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USWNT’s Alex Morgan talks NWSL, Mana Shim, Paul Riley abuse


Monday saw the release of the independent investigation commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation and conducted by former U.S. deputy attorney general Sally Yates, which chronicled the extent to which abuse and sexual misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was overlooked and ignored “systemically” by executives, coaches and club owners.

The report’s findings focus heavily on three coaches in the National Women’s Soccer League who have been accused of serious sexual misconduct and abuse: former Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly, former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley and former Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames. It sheds new light on the alleged misconduct by these three coaches, as well as the repeated failures by team owners, U.S. Soccer officials and others to heed warnings and complaints from players about them.

– Yates report explained: Key findings, why the abuse was so widespread, what’s next for the NWSL
– Two NWSL owners step back following Yates report

With the release of the E:60 documentary, “Truth Be Told,” the powerful story of the reckoning in women’s professional soccer from the point of view of those who experienced it first hand, we are publishing the full interview from USWNT international Alex Morgan, who spoke at length about the situation in Portland as well as her role in trying to escalate and elevate the allegations around Riley during his time at the club. Morgan was also a teammate of Mana Shim (2013-17) and Sinead Farrelly (2014-15) during her time with the Thorns from 2013 to 2015.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This has been lightly edited for clarity.

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ESPN: What do you remember of your teammate Mana Shim in Portland?

Alex Morgan: I remember Mana as a rookie in 2013, as someone who was just so happy and also so good at soccer. The ball just stuck to her foot. She was someone that just made me smile and made me immediately comfortable being around her — I could just be myself. And she just was a people person — like, people gravitated towards her.

ESPN: What do you remember of the coaching change that would come after Cindy Parlow Cone?

Morgan: I remember Cindy deciding not to continue, and us kind of feeling like we are on top of the world winning in 2013 after our first season of the NWSL. And hearing about a coaching change with Paul Riley stepping into place. And it was a big hire by the club. He had been successful. He had a lot of players that spoke highly of him, a lot of players that didn’t speak highly of him. And so there was a lot of question marks, but he was definitely highly regarded in the soccer community.

ESPN: What do you remember of what it was like when Riley did come in and start coaching the Thorns?

Morgan: When Paul came in and started to implement his style of coaching, there was not the mutual respect, I would say, from players and himself that I think he was used to, maybe. Because he was used to coming in and immediately controlling everything and everyone within the team.

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He didn’t like big personalities. He liked people that were going to say yes and players that were going to do anything he said, anything he wanted us to do. And I think that there were some players, including myself, that asked questions, maybe too many questions. And he didn’t like that. And I think that with that, it was a struggle, the first season under Paul — and it only got worse.

ESPN: When you would ask questions… I mean, you were a highly regarded national team player. What kind of response would you get?

Morgan: It was interesting, being coached by Paul and knowing that he didn’t like people asking questions, and he didn’t want myself or fellow national team players questioning him as a coach. I think he had his style of wanting to win over players and make sure players knew that he was the reason for their success, but he struggled with players that were already successful.

And so coming in, Paul, he just struggled to capture the heart of the team because he wanted to implement his direction of the team. When he was questioned, he then used manipulation tactics to try to break down the team and show that he was the one and only person that could create success on the team.

It wasn’t the players going to each other or us going to other coaches: It was him. Everything went through Paul. And so it was a really different way of coaching that we were not used to, with Portland or for me at all in my history of playing soccer.

ESPN: Was there anything that you remember that sticks out to you of how he used his power to, like you said, manipulate these players who were the fringe players?

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Morgan: Paul would have this coaching tactic of — at the end of the day, it’s verbal abuse — but he would break down players… Mana, a couple of other players that were just fighting to get some playing time. He would break them down in a way that if they weren’t playing up to a standard in a training or in a game, he would rip into them at halftime.

One time with a player who was with us in 2015, [Riley] just tore into her and about how bad of a mother she was and how all of these personal attacks that had absolutely nothing to do with the game and it made all of us uncomfortable. But he would do that and then two days later, we would be back at training after an off day and he would just be smiling as if nothing happened.

