Can Portland Timbers, Portland Thorns repair bonds with fans after scandals and distrust?


The community around the two top-flight soccer teams of Portland, Oregon — the Timbers of Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) — can feel more like a big family. Supporters of these clubs have gotten married in the stands before matches or on the pitch, they sport permanent tattoos for the teams and some even plan their vacation time around attending away games together.

Before the pandemic, the two predominant supporters groups — the Timbers Army and the Rose City Riveters — had around 6,000 dues-paying members, helping create a matchday atmosphere widely considered one of the best in North America. These hardcore fans are, as CEO Merritt Paulson has admitted, the club’s best asset. Over the years, the front office has gone out of its way to treat these supporters like they matter by meeting with them once a month, coordinating matchday operations, giving them schedules before they’re publicly released, and partnering on community outreach projects.

Yet there’s always been a tension to the relationship and these fans wield an unusual amount of power. That was no clearer than in 2019 when fans, upset over a new rule prohibiting an anti-fascist symbol inside the stadium, banded together in a protest against the club. It started as a concessions boycott and escalated to fans refusing to cheer during games, including at a nationally televised Timbers-Sounders rivalry match.

It became an embarrassment for MLS, which counted on the Timbers Army to help sell the atmosphere of the league, and Paulson was irate, yelling at fans that they caused the Timbers to lose to the Sounders due to their silence. It lasted several months and some fans were banned from games until the Timbers Army and the Rose City Riveters won: MLS and the Timbers relented, allowing the symbol back into the stadium.

Now, after a 2021 season rocked by accusations of sexual abuse and controversy, tensions have flared again for some of these hardcore fans who worry the club’s values don’t match their own. The sexual misconduct allegations involving a former coach and missteps from club executives have prompted some fans to wonder if the club’s self-stated values of inclusion and equality were sincere.

These fans are making a choice that was unthinkable even just a year ago: they’re letting their season tickets lapse and right now, they don’t know if they’ll be back.

“People value this community and it does center on the teams, so it’s really disappointing that a lot of folks feel like that might not be salvageable,” longtime Rose City Riveters member Rachel Greenough said.

Sherrilynn “Sheba” Rawson has been on the board that oversees the Timbers Army and the Rose City Riveters since the Timbers joined MLS a decade ago, and she says she’s never seen so much dissatisfaction. Fans are writing their ticket reps or the front office, explaining why they are walking away, and sometimes they include supporters’ group reps on the messages.

“I can’t tell you exactly how many people it is because for every person who cc’ed us on a letter, I don’t know how many more they are representing, but it’s not on a scale I’ve seen before,” Rawson said.

Silence in Portland

For some fans, their connection to their club changed in the fall. That’s when two former Thorns players, Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, went public with allegations of sexual misconduct from Paul Riley, who coached the Thorns in 2014 and 2015. Among the disturbing allegations were that Riley had pressured them to kiss each other as he watched, sent them lurid photos of himself, greeted one player at a purported film session in his underwear and verbally berated them.

The allegations were a shock to fans, but not to the Timbers/Thorns front office: Shim had filed a formal complaint in 2015 about Riley’s behavior, which the club says it handled internally and passed along to the NWSL. Paulson dismissed Riley shortly after the complaint, a decision the club had already said it was considering prior to Shim’s complaint because of Riley’s poor on-field results. A club press release framed it as a simple non-renewal of his contract, stating that Riley “will not be retained,” as general manager Gavin Wilkinson was quoted thanking Riley for his service.

Within months, Riley landed another head coaching job at an NWSL club that would later be known as the North Carolina Courage, and the Courage have said that they were “assured that he was in good standing.” The man who hired Riley after his exit was Aaran Lines, a former Timbers player and a former teammate of Wilkinson.

Since the stories of Shim and Farrelly became public, Paulson issued an open letter to fans vowing an independent investigation into the club’s handling of the matter. “Let me be unequivocal in saying that I as team owner and we as an organization disavow the culture of silence that may have allowed for additional victimization by a predatory coach, whose actions we forcefully condemn,” Paulson wrote. “Ultimately, we could have done more, which is particularly hard to say as the team that we have held as the highest standard in women’s professional soccer in the world.”

The U.S. Soccer Federation launched its own investigation, which is still ongoing, retaining former acting attorney general Sally Yates to look into “allegations of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer,” which includes Riley and other allegations around the NWSL.

