Soccer newsletter: NWSL failed at its most important job
Hello, and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we look at LAFC and the Galaxy finding their way to the postseason; Angel City missing out on the National Women’s Soccer League playoffs; and Qatar’s continuing struggles to prepare for an unprecedented flood of visitors for this fall’s World Cup.
But we start with a comprehensive report into allegations of misconduct in women’s pro soccer. The yearlong probe, ordered by U.S. Soccer and conducted by former acting Atty. Gen. Sally Q. Yates and the law firm King & Spalding, found abuse was pervasive, systemic and widespread in the NWSL but team and league executives and the U.S. Soccer did little to try to stop it.
It’s hard not to be horrified by some of the details in the 319-page report, released by U.S. Soccer on Monday. Women were touched, groped and physically assaulted by coaches who arranged private film sessions for that purpose. They were verbally abused, disparaged and harassed. Most damning of all, however, is the report’s conclusion that the behavior was so common that it was an ”open secret” at the top levels of the sport in the United States. Yet it was allowed to continue.
The federation commissioned the study last fall after multiple players told the Athletic that they had experienced abuse, including sexual harassment, inappropriate conduct and homophobic comments on the part of coaches. The Washington Post reported similar charges, and the resulting fallout forced the resignation or removal of commissioner Lisa Baird, general counsel Lisa Levine and, eventually, five of the league’s 10 coaches.
The report’s release comes less than a month after the women’s national team signed a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer guaranteeing the players equal pay with the men’s team, including commercial revenue sharing and equal World Cup prize money.
That victory, won through years of legal challenges, was hailed as a breakthrough for women’s soccer. Yates’ report shows just how much work remains to be done.
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“I am heartbroken by the contents of the report, which make clear that systemic changes are needed at every level of our game,” said U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone, a World Cup winner who was subject of sexual harassment by a team executive while he was coach of the Portland Thorns. “The abuse described in the report is entirely inexcusable and has no place in soccer, on or off the field. ... The gravity of these issues requires us to not simply ‘turn the page.’ ”
Allegations of sexual harassment and other forms of abuse date back to the NWSL’s founding 10 years ago, but they aren’t limited to the league.
“Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer,” the report said, “beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players.”
Some of the stories included in the report show:
— Former Thorns coach Paul Riley “sexually pursued” player Meleana Shim for months “and benched [her] after she declined his advances.” The NWSL was aware of that but allowed Riley to leave the team and take a coaching job with another NWSL club. In fact, Riley’s behavior was brought to the attention of U.S. Soccer or NWSL leadership every year from 2015 to 2021, the report said, but he was allowed to continue coaching in the league.
— Former Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly sent player Erin Simon sexually explicit photos, asked her to come to his house to review game film, and then showed her pornography and masturbated in front of her. Holly also touched Simon’s genitals and breasts during a supposed film session, the report says. Holly had been dismissed from the Sky Blue FC in 2017 because of verbal abuse and a relationship with a player, but he was allowed to continue coaching in the league.
— Rory Dames coached the Chicago Red Stars for 10 years despite complaints about inappropriate behavior, complaints that were never acted upon, according to the report. Player surveys in 2014 and 2015 said Dames was “abusive” and “unprofessional.” A formal complaint to U.S. Soccer in 2018 led to an investigation that substantiated many of the complaints.
“Teams, the league, and the federation not only repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse, they also failed to institute basic measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protections,” the report says.
“Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic.”
Yates concluded by making 12 recommendations “aimed at preventing abuse in the future, holding wrongdoers accountable, enhancing transparency, and fostering a professional environment where players are treated with respect.” They include better vetting of coaches, timely investigations of alleged misbehavior and disciplinary action.
After the report’s release, Cone announced several reforms. The federation, she said, will immediately establish an office of participant safety, publish soccer-related records from SafeSport’s centralized database of officials and coaches who have been investigated or sanctioned for misconduct, and mandate a uniform minimum standard for background checks for all U.S. Soccer members. The federation also will create a participant safety task force “led by athletes themselves.”
Jessica Berman — the current NWSL commissioner, who has previously insisted transparency would be needed to rebuild trust with players — also welcomed the report and its recommendations.
“We know that we must learn from and take responsibility for the painful lessons of the past in order to move the league into a better future,” she said in a statement. “The findings and recommendations … will be critical to informing and implementing systemic reform and ensuring that the NWSL is a league where players are supported, on and off the pitch, with safe and professional environments to train and compete.”
Yates’ report was based on interviews with more than 200 people, including more than 100 players, plus coaches, owners and front-office staff from 11 current and former teams.
LAFC will be home for the playoffs
LAFC has been around for only five seasons, but it already has made a significant dent on MLS history.