He didn’t just verbally attack somebody. Like, he didn’t just attack our personalities, us as people, rather than soccer players. And it was weird because you were like, “I’m sorry, I was there when you did this, but were you there? Do you remember this?” And he would go through this pattern of breaking someone down and then lifting them up and being like, “I could help you get to where you want to be.”

And so it was a manipulation tactic that I think wore on a lot of players, but especially players who were struggling to get playing time or get [on the roster]. All they wanted was validation that they deserved to be there, and he would do it in a way that really made them feel like they could only have confidence when he gave them confidence.

ESPN: When was the first time that you remember that Mana confided in you about what was happening with her with Paul Riley?

Morgan: Early 2015 is when Mana confided in me that Paul was really crossing the line. He did a couple of things in particular, like asking her to go over to his hotel room to watch film, and then opening the door in his boxers and closing the door behind her and asking her to sit in his bed. Or asking if she wanted to come to the World Cup final in Vancouver, with him sending along the reservation of the hotel that had a king-size bed and not two rooms or two beds.

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So, a couple of things that he did and said via text message that she relayed to me and this only progressed, and Mana really struggled with it in 2015. I tried to help her as much as possible, but I was gone a lot with the national team so I really didn’t get a sense of how bad it was until I came back from Vancouver and she showed me text messages and shared with me the things that he did that crossed the line and were just straight-up sexual harassment. And we kind of started from square one on: Well, how do we approach this? How do we report this? How do we hold someone like this accountable?

ESPN: And what did you do?

Morgan: When Mana told me that she was ready to report him, although she was scared to lose her job as a soccer player, she didn’t know the right way to do that. She wanted to anonymously report him because then she wouldn’t be at risk of retribution, and I told her that I would do everything I could to find a contact for HR within the league or within the Portland Thorns and Timbers organization.

At the league, I couldn’t find anything. I couldn’t find [an] HR contact, I couldn’t find an anonymous hotline. I couldn’t even find an anti-harassment policy that might layout exactly what he was doing that was reportable. So I eventually had to go to the Portland Thorns organization and call and just ask around if there was anyone at HR that they can share a contact with me for, and that I didn’t really want to share what it was about, but I really would like the contact information of that person.

I finally got that information and shared that with Mana, and at that point she reported him. And that was late 2015.

ESPN: What was it like hearing Mana tell you these things that had been happening to her?

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Morgan: It was really hard to see a teammate going through what Mana was going through in 2015 because first of all, I had never personally experienced that before, but I also never had a teammate experience that and confide in me in the way that she did, and all I wanted to do was support Mana. I deeply cared for Mana. She still is one of my best friends today, but I didn’t know what to do other than support her by me being there.

I knew I wanted to get Paul out of coaching. I wanted to hold him accountable. I wanted to hold the Portland Thorns organization accountable, but I didn’t know how. I just wanted to take Mana’s direction and support her in any way possible, but it was hard navigating that and showing up to training and games every day, knowing that Paul was trying to use his position of power to harass and assault Mana.

She was in an impossible position.

ESPN: When she does eventually report him and the Thorns say that they’re going to take care of it, what do you remember of the sequence of events after that?

Morgan: I remember Mana reporting Paul to the league in late 2015, and the only reason she waited that long is because she didn’t want to be cut from the team before the end of the season. She didn’t want Paul to find out and for him to either bench her, or waive her or cut her. So she waited, and she shared with me the email that she was drafting to the league — to Jeff Plush, the commissioner at the time. And she also, I believe, CC’d either Merritt [Paulson, Portland Thorns owner] or Gavin [Wilkinson, Thorns GM] as well. And we went over that email together before she sent it, and she laid it all out there. And at that point then I believe Jeff Plush responded.

