NWSL's Merritt Mathias reflects on Riley abuse

Merritt Mathias was drafted by FC Kansas City in 2013, the inaugural season of the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL). The former Texas A&M defender went on to win a title with KC in 2014. She was traded to the Seattle Reign the following season, and she helped lead the team to a 2015 NWSL Shield. Then, in 2018, former North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley convinced Mathias to join his club. For Mathias, now 32, who had known Riley since the start of her professional career, the trade offer to join the Courage seemed like the perfect opportunity to take her game to the next level. That year, the defender recorded an assist in the championship game as the Courage won the title.

In 2019, Mathias suffered a knee injury that sidelined her for a year and a half. She returned to play in 2021, but her aspirations on the field were disrupted following a report in The Athletic detailing allegations of sexual harassment and coercion against Riley, spanning multiple teams and leagues since 2010. In her own words, Mathias describes how she went from questioning her place in professional soccer in the aftermath of the allegations to channeling her energies to help ratify the NWSL's first-ever Collective Bargaining Agreement. (An independent investigation has found systemic abuse and misconduct within women's professional soccer in the United States. The report, led by former acting attorney general Sally Q. Yates and released Monday, was based on more than 200 interviews and revealed the NWSL under the US Soccer Federation failed to provide a safe environment for players.)

SINCE THE AGE of 5, soccer was the thing I could turn to when I was going through hard times.

But during my second year of college at the University of North Carolina, for the first time in my life, soccer wasn't that safe space. I struggled in the environment and with the coaching staff. And while I was filled with stress, anxiety and a sense of embarrassment that my college career wasn't going the way I planned, I couldn't articulate any of it because I didn't allow myself to truly feel it. I questioned myself. I questioned my love for the sport. I questioned everything.

"Who am I if I'm not playing soccer?" I remember asking myself.

I couldn't imagine my life without soccer. I transferred to Texas A&M after the 2009 season, and it wasn't until that moment that I realized there was power in my decision to leave a situation that wasn't fitting. There was power in my decision to move forward and trust myself.

When I returned to North Carolina to play professionally for the Courage in 2018, I felt like this was my time to return to the state where I first lost myself and questioned my soccer career.

Three years later, in 2021, despite feeling like I had gained immense self-knowledge, I would experience a period of questioning again. And I'd need to utilize everything I had learned about myself over the last decade to navigate what would happen next.

Around March 2021, the start of last season, I was excited. After recovering from knee surgeries, I was ready to play for the Courage. It had been 17 months since I played in a game. Anticipation filled me. But within months of the season being underway, I quickly realized that things weren't going as planned. I was in pain all the time. I managed to maintain dominance on the field, but it didn't feel like me. I started to struggle again.

Then in September 2021, The Athletic published an article on sexual coercion in the NWSL. I was disgusted when I read that former players accused my then-head coach, Paul Riley, of sexual coercion spanning multiple teams and leagues since 2010.

For a decade, Riley had been in my life. I had a personal relationship with him that started before I joined the NWSL. I've had dinner at his home on multiple occasions. I've gone to parties at his home. He knew me personally, beyond the soccer field. He had a profound impact on my career. I also experienced Riley's control and power over his players, especially outside the soccer field. I was never sexually coerced by Riley. But I had to process it all, and it was hard to sit in the truth of who he was. At that moment, any light within me regarding soccer was burned out. I felt very dark inside. Everything felt heavy.

Soccer became what I had to do. It was my job. I had to show up. Every day, I would be filled with anxiety on my drive to work. I struggled to find joy in the game at that time. I would look around, and my teammates and competitors were all struggling in their way. It was awful. It felt daunting to go out and play. It also felt like the least important thing to do at that time. Like, "What's the point? Why am I out here right now?"

A couple of months after the accusations surfaced (and Riley was terminated), my team made the playoffs by the skin of our teeth in early November, and we faced the Washington Spirit. That morning, I woke up and told myself, "OK, you can do this. It's 90 minutes. You can make it. You can get through this." As we battled it out on the field, I couldn't help but think about when it would be over. The Spirit defeated us 1-0, and I felt relief physically and mentally when the whistle blew.

After that, I started seeing a therapist regularly. She helped me feel through all the emotions. I felt betrayed and sad. I went from numbness to feeling it all. So much of what I was experiencing felt contradictory, but I had to sit with it all. The hardest part of the journey was understanding and wrapping my head around the fact that I would never speak to that person again. Because of my values, the person I want to be in this world, and how I hold people in my life who are important to me, I could never allow that person back into my life.

And I wanted to turn this pain into power. I wanted to find myself again. And I wanted to come out of this experience stronger than ever.

BEFORE THE 2021 season started, I decided to join the NWSL Players Association's collective bargaining agreement committee. I've never been one to hold back on speaking my truth or sharing my opinions, so becoming a part of the CBA committee felt like something I could take on.

I couldn't represent my fellow teammates and players if I wasn't emotionally honest with myself and what I was experiencing. The healing process became part of my role on the committee, and I gained a newfound purpose that felt bigger than what I had ever been a part of in the soccer world. All the emotions tied to the scandals and abuse in the league would be channeled into change. We wanted to ensure that future NWSL players had better and continued to demand better.

On the eve of training camp for the 2022 season, we made history. Just months after allegations of abuse struck our league, we ratified the first-ever CBA in the NWSL. After more than 40 bargaining sessions, the NWSLPA secured benefits including a raise in the minimum salary by 60% to $35,000, added structure surrounding free agency, paid mental health leave, eight weeks of paid parental leave and professional minimum staffing requirements for healthcare professionals.

I started my professional career in 2013, the NWSL's inaugural year, and I never imagined that I would be able to create change as we did with the CBA. There have been many highlights of my career, but the proudest I've ever been was being a part of the CBA negotiations. Months after completely feeling lost in the league, I found myself again. I found my power and purpose.

The hardest moments of the past few years in my playing career could have broken me. I had to recognize the difference between being able to do hard things and not letting this sport and world harden me. Soccer and the NWSL allowed me to know fully who I am. And as a result, for the first time in my life, I feel truly inspired by my own story.