dream come true.”
“She is going to take this club to places I don’t think people think are possible,” Sinclair said in the release.
Across the league, the fallout from the Riley abuse scandal and coverup is ongoing. The NWSL has a new interim CEO, Marla Messing, who has deep roots in American soccer, and the NWSL Players Association announced last week that their eight demands to the league in the wake of the scandal have been met.
Thorns players made three demands of their own in the aftermath of The Athletic’s reporting, including that Wilkinson be placed on leave while investigations proceed, that the club increase the diversity of voices on its board of executives, and that players gain power into front office decision-making processes.
The hire of LeBlanc appears to be a step towards meeting those demands—even as Wilkinson retains his position as Timbers’ general manager and position of power within the club.
“I missed being around the game, players and the energy of Portland,” LeBlanc said. “This is an opportunity to do something that truly matters for a city, a club, and a league that’s given me so much.”