I believe Portland had an investigation with a very narrow scope. I was interviewed, I believe, for 15 or 20 minutes — such a short interview that I actually can’t even recall the questions from the interview, and that was it. There was no conclusion from the investigation, nothing reported back to us based on the findings or recommendation. Paul Riley and Portland Thorns went their separate ways, and Gavin and Merritt wished Paul well.

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ESPN: What was going through your head as they released that statement?

Morgan: It was really difficult to see that the Thorns “parted ways” with Paul Riley rather than firing him — I don’t even know if it was released that they were letting him go, I think it was that they parted ways. And at that time it was really devastating because I had helped Mana do the right thing, which was reporting Paul to the league and hoping that they would take action and hold him accountable, and she went through all the right steps to report someone who was sexually harassing her, to stop what was being done that was incredibly wrong, and she was failed.

She was failed by the system, and I think that was the hardest thing at the time was: What do we do now? Does Mana just move on? How do you move on from this? And Paul just soon after got picked up by North Carolina and — was it North Carolina?

ESPN: Western New York.

Morgan: It was Western New York, and they moved. He got picked up by Western New York as the head coach and at that point, like, is Mana supposed to continue to play against this coach in the league, and see this coach possibly do the same thing to players on a new team? It was devastating. We didn’t know what to do.

ESPN: Mana told me that it meant a lot to her that you had told her, “I’m never going to shake his hand again.”

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Morgan: Yeah, I never shook his hand. And he started to — people caught on that I did not respect Paul in the slightest, that I would not shake his hand. I would not look at him at the end of the game when we were playing against Western New York and what came to be North Carolina, because I was disgusted and I was saddened by Mana’s situation.

I just knew that he needed to be held accountable one day and that it would happen one day, but it took years for that to happen. And I told Mana that I had her back no matter what. I just wanted to support her and help her in holding people accountable that needed to be held accountable. It’s just sad that it took years and years of us forcing people’s hand to remove him from his position of power.

ESPN: Mana told us that she felt like she’d done everything, you both had done everything that you felt like you could at the time. And it wasn’t until 2020 when Sinead [Farrelly] actually opened up to her about her own experiences that Mana felt the empowerment again to try to go at this again. Did she ever talk with you about her reattempt to make sure that Riley was held accountable for his actions?

Morgan: In July of 2020, Mana called me, and she said that she had had a few conversations with Sinead, and she said that she couldn’t believe Paul was still in power, but if people needed to hear her story to remove him from his position of power, then that’s what needed to happen.

She asked if I could help her find a legal team to take him down, to do the right steps, to finally force him to be held accountable. And that’s what we did from July 2020 on, until the article was released by The Athletic. We worked on it meticulously and spent so many hours with our legal and strategy team, with her legal and strategy team, to find a way to put the NWSL in a corner where they had to move forward by protecting players, restructure a league that so desperately needed to protect us and grow and evolve because it was stuck. This league was stuck in a place that didn’t protect players, that didn’t serve its players first and foremost.

And that’s what we set our mission on in July 2020, and that evolved eventually into the article that was released and the firing of Paul in the fall of 2021.

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ESPN: What were you feeling when that article was released?

Morgan: On Sept. 30th when the article was finally released, I remember where I was. I was in Seattle, and I was talking to Mana on the phone every day for a week leading up to that. And it was just so many emotions but mostly a sigh of relief because our goal was for Paul to not even step on the field as a head coach in 2021, but it took so many more months to put together, to investigate, for The Athletic to investigate everything, for us to really work with our legal team in finding the best way for Mana to share her story and for Sinead, too.

And so it took months longer than we expected for the article to finally be released, but once we knew it was, and I believe within hours of that happening, Paul was fired. It was just a huge sigh of relief.

ESPN: You put in a lot of work to help Mana, to make sure that this happened. Why?

