Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson responds to US Soccer report: ‘The darkest day I have experienced’

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Facing mounting public pressure following the release of US Soccer’s investigation into widespread misconduct and abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League, Portland Thorns and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson announced Tuesday that he would remove himself and executives Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub from all Thorns-related decision making effective immediately.

The moves will last, Paulson said, at least until the NWSL and its players’ association finish their own independent investigation into the league’s misconduct. Paulson, Wilkinson and Golub will remain in their roles with the Timbers for now without change, The Oregonian/OregonLive confirmed.

“Yesterday’s Yates report unveiling was the darkest day I have experienced, and I know the same is true for everyone else who loves our team and our league,” Paulson said in a written statement. “I would imagine that it was even harder and darker for those whose stories were shared publicly. We have promised the NWSL that we will not do media or make any public statements related to the investigations until the joint NWSL/NWSLPA Investigation is released in November, which is tremendously difficult. I cannot apologize enough for our role in a gross systemic failure to protect player safety and the missteps we made in 2015. I am truly sorry.”

Paulson’s decision comes after the release a damning investigative report from US Soccer that found Paulson and Wilkinson enabled and vouched for former Thorns coach Paul Riley, who has been accused by former players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly of sexual misconduct. Golub is accused of making an inappropriate sexual remark to train Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone in 2013 and has previously faced criticism for fomenting a “toxic” work environment for his employees.

According to Yates’ investigation, Paulson sent an email to the president of the Western New York Flash vouching for Riley and saying he had “a lot of affection for him,” despite knowing the sum of Shim’s allegations in 2015 and that the coach had been accused of non-sexual abusive behavior to his players as early as 2014. The report added that Wilkinson blamed Shim for “putting (Riley) in a bad position” and said he’d “hire him in a heartbeat.”

Calls for Paulson to sell both the Timbers and Thorns and fire Wilkinson and Golub have grown louder in the past 24 hours.

“Given the Thorns are about to enter the NWSL Playoffs, I have told the NWSL that I will be removing myself effective today from all Thorns-related decision making until the joint investigation, which we are fully cooperating with, is released,” Paulson said . “Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub will do the same. All Thorns related decisions until that time that any of us would have made will now be handled by Heather Davis, our General Counsel.”

US Soccer concluded the Thorns also interfered with its investigation — which spanned a year — and that Paulson and Wilkinson made inappropriate comments to women in the workplace.

“I very much appreciate your patience and believe it’s critical that the process play out with the Joint Investigation,” Paulson continued in his statement. “I love the Portland Thorns and women’s soccer, and am taking these steps with those interests in mind.”

Read the full US Soccer report here.

— Ryan Clarke, rclarke@oregonian.com, Twitter: @RyanTClarke

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