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The Timbers/Thorns organization, anticipating that fans would be turned off by the allegations, took the unusual step of initially forgoing a deadline for season ticket renewal, giving fans months to make a decision — seemingly enough time for the results of an investigation. But Greenough, an active member of the Rose City Riveters, is running out of patience. The club hasn’t disclosed who is conducting its investigation and it hasn’t committed to releasing the full results of it, either. Greenough hasn’t renewed her season tickets for 2022, and she filled out a survey telling the club why.

“We don’t want this to go away,” she said. “We want to know why we should trust the front office again because that trust has absolutely been broken. We are worried because we don’t know who’s doing the investigation, we don’t know when it will be released — that is absolutely the worry, that they are trying to sweep it under the rug.”

Although the investigation remains ongoing, the club announced on Tuesday it had set a firm deadline for season ticket renewals: Jan. 21. That prompted more backlash from fans who said their ticket reps promised the chance to renew after the investigation was complete. The club in a statement to ESPN said it expects season ticket renewals to “exceed 90% for the Timbers and close to that for the Thorns.”

These supporters groups run their activities through a nonprofit called the 107 Independent Supporters Trust, and their elected board members are the ones who meet front office executives each month — but those meetings have stopped ever since the public allegations from Shim and Farrelly. The front office canceled meetings with the board for October, November, December and January. Coordination for game-day logistics has continued, but communications from front office executives have otherwise ceased, board members say.

“We’re talking about allegations that are very serious and, assuming they are true based on the evidence we have, the front office allowed an abuser to work with players for years,” Rawson said. “When the issue is that big and you’re not talking, it doesn’t make the relationship with the front office any better. What we’d like more than anything is an acknowledgement from the front office that indicates they know how serious this is.”

“The club has yet to acknowledge the position they’ve put supporters in,” Gabby Rosas, the president of the 107IST, said.

In a statement to ESPN on Thursday, the club said it is ending such meetings with supporters permanently.

“We believe the 107IST needs to be more inclusive and open to differing viewpoints from its small group of leadership. If a relationship is one-sided in a desire to drive protest over facts and players’ desires, it isn’t sustainable,” the club statement said. “We’ve come to the conclusion that the previous framework for dialogue and communication is due for a refresh and we will no longer be holding 107IST meetings in their current form as we look to increase our broader communication and input loops to the entirety of the supporters groups.”

The club declined comment to ESPN on the investigation, including who’s conducting it, and it hasn’t said much else publicly aside from Paulson’s letter, but Paulson has promised on social media that the club will say more later. In response to one fan who said he opted out of tickets, Paulson tweeted that for some fans “truth and facts and due process do not matter” and the fan should “do what’s best for [him].”

When Josh Lawrence, a Timbers Army member, canceled his season tickets and then criticized the club’s head of ticket sales, Joe Cote, on Twitter, Cote responded in a since-deleted tweet: “I thought you were a former supporter?” Lawrence thinks the club would rather replace vocal supporters like himself with new fans.

“It honestly has recently felt like they are intentionally driving some of us away,” Lawrence said. “I believe that the loudest and most passionate — the ones who care the most — are also the most difficult.”

For fans like Jo Thomson, who has been attending Thorns games since the team’s second season in 2014, the club’s response to the Riley scandal has fallen short. She hasn’t renewed her season tickets and hasn’t decided if she’ll attend via single-game tickets.

“That’s the part that hurts the most: my money was used to torture these players,” Thomson said. “I’m absolutely irate about it, and that reckoning hasn’t happened.”

The question of culture

December’s NWSL college draft was supposed to turn the page on a troublesome Thorns season and give fans a reason to look ahead and be excited. But the event only made Rosas even more skeptical of the Timbers/Thorns front office.

With the club’s first pick, it selected USF forward Sydny Nasello, who fans quickly discovered had shared viewpoints on social media that didn’t match the club’s stated values. One retweet by Nasello shared anti-trans rhetoric. Another espoused a conspiracy theory that the Parkland school shootings of 2018 were a false flag operation planned by Democrats. She also retweeted a comment from a family member that claimed false allegations of rape from women are common.

As screenshots made the rounds among fans, Nasello tweeted an apology, telling supporters she was “pumped” to join the Thorns and was “excited to continue growing as a person and learn as much as I possibly can from the people I’m surrounded by in Portland.” The Thorns’ official account retweeted it, but it quickly accumulated an influx of replies, mostly from fans insisting it wasn’t an actual apology. Nasello then locked down her social media accounts from public view.

“I need someone to explain this draft pick,” Rosas said. “She can absolutely score goals — there’s enough evidence of her being able to score goals. The North End is not going to cheer for her goals.”

