U.S. women's national team and Portland Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn described the past several weeks, in which allegations of verbal abuse and sexual coercion have roiled the National Women's Soccer League, as "heavy" and "really tough."
Sauerbrunn spoke to reporters ahead of the U.S. team's friendly Thursday against South Korea (8 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and ESPN+). The match is the first for the USWNT since allegations involving former Thorns and North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley emerged, prompting calls for an overhaul to the league. The allegations saw Lisa Baird step down as NWSL commissioner, and prompted investigations by U.S. Soccer and FIFA.
Sauerbrunn indicated there had been numerous conversations with various levels