Portland Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson announced on Tuesday morning that he is stepping down as CEO of both teams but did not announce any plan to sell the teams.
Paulson’s decision to remove himself as CEO comes in the wake of a report on the findings of an independent US Soccer investigation into alleged abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) that found that Paulson and his top executives enabled former Thorns manager Paul Riley’s abuse of players in Portland and protected him in its aftermath.
Riley is accused of sexual harassment and coercion by former Thorns players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly in 2015. The Thorns fired Riley following an investigation into his conduct prompted by a complaint from Shim, but never disclosed the reason for his departure to the public or, allegedly, to Riley’s future employers in the league.
“It is devastating to me that my goal of creating the shining example of what a women’s sports team could be, has now become synonymous with abhorrent and predatory behavior,” Paulson wrote in a statement. “Part of me holding myself accountable is recognizing that someone else needs to take the reins of the organization and operational decision-making.”
Paulson’s departure as CEO is the latest in a series of increasingly significant measures the club’s longtime owner has taken over the last eight days in response to the release of the US Soccer report.
Paulson first announced last Tuesday that he and top executives Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub would temporarily step away from all Thorns-related decision-making duties until the results of a separate investigation led by the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association was released.
But facing intense pressure from supporters, club sponsors, and an array of figures in soccer and politics, Paulson fired Wilkinson and Golub the very next day. Now, Paulson is stepping away from the day-to-day operations of a club that he has both owned and operated since 2007.
While Paulson will no longer be directly involved in running either the Thorns or the Timbers, he will retain his ownership stake in the club—despite calls for him to sell from the club’s supporters groups and a majority of members on the Portland City Council.
Paulson’s announcement did not impress a number of Thorns and Timbers supporters. The 107 Independent Supporters Trust (107IST), the umbrella organization for the Rose City Riveters and the Timbers Army, wrote in a statement on Tuesday that while Paulson’s decision is “welcome” and “long overdue,” it is not enough.
“While the personnel changes announced in the past few days are an important step in the right direction, as long as Merritt Paulson is an owner with a financial stake in the club, he is still in a position of power and control,” the 107IST wrote. “We continue to call for the sale of both teams and for the sale, divestment, or removal of interest/control from all professional, development, and youth soccer leagues by [parent company] Peregrine Sports.”
Paulson wrote in his own statement that the club will conduct a global search for a new CEO in the coming weeks and months. That search will be led by the club’s CFO Sarah Keane, while the club’s general counsel Heather Davis will remain as interim president and CEO.
There is a fair amount of pressure to make the hire: the club is without a President of Business and a President of Soccer following Golub and Wilkinson’s termination. Wilkinson was also the Timbers’ general manager, another role that is now open.
In his statement, Paulson offered his most direct apology yet for his role in enabling Riley and overseeing a culture of sexism and dishonesty at the club.
“I apologize to our players, the organization, and the Portland community for the mistakes we made, including not being publicly transparent about Paul Riley’s termination,” Paulson wrote. “Our organization’s failures and mistakes were ultimately my responsibility, and my responsibility alone.”
According to the US Soccer investigation, which was led by former US attorney general Sally Yates, Paulson knew of alleged misconduct by Riley as early as 2014 but didn’t act. He continued to exchange friendly tweets with the coach in the years following his departure from Portland.
The allegations against Riley were first made public in an article published by The Athletic in September 2021. Paulson said that he was “reeling and devastated” by that report and promised that the Thorns would fully cooperate with the resulting investigations.
Over the next year, however, Paulson’s troubles continued to mount. In February, it was revealed that the Timbers failed to report an allegation of domestic violence against midfielder Andy Polo to Major League Soccer (MLS) or discipline Polo in any way. The club terminated his contract after details of the abuse allegations were made public.
Then over the summer, ten former employees of the club accused Golub of improper conduct and creating a hostile workplace for women and working mothers.
The US Soccer report was a watershed moment. Not only did it further detail how Paulson and Wilkinson protected Riley and relay new allegations of sexist behavior from Paulson, Wilkinson, and Golub, but it also recounted how the Thorns did not fully cooperate with the investigation and instead tried to impede it by attempting to withhold documents and deny investigators access to club personnel.
Though Paulson is now removing himself from the day-to-day operation of both the Thorns and Timbers, his ongoing ownership means that he will continue to profit from the clubs’ successes. He is also, for now, still a member of MLS’ board of governors and its powerful product strategy committee.
Paulson’s incremental concessions in the aftermath of the publication of the US Soccer report have come as numerous Thorns and Timbers sponsors have announced that their future support of the club hinges on its willingness to make significant changes in the coming months. Some have already ended their relationships with the club or redirected money away from it.
Now that Paulson has fired Wilkinson and Golub and stepped down as CEO, the only step left is the one that supporters have been demanding for more than a week: the sale of not just the Thorns, but both teams. As long as Paulson continues to own the club, his influence on it will remain significant.
“Looking ahead, our organization is at a crossroads, and the future is not necessarily a clear path,” Paulson wrote Tuesday. “No matter what happens, ensuring the long-term health and success of the Portland Thorns is critical to me, as I know it is for our players and the community.”