New head coach Rhian Wilkinson (no relation to general manager Gavin) tried to explain it after the draft. “As a first year head coach — and, yeah, these are gonna come across as excuses — but I do need to hold my hand up and be responsible for not doing the work needed on the social media side,” said the coach, who was hired in November. “Definitely a piece that we’re going to be working with this young lady and getting to know her. But thankfully, we are part of a club, an organization, that’s very clear on where we stand on social issues like this.”

The club has not yet signed Nasello or any of its draft picks yet at the time of this story. The club declined comment on Nasello for this story.

“If character is important, I don’t know how you draft her,” Rawson said of Nasello. “If character is important, I don’t know how, one week after you get the report from Mana Shim, you let Paul Riley go without telling anyone he’s terminated with cause. You don’t tell anyone about the concerns — you publicly praise him. That’s not demonstrating a culture of character.”

In the years after Paulson knew of the allegations against Riley, he remained friendly with the coach, seen chatting with him before games and tweeting that Riley was doing a “phenomenal job” in North Carolina. Paulson deleted those tweets in October, years after the fact.

Continued protests for 2022

To be clear, the Timbers Army and the Rose City Riveters are not a monolith, and certainly not every fan attending games is a member of those supporters groups. Some fans expressed support online for Nasello after the draft, albeit in much smaller numbers. Others have said they will wait until the results of the independent investigation into the club’s handling of the Riley complaint before making a judgement.

Yet after Paulson issued his open letter, the members of the Timbers Army and the Rose City Riveters sent a list of demands to the Timbers/Thorns front office. For Thomson, addressing that list is the only way she can see herself and her family becoming season ticket holders again. Fulfilling the demand for a diversity, equity and inclusion officer, along with a dedicated players representative, could prevent another Paul Riley from being hired, or another Sydny Nasello from being drafted, she believes.

But the bigger demand has been the removal of Gavin Wilkinson.

In telling her story, Shim alleged that during a meeting in his office in 2014, Wilkinson told her not to discuss her personal life, including her sexual orientation. Contacted by The Athletic about it, Wilkinson flatly denied it initially, calling Shim’s recollections “bull—-,” but he then later admitted he may have said something that Shim interpreted that way. That meeting allegedly took place around when The Oregonian published a profile of Shim and featured photos of Shim and her then-girlfriend, which prompted anger from the Thorns front office toward the reporter who wrote the feature.

The club put Wilkinson on leave from the Thorns in October, “pending the results of the outside independent investigation,” but he remained in charge of the Timbers within the same organization. By November, with the investigation still not complete, former Thorns goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc replaced him as the general manager of the Thorns. Fans say that proves the “one club” rhetoric from the front office is disingenuous.

“He still sits at the same desk. He’s still going to have an amount of sway over what happens on that side of things,” Thomson said. “It’s absurd to think anyone would be so naive as to believe he’s going to say, ‘Don’t talk to me about Thorns: I only do Timbers.'”

The club declined comment to ESPN on Wilkinson’s role with the club. Until Wilkinson is gone, however, the club’s most passionate fans say they are willing to protest into next season.

Fans hold up signs that read “YOU KNEW” during games, and in the 24th minute of Timbers games, supporters light red smoke to draw attention to the allegations from Shim and Farrelly. Since October supporters have vowed not to spend money inside the stadium on merchandise or concessions. It was a protest that lost momentum as the Timbers reached the MLS Cup, which brought more casual fans into the fold, but supporters say they are committed to picking up where they left off.

A 107IST survey in December of more than 700 fans — a mix of those who are members of the supporters groups and those who are not — found that most respondents agreed with the concessions boycott as the right approach. Going forward, most fans supported continuing the boycott or pushing harder if the front office doesn’t make tangible reforms.

“We don’t plan to call things off,” Rosas said. “The tactics may change, the asks may change and a lot of people are choosing not to renew, so how do things look different when the people who are more familiar with the issues are not inside the stadium?”

“Anything is still on the table at this point,” Greenough said. “The education piece is going to be the key, because if we do escalate in the stadium, we’d need to know we have the buy-in of more people, and that everyone would know what’s happening and understand why.”

That’s been the hardest part for the supporters who spoke to ESPN: deciding whether or not to stop coming to games, whether or not they have season tickets. The fans want to hold the front office accountable, but they don’t want to stop supporting the players.

“I’m absolutely despondent — I was so convinced that we could make a positive change and see some good growth and focus on victims and try to do better,” Thomson said.

All of the 107IST members who spoke to ESPN agreed: as much as they are willing to protest, they would rather not. If the club could take serious and concrete actions to restore trust with the supporters, games may start to feel normal again.

As Thomson said: “We always ask each other: when is this going to be fun again?”

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