Morgan: With me being someone that Mana confided in initially, back in 2015, I told her that I wanted to support her and help her in any way possible, whether that was to forget it, whether that was to take down Paul and all that needed to be held accountable — I told her, whatever she needed. She’s one of my best friends, and in 2020 when I got the call that she had spoken with Sinead and that she was ready to share her story and take down Paul, I was ready to do anything and everything possible knowing that I deeply care for Mana, and I deeply care for the state of soccer in the U.S., for the NWSL and the future of the NWSL. I knew there needed to be change.

I felt like at the time in 2020 when we started on this mission, to get Paul fired and to implement policies within the NWSL that still had not been implemented after nine years — basic workplace policies, anti-harassment policies that were non-existent in the NWSL — we realized that there was so much more work to do than trying to get Paul fired. We realized that the NWSL was in a state that was not only fragile and short-staffed and in dire need of changing and looking at itself in the mirror; we realized that it just didn’t protect players.

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At the end of the day, players were not protected. I felt like in my position, I’m in a position where if I stood up and said that things weren’t good enough, I think people would listen, and I knew that Mana needed me to help her share her story and do what we needed to do. So that’s what I did. I just told her that I was all-in — I’m not really a half-in type person — and if she needed me and this league needed me, then I was here to force their hand in changing the league.

ESPN: Lisa Baird put out a statement right after this news broke saying that she was “shocked and disgusted.” What did you think reading that?

Morgan: We talked with our legal team weekly. I keep saying “our” because I actually feel like for two years, we talked weekly, so I was part of it. We talked with our legal team weekly and we thought of every angle. We thought of what if they say this? What if they do that? What if they say, “Oh, there is basic workplace policies?” Okay, well, show us.

So we did things where I would send off emails to Lisa Baird. I would ask for a call with Lisa Baird. I was on a call with her and [President of the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association] Tori Huster and [NWSL General Counsel] Lisa Levine, and asked for these basic workplace policies. Lisa Levine said, “They’re somewhere. I’m sure I’ll be able to find them.” And I was like, “Okay, great. We’ll be waiting.” Weeks went by, nothing happened.

We drafted policies for the NWSL with our legal team and handed them to the NWSL, and then still had to ask our PA [Players Association] to put a timeline on when they needed to be implemented and given out to all players and staff. Before the season of 2021, we asked them before the first game of season starts, “We need these policies to be in place.” They pushed back, the league pushed back, the Lisas pushed back. Sinead and Mana both sent emails that we all looked at, multiple drafts of these emails asking them to look into the sexual harassment and assault from Paul Riley from years back.

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Lisa Baird’s email back: “We’re doing what we can. We’ll look into it. We’ll get back to you.” Nothing.

So when this article was finally released and there’s a sigh of relief on our side and just utter shock from the rest of the soccer community — we had already known everything. We tried to give the league a chance and time again to do the right thing. I wanted so deeply for Lisa Baird to just stand up and say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t do enough. I didn’t look into enough. I trusted our general counsel, Lisa Levine, too much. We were too understaffed. We didn’t have enough people in the room to really make calculated decisions,” but she didn’t. She said she was shocked and disgusted, and that was surprising because that was a lie.

ESPN: And what did you do?

Morgan: I got on a group text, one that was very active between Mana, Sinead and our legal and strategy team, and we talked about what needed to happen, and a tweet was the best course of action for that.

ESPN: And what do you remember of the response?

Morgan: I remember Lisa putting in her letter of resignation.

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ESPN: How did that make you feel?

Morgan: I wish I could say that it made me feel good, but it didn’t because I care for this league so much. And I just wanted the people in charge to not only be held accountable, but also to just lead this league out of a dark time, just to raise their hand and say that they hadn’t done things right before but, ‘Moving forward, we’re going to do everything we can.’ And it was hard to know the people in charge at the time just wouldn’t do that. They still wouldn’t accept the failures that they saw and did and own up to it.

So it was really hard seeing Lisa Baird resign because I didn’t want her in charge anymore, but who was going to step in now? It was a really difficult time in the NWSL because not only were they understaffed, but now, the head of the league, the commissioner is now stepping down too because of failures on her part, so where do we go from here? Who’s going to lead now? It was really hard.



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