The United States captain, Becky Sauerbrunn, has demanded root and branch reform of elite domestic soccer in North America after an independent investigation found that emotional abuse and sexual misconduct had become systemic throughout the National Women’s Soccer League.
“It’s time for those in authority to start being accountable and make players in this league feel safe,” said the 37-year-old Portland Thorns defender after she and her US teammates arrived in London to prepare for Friday’s high-profile friendly against England at Wembley. “The players are not doing well. We are horrified, exhausted and really, really angry.
“We’re heartbroken and frustrated. We’re angry it took a third-party investigation and over 200 people sharing their trauma to get to the point we’re at right now. Passion for the game has been taken away from players because of this abuse, we need to bring that joy and accessibility back to the game. The executives perpetuating this should be gone.”
The investigation, commissioned by the US Soccer Federation and conducted by former US deputy attorney general Sally Yates, was launched in the wake of allegations made last year against for the former Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley. Although Riley, who is English, denies those allegations the report Yates published on Monday found that verbal and emotional abuse, as well as sexual misconduct was rife across multiple teams.
Yates and her team spoke to about 200 players in the North American top tier and soon discovered that the problem extended far beyond the allegations made not merely against Riley but a handful of other leading coaches. Investigators found that such problems were exacerbated by leading club and league officials persistently failing to heed warnings and take complaints from players and their parents seriously. The report said that three clubs – Sauerbrunn’s Portland Thorns, Racing Louisville FC and the Chicago Stars – failed to fully cooperate with investigators.
Although US Soccer has pledged to implement wholesale change, it is clear that there is considerable damage to repair. So much so that, in the course of an emotional press conference, Vlatko Andonovski, the US’s Macedonian-born manager, made it clear that he will understand should any of his players decide they are not in the right frame of mind to face England on Friday.
“It’s been a difficult day and it’s a very difficult night, there’s a lot of different emotions; I’m in disbelief and disgust and I’m saddened by the report but I have tremendous respect for the bravery of the players who spoke out and participated in this report,” said the 46-year-old, who succeeded Jill Ellis as US coach following the team’s 2019 World Cup triumph in France. “Soccer is a game we all love and it should be a safe space no matter at what level.
“Now the report and its recommendations are out it’s our job to make sure no one has to deal with this at any level in our sport or any sport. All we can do is make sure it never happens again.”
Right now Andonovski, whose side will travel to Pamplona to face Spain in another friendly on Tuesday as they begin preparations for next year’s World Cup, acknowledges long festering wounds will take time to heal. “Playing is difficult, it’s not easy for our players or staff,” he said. “We’re all impacted in different ways, we all deal with this in different ways. Some people need time and space.
“All this means more than any game, if they don’t want to participate in a meeting or in training or in the game [against England] that’s up to them.”
At one point in the course of a high charged 45-minute press conference, in which the impending game against England in front of 80,000 people at Wembley seemed a total irrelevance, Sauerbrunn was asked if NWSL players may be tempted to strike in protest at their treatment.
“I haven’t thought about not playing,” she said. “I hope it won’t get to that point. A lot of us have been navigating these things for a very long time and you, maybe not compartmentalise, but you find a way to deal with it. We, as women, as players have faced a lot for a very long time and, unfortunately, I’d say you get used to it.”
She has wondered, though, if similar problems have been ignored in other countries, including England and Spain. “We hope that other federations, other leagues 100% look inwards now,” she said. “Our goal is that no other players face the same abuse. There’s no better time to start than right now to implement the procedures we were too late in introducing.”
Sauerbrunn trusts that things will be very different for the next generation of young US players. “I hope protocols are brought in that mean parents and players feel comfortable reporting abuse and that coaches receive training as to what is and isn’t out of bounds,” she said. “And that young players grow up without coaches belittling them or sexually harassing them.
“The perpetrators and the owners who didn’t take seriously need to be gone. A lot of trust has been broken. The things that have happened are inexcusable. Everyone should be 100% safe from abuse.
“In my opinion every owner and executive in US soccer who failed to protect players and who hid behind legalities should be gone.”
In reply to a an inquiry as to whether she felt safe at the Portland Thorns, Sauerbrunn, perhaps tellingly, responded: “It doesn’t matter if I feel safe, everyone’s not 100% safe and that’s not good enough.”