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The Clock is Still Ticking on Merritt Paulson

He stepped down as Portland Timbers and Thorns CEO in the wake of the NWSL abuse scandal, but the pressure on the majority owner to sell both teams isn’t going away.

Merritt Paulson, owner and CEO of the NWSL’s Portland Thorns and MLS‘ Timbers, announced that he’s stepping down as CEO for both teams after US Soccer released its report on the investigation it commissioned into rampant abuse within the National Women’s Soccer League last week. The findings identified former Thorns manager Paul Riley, whose contract was not renewed after the 2015 season, as a high-profile repeat offender.

While the NWSL and NWSL Players Union’s own joint investigation is still ongoing, Paulson’s decision is effective immediately.

“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 said in a statement. “Our organization’s failures and mistakes were ultimately my responsibility, and my responsibility alone.”

The US Soccer report, spearheaded by former Deputy and Acting US Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, outlined a pattern of systemic abuse by NWSL coaches and executives, including Riley and fellow former NWSL managers Rory Dames (Chicago Red Stars) and Christy Holly (Racing Louisville). It also outlined efforts from clubs at the organizational level, including the Thorns, to obstruct the investigation while publicly stating strong intentions to cooperate and remain transparent.

Paulson notably did not mention selling either team in his statement; as it stands he will maintain his ownership stakes, but will no longer be involved in what he called “operational decision-making.” In the meantime, general counsel Heather Davis will take over as interim CEO, and Sarah Keane — Davis’s chief officer appointee — will lead the search for a new CEO.

Paulson’s decision to step down also comes amid mounting pressure for accountability, both within the organization and outside. With that in mind, Thorns and Timbers players will meet the final CEO candidates, Paulson said, so their voices can be heard.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Thorns’ and Timbers’ respective largest supporter’s groups — Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters, both of which are backed by the 107 Independent Supporters’ Trust — criticized Paulson’s announcement as a half-measure and insisted that nothing less than a sale of both clubs could be acceptable.

That statement comes on the heels of a similar sentiment delivered by Thorns and longtime US Women’s National Team defender Becky Sauerbrunn last week:

“It’s my opinion that every owner and executive and US Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities and have not participated fully in these investigations should be gone.”

Additionally, Alaska Airlines — a major corporate sponsor of the Timbers and Thorns — has decided to redirect its sponsorship money this quarter to the NWSL Players Association’s Support the Players Emergency Trust and to youth sports in Portland. Dairy cooperative Tillamook County Creamery Association also said it would only consider sponsoring both clubs again if they enacted “meaningful, institutional changes.”

A reaction from Paulson that took the form of more than simply an apology was inevitable. But while he may not be CEO any longer, there’s no reason to believe that such a decision will do a single thing to lessen the pressure on him from essentially all sides to sell — and in so doing, get out of soccer for good.

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About The Author
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio is a Staff Writer at Boardroom. Puccio has 10 years of experience in journalism and content creation, previously working for SB Nation, The Associated Press, New York Daily News, SNY, and Front Office Sports. In 2016, he received New York University's CCTOP scholarship and earned a bachelor's degree in Communications from St. John's University. He can be spotted a mile away thanks to his plaid suits and thick New York accent. Don't believe us? Check his Twitter @APooch.
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