MLS commissioner Garber backs Portland Timbers' embattled leadership amid investigations

Recent abuse claims raise questions about Portland's club leadership (1:36)

Sebastian Salazar is heavily critical of Portland Timbers and Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson's handling of abuse claims at the organization. (1:36)

MLS commissioner Don Garber says he has full faith in the leadership of the Portland Timbers, even as the club is the subject of three ongoing investigations for its handling of allegations of abuse.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday ahead of the new MLS season beginning on Saturday, Garber said club CEO Merritt Paulson and his father, majority owner Hank Paulson, were cooperating with a league-run investigation into how the club handled allegations of domestic abuse levied against midfielder Andy Polo. The Paulsons also own the Thorns, an NWSL team that continues to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct from a former coach.

"I have great faith in the Paulson family," Garber said. "Hank Paulson could be the most involved MLS board member, and I have enormous faith and confidence in Merritt Paulson, who's built from scratch one of the great sports teams, in any sport, in our country, if not throughout North America. I know that he's very passionate about his teams, both the Portland Timbers and the Portland Thorns, and is going to cooperate in anything that is being reviewed."

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Earlier this month, the Timbers and MLS suspended Polo after his ex-partner, Génessis Alarcón, publicly accused him of domestic abuse, telling a TV show in Peru: "He pulled my hair. I fell to the floor. He slapped me in the face and gave me a black eye." Two days later, Polo's contract was terminated.

The Timbers, however, had been aware of a call made to police in May 23, 2021, alleging domestic violence against Alarcón at Polo's home outside of Portland. Two Timbers employees, Gabriel Jaimes, the team's head of players affairs, and Jim McCausland, the team's head of security, arrived on scene and spoke to police, with McCausland promising officers that "he would make sure that peace would be maintained inside the house," according to the police report.

The Timbers reportedly did not inform MLS about that incident in May, and subsequently opted to renew Polo's contract in December 2021. Last week, MLS announced it had launched an investigation into the Timbers' handling of the incident and whether the Timbers should have reported it to the league.

The Polo ordeal comes on the heels of another abuse scandal within the same club on the women's side with the Portland Thorns. In September, two former Thorns players publicly accused former coach Paul Riley of coercing a player into having sex with him and sending lewd photos to another, along with verbal abuse, plying players with alcohol, anti-gay comments and other inappropriate behavior.

One of the players, Mana Shim, had reported Riley's behavior to the Timbers front office in 2015. Riley quietly left the club and was quickly rehired by another team in the NWSL, where he was employed until the players told their stories publicly in September 2021.

That has prompted a pair of investigations that remain ongoing: Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, is leading one of behalf of the U.S. Soccer Federation, and the NWSL front office is collaborating with the NWSL Players Association on another. Those investigations encompass allegations of misconduct in Portland and elsewhere in the NWSL.

The Timbers vowed an independent investigation of their handling of Shim's complaint but closed it without interviewing any players so other investigations could take precedence.

"The question as to whether or not that May 23 incident was properly reported is what we're reviewing," Garber said on Tuesday. "So, we've got to go through that process and, when we do complete that, we'll disclose it.

"And that's not a local investigation by the Timbers, it's not an investigation by Major League Soccer -- it is an MLS investigation managing an independent law firm that will take a look at whether it was properly reported.

"As I said, I have faith in the Paulson family, I have faith in Merritt and Hank. We'll wait and see what comes out of this investigation, which is the only one that we really are engaged in, and then we'll make the decisions that we need to make once that investigation is concluded."

Although Garber was asked about the Timbers' investigation more than once, he answered a range of questions on Tuesday ahead of MLS's 27th season, including on topics like expansion and player recruitment.

All signs have been pointing to Las Vegas winning an expansion slot and becoming MLS's 30th team, but Garber would not confirm that. Asked why MLS would even consider adding Las Vegas, which as the 40th-largest media market in the U.S. would be the league's smallest, he said media market size didn't matter as much as it once did.

"Market size in the future of media will be less important than market engagement," Garber said. "What we're thinking about is: Where is the future growth and opportunity happening, and where do we think MLS can be successful? What are the demographics in that community? What's the corporate base? What's the international appeal?"

The commissioner also said that MLS had outgrown its image as a destination for aging stars. If players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar want to come to the league, they can, but MLS doesn't need that anymore, he said.

"We don't need to bring in a big-name player at the end of their career because they decided they want to retire in MLS," Garber said.

He added: "You know, when Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] left Major League Soccer, no one said he went to retire in Italy, and frankly I was insulted by that. Because if Zlatan came to us at the same age when he went back to Milan, it would've been a retire move on his part. He worked his tail off in MLS and he's worked his tail off in Serie A. So I'm not quite sure why we're viewed differently, but it is what it is."