NWSL returns amid abuse scandals, with players demanding change and accountability

Melanie Anzidei
NorthJersey.com

A silent moment marked the return of National Women’s Soccer League action this week.

During the sixth minute of play inside Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday night, players for NJ/NY Gotham FC and the Washington Spirit gathered inside the center circle on the pitch. Together, they stood with their arms linked and their heads bowed, as the roaring support of fans filled the stadium.

For a fleeting minute, the players stood in solidarity to recognize the six years it took for them to be heard — particularly former players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, who have become the face of a league-wide reckoning after they detailed to The Athletic allegations of sexual harassment and coercion by longtime head coach Paul Riley.

As the Gotham and Spirit players stood, a series of coordinated actions played out across the league. The Players Association quickly shared the meaning behind their players’ silent protest, the first of three pauses that took place at all three NWSL games that night. Then, the association released a list of eight specific demands that largely called for full transparency from the league.

Once play resumed, a growing chant from one end of the stadium erupted: “No more silence.” Three words that have become a rallying cry for accountability in the NWSL.

Players stop the match during the first half of a NWSL soccer match between NJ/NY Gotham FC and the Washington Spirit in a protest at Subaru Park.

This week marked a possible inflection point for women's professional soccer, which returned to play Wednesday after postponing all matches last weekend in the wake of abuse allegations against Riley surfaced and after a season riddled by abuse allegations and turnover within various team front offices and coaching staffs. On Wednesday night, fans and coaches demanded better for players. Across social media, images of the players’ protests went viral. In postgame press conferences, players demanded change.

“I hope and wish that this is a huge reset for this league to just start doing this right, from the top down," said Gotham’s Carli Lloyd, the longtime national team star who will retire from soccer at the end of this season. "I think that’s the most important thing.

"We as players deserve the best," Lloyd said. "I’m gonna be leaving this sport, and all of these women deserve to have the best — to be playing on the best playing surfaces, to have the best coaches, to have the best owners. So, I am hopeful that can happen.”

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She later added, “This is a huge wake-up call. This could be a huge reset to make things better — to have policies in place, to vet ownerships, to vet coaching staff, and just make things better. Because they should be better.”

The match on Wednesday was also a hometown farewell for Lloyd, who hails from Delran, New Jersey, about 40 minutes from Subaru Park, where Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union plays. The game was originally scheduled for Red Bull Arena, but moved to Chester, where an estimated 10,000 fans filled the seats inside the stadium overlooking the Delaware River.

NJ/NY Gotham FC forward Carli Lloyd speaks to fans during her home town ceremony after the NWSL soccer match Wednesday night against the Washington Spirit at Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Several times, Lloyd told reporters how she will miss those “big, big moments” — the World Cup victories, the Olympics, playing before sellout crowds at Red Bull Arena. 

She noted that Wednesday night, too, marked another big moment for the league.

"Collectively you saw two teams coming out and giving the best that they could in probably one of the worst weeks this league has ever seen," Lloyd said.

The Gotham and Spirit match was one of three games played by the NWSL Wednesday night. It was the first time that players returned to the pitch after two head coaches — the Spirit’s Richie Burke and Riley, most recently with the North Carolina Courage — were fired amid abuse allegations last week.

Burke was fired after an NWSL investigation into accusations of a toxic work environment, first reported by The Washington Post in August. In that report, former Spirit player Kaiya McCullough alleged verbal abuse and racially insensitive comments.

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Riley was fired after The Athletic reported last week that players alleged he sexually coerced and harassed them across several teams for years. In the wake of the revelations, league commissioner Lisa Baird resigned on Friday night, and a three-woman executive committee took over league operations.

Fans on Wednesday showed their support for players.

At one end of the stadium, there were banners that together illustrated a tumultuous season riddled with scandal, injustices and abuse in the NWSL. One banner read “#NoMoreSideHustles,” a nod to the campaign by the Players Association that demanded livable wages for players, who often work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Another read “Contract Now!” — alluding to the ongoing negotiations by the Players Association for the league’s first-ever contract for its players. Another sign demanded that the league “Protect our players."

Fans make protest signs in the parking lot before Wednesday night's NWSL soccer match between NJ/NY Gotham FC and the Washington Spirit at Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania.

One sign was a direct message to Steve Baldwin, the Spirit's majority owner. It read: “We support Spirit fans. Sell the team, Baldwin." 

On Tuesday night, Spirit players released a public letter to Baldwin, who stepped down as the team’s chief executive and managing partner earlier that morning while players were in training. The players called for him to take a further step back from the team, and sell his ownership stake to Y. Michele Kang, his female co-owner. In the letter, players said Kang was the “person we trust.” 

Gotham’s Imani Dorsey, the team’s player representative for the Players Association, described the past week as an “incredibly difficult, incredibly emotional, heartbreaking” moment for the league's players.

“There were a lot of calls. A lot of anger,” Dorsey said after the game. “People were really trying to understand what do we do to make this league hear us — because from the stories that have come out, they clearly don’t and it felt like they didn’t have our best interest at heart.”

So the players decided to make their statement on the field, she said, while also issuing a specific list of demands with deadlines. Their first is that every coach, general manager, board of governors representative and owner voluntarily submit to the Association’s independent investigation into abusive conduct by Oct. 13.

“Today’s show of solidarity was the purpose of reminding the league that we are not done, reminding our fans that we are not done," Dorsey said. "We have a long way to go and this is going to be at the forefront of our minds for the rest of the season and for years to come.”

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and it’s not just about the joy of the sport," Dorsey said. "It’s about the respect that we are demanding from the league moving forward because they failed us and we expect more, and we want to work with them to make things better."

"But we will for sure hold them accountable to it,” she said.

Melanie Anzidei is a reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: anzidei@northjersey.com

Twitter: @melanieanzidei