In N.W.S.L., Protests and Demands as League Returns to Field

In North Carolina, soccer players from both teams sprinted to midfield to be part of a silent protest of the abuse scandal that has shaken their league. In Portland, Ore., the home team’s players took the field in shirts bearing the slogan “No More Silence” and demanded — and received — the suspension of a prominent team executive.

And at Carli Lloyd’s homecoming game just outside Philadelphia, the retiring United States national team star set aside the celebrations of her long career to note a moment that, she said, was much bigger than herself.

“This is something you cannot ignore,” Lloyd said after her Gotham F.C. team played the Washington Spirit to a scoreless draw in Chester, Pa.

Wednesday night marked the first tentative steps back onto the field for the National Women’s Soccer League only days after it brought its entire operation to a halt as it confronted accusations of coaches who abused players, team executives who did not stop it, and a league that failed to protect its most valuable assets: its athletes.

The Gotham-Washington game was one of three played in the league on Wednesday, the first night of action since the league canceled its entire schedule over the weekend and announced that its commissioner, Lisa Baird, had resigned.

In Cary, N.C., the North Carolina Courage, whose coach was fired last week after he was accused of sexual coercion by at least two former players, beat Racing Louisville, which fired its coach in August “for cause” after a separate case of misconduct. And in Oregon, the Portland Thorns’ players released a list of demands before their game against the Houston Dash that included the immediate suspension of their own team’s general manager.

In all three matches, the teams stopped play in the sixth minute and players stood arm in arm at midfield — a symbolic pause, they said, that represented the six years it took for a group of former colleagues who had filed abuse complaints to be heard. The protests brought together national team stars like Lloyd, Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn, dozens of lesser known pros who make up the league’s rank and file and, in Portland at least, even the match officials.

For Lloyd, who acknowledged she has been adept at blocking out the crowds, the noises, the off-the-field distractions, this was a night to focus on the collective over the individual.

“This is a huge wake-up call,” she said.

Her statement and other brief comments by players around the league made direct references to Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, the two N.W.S.L. players whose searing accusations of being sexually abused by Paul Riley, who coached the North Carolina Courage to league championships in 2018 and 2019, ignited the recent reckoning in the sport.

Many of soccer’s biggest and most outspoken stars, like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, have weighed in over the last week, and pointedly criticized the league, its officials and even their own teams for knowing about complaints and failing to protect the players.

But Lloyd has long been much more reticent to speak out on social issues. So hearing her speak so candidly, and on a night arranged to celebrate her personally, underscored the shared sense of anger and solidarity roiling the N.W.S.L.

Fans in Chester, Pa., and other cities showed their support for the players through signs and standing ovations.Credit…Charles Fox/The Philadelphia Inquirer, via Associated Press

“This is a reset,” Lloyd said in her postgame news conference, and an opportunity “to have policies in place to vet ownership” and coaches. And after “one of the worst weeks this league has ever seen,” she added, “I’m really proud of everyone, even on the Spirit, coming out playing despite what’s been going on.”

Before the game, the Gotham players and staff left a handwritten note in the locker room of the Washington Spirit. The note read, “To our friends at the Spirit. Off the field we support you. On the field let’s play. Sending our love to you.”

The anger of frustration of players, though, was evident on an emotional night. During a Zoom news conference with reporters after the game, one of Lloyd’s Gotham teammates, Imani Dorsey, pounded the podium when she said: “We are grinding every single day. We just get the wind knocked out of every single week. It’s heartbreaking. It’s devastating. We’re trying our best every day and it doesn’t feel like the league is doing that.”

When asked what she thought about fans who have said they would boycott N.W.S.L. games, Dorsey said: “Any fan that I would say is feeling failed, or don’t have faith in the league, I’d say: Put your faith in the players association and the players. We want this league to be better.”

Yet the tumult shows no signs of abating.

On Tuesday, Washington Spirit’s chief executive, Steve Baldwin, announced that he would step down after bowing to pressure from Spirit players who criticized him for presiding over a toxic and abusive workplace under the team’s former coach, Richie Burke, who was fired last week. But the Spirit players dismissed Baldwin’s move as mere posturing, and demanded that he sell his share to one of the team’s co-owners, Y. Michele Kang.

In Portland, the Thorns players demanded the immediate suspension of their general manager, Gavin Wilkinson. Wilkinson had presided over the team in 2015, when an internal investigation had substantiated claims of abuse against Riley so serious that the team dismissed him. Within months, Riley was coaching a different team in the league.

Late Wednesday, the Thorns announced that Wilkinson had been placed on administrative leave. But players and fans quickly noted that his removal did not affect his similar role with the Thorns’ sister club, the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer.

The N.W.S.L. players association, meanwhile, released its own list of demands before Wednesday’s games, including investigations of every club, immediate suspensions for league and team executives accused of failing to protect players, access to previous investigative reports, and a voice in the league’s search for new commissioner.

“We are not bringing the N.W.S.L. down” in demanding action and investigations, Houston Dash defender Katie Naughton said in a brief statement after her team’s game in Portland. “We are rebuilding it into what we know it can and should be.

“We believe in our bones that we can do this.”

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