On Sunday, the team became just the sixth club to win multiple Supporters’ Shields, but of more significance is the fact it is the only one of the six that wasn’t a part of the league’s first season in 1996. Since LAFC (21-8-4) entered the league, no team has more regular-season points (273), wins (79) or goals (319).
And it wrapped up its second trophy in dramatic fashion with winger Dénis Bouanga scoring his first MLS goal deep into stoppage time to beat the Portland Timbers 2-1.
“It’s phenomenal. It’s an objective we had in mind, everyone in the organization,” goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau said. “But it’s just one step in the process of going all the way. We obviously have an MLS Cup in mind.”
The Shield, which goes to the team with the league’s best regular-season record, will help with that because it assures LAFC home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. LAFC is a league-best 13-1-2 at home but just 8-7-2 on the road.
Bouanga, who signed with the team in August, is one of 14 players who is new to the team this season. Also new is the coach, Steve Cherundolo, who took over for the departed Bob Bradley and broke Bradley’s MLS record for wins by a first-year coach with 21.
“We envisioned making the playoffs this year,” Cherundolo said. “But certainly this was beyond our expectations.”
Carlos Vela accounted for LAFC’s other goal, his 12th of the season, to go with 12 assists. He became just the fifth player in MLS history to reach double digits in goals and assists in three or more seasons. LAFC is 13-2-1 this season when Vela has either a goal or an assist.
“It’s a great feeling,” Vela said of the Supporters’ Shield. “This is the reward to the team for all the effort. But this is the first step. We have to be focused on the playoff.”
After winning its first Shield in 2019, LAFC was knocked out of the playoffs by the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference final. LAFC has won just one of four playoff games in its history.
“I hope we learned from that experience,” Vela said.
The Galaxy also received big contributions from a couple of midseason acquisitions to achieve their first objective of the season by reaching the playoffs for just the second time since 2016. They did that Saturday by rallying to a 1-1 draw against Real Salt Lake.
Galaxy could be home too
With a win in their season finale Sunday at Houston, the Galaxy (13-12-8) would finish no worse than fourth in the Western Conference table, assuring them a home date in the playoffs as well. The Galaxy are unbeaten in their last six games at Dignity Health Sports Park.
The additions of midfielders Gastón Brugman and Riqui Puig spurred a late run in which the Galaxy went 4-1-4 down the stretch to rescue the team’s season.
“We needed to strengthen our midfield,” coach Greg Vanney said. “It was about getting a No. 6; Brugman has really kind of solved that. It was getting a guy like Riqui, who can help do something a little bit different inside of our midfield on the run and being slippery.”
Puig, who missed a first-half penalty kick, helped set up the team’s only goal against RSL in the second half when he threaded a pass through three defenders to launch Javier “Chicharito” Hernández on a run into the penalty area. RSL’s Marcelo Silva, beaten on the play, tripped Hernández to give the Galaxy their league-best 14th penalty kick of the season. Douglas Costa converted it to seal the team’s postseason invitation.
“We all signed up here to change trajectory of this club,” Vanney said. “It’s the best club in MLS, but it’s been struggling for a number of years. All of us sign[ed] up here with the responsibility to turn this club back into the greatest club in the league.
“We took one step towards that tonight.”
Added goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, who preserved the draw with a clutch save, his fourth of the night, in the closing seconds: “We don’t want to overlook what we achieved, but at the same time that isn’t what this club is used to. This club is used to going to the final and winning the trophy, and we’re very aware of that.”
The wagering service BetOnline gives LAFC 2-1 odds to win the MLS Cup; the Galaxy are 25-1.
Angel City sputters to the finish line
A few hours after Angel City’s players checked into their Chicago hotel riday, they learned there really was no reason for them to be there. When North Carolina and the San Diego Wave played to a scoreless draw Friday night, it all but eliminated Angel City from playoff contention. That left the final game of the team’s debut NWSL season meaningless as far as Angel City’s playoffs hopes were concerned.
But the game meant a lot to the Chicago Red Stars, whose 2-0 win vaulted them over North Carolina to sixth place in the table and into the postseason. For Angel City (8-9-5), which wound up eighth, the loss was the fourth in five games — and the team didn’t even score in three of those.
Despite that ignominious finish, it was a noteworthy inaugural season in many ways.
The team sold out four of its 11 games at 22,000-seat Banc of California Stadium and, with a league-high average attendance of 19,105, became just the second team in NWSL history to draw more than 19,000 per game.
Before it had ever played a game, the team was valued at an NWSL-record $100 million, and its star-studded, deep-pocketed ownership group brought glamour, attention and credibility to a league that is in need of all those things, as the Yates report showed.
“Witnessing record-breaking [crowds] coming in and supporting women’s soccer in the U.S. is extremely exciting,” said defender Megan Reid, who played every minute for Angel City this season. “It’s a highlight for me because we’re starting to value the game a lot more, which helps bring better players and create a better environment for the players that are currently here as well.”
It was a star-crossed season on the field, though.
Angel City made L.A. native Christen Press the first signing in team history when it gave her a multiyear contract valued at just less than $700,000. It was one that, at the time, was said to be the most lucrative in the NWSL. But Press played just eight games and scored twice before she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in June. Angel City replaced her with Sydney Leroux, sending Orlando City a first-round 2024 draft pick and $75,000 in allocation money for the former national team forward. But Leroux made just two starts and took only one shot before she too went to the sideline because of an ankle injury.
The team did find a pair unexpected stars. Goalkeeper DiDi Haracic, named a starter for the first in her career, rewarded Angel City by playing every minute of the first 21 games, finishing second in the league with 70 saves and posting four clean sheets. And Japanese midfielder Jun Endo, 22, tied for the team lead with two assists and was second in minutes played while becoming a fan favorite through her versatility, unselfishness and high work rate.
“We’ve developed our performances over the course of the season, and I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished,” coach Freya Coombe said.
You can check out the final standings here.
OL Reign and Portland Thorns receive first-round byes
Quarterfinals, Oct. 16
Houston vs. Kansas City
San Diego vs. Chicago
Semifinals, Oct. 23
Portland vs. San Diego/Chicago winner
OL Reign vs. Houston/Kansas City winner
Final, Oct. 29
Semifinal winners at Audi Field
Qatar still isn’t ready for World Cup
Qatar has had 12 years to prepare for this fall’s World Cup, the longest run-up in tournament history. Yet the country appears woefully unprepared for the 1.2 million visitors who are expected to flood the tiny Gulf nation.
Reuters reported last week that hundreds of civilians, including diplomats summoned back from overseas, have been called up for mandatory military service operating security checkpoints at World Cup stadiums, highlighting the logistical issues that continue to hamper tournament preparations. The conscripts are training to manage stadium security queues, frisk fans and detect contraband such as concealed alcohol, drugs or weapons.
Qatar also has contracted with Turkey, which is supplying 3,000 riot police.
The latest moves come less than a month after the final test event was marred by numerous snafus, long lines, a lack of water, faulty cooling systems and other problems. A main complaint of fans was a lack of helpful, knowledgeable staff at Lusail Stadium, site of December’s World Cup final, where volunteers were unable to even locate bathrooms.
“This is such a mess,” Eslam, an Egyptian who lives in Doha, told Reuters after the match between club teams from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “I don’t want to go to the World Cup anymore. Not if it’s like this.”
The civilians called up last week were told they had been summoned to assist with the World Cup and that it was their “patriotic duty” to do so, an unnamed source told Reuters.
A Qatari government official said in a statement that Qatar’s national service program would continue as normal during the World Cup.
“Recruits will provide additional support during the tournament as part of the regular program, just as they do every year at major public events,” the statement added.
Housing for visitors also remains a concern in Doha, Qatar’s capital, which has just 30,000 hotel rooms. Last month, residents were given permission to put their houses and rooms up for rent in the hopes of easing the crush.
Organizers, who have long promised up to 130,000 rooms would be available throughout the tournament, earlier had arranged for additional accommodations by anchoring two cruise ships in Doha Bay and offering thousands of apartments throughout the city. Some residents complained of being evicted by landlords who said they had been told to make space for World Cup fans.
And finally there’s this …
Manchester City’s Erling Haaland continued his unprecedented scoring streak Sunday with three goals in a 6-3 derby win over Manchester United at Etihad Stadium. The hat trick was Haaland’s third in as many Premier League home games and gave him 14 goals in eight matches, double the number of Tottenham’s Harry Kane, the league’s second-leading scorer. City, unbeaten at 6-0-2, has scored 29 goals and has a plus-20 goal differential through eight games but trails Arsenal (7-0-1) in the table. City’s Kevin De Bruyne, meanwhile, already has eight assists, putting him on pace to shatter the Premier League record of 20 in a season that he shares with Thierry Henry. ... Milan and Brian Iloski became the first brothers to score for the same team in a USL Championship game when they accounted for both Orange County goals in a 2-2 draw against the San Diego Loyal on Saturday. Milan’s goal, in the 44th minute, was his 22nd of the season and extended his own club record. It also moved him within three of the league record with two games left on the schedule. Brian’s score, his third of the year, came in the 90th minute and earned OCSC the point.
In case you missed it
“Their bravery they exhibited to share these experiences is just extraordinary. They have set in motion the process to drive the necessary change that we need.”
U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone, on the NWSL players who shared often-harrowing stories of abuse and harassment with Sally Q. Yates, whose damning 319-page report was released by the federation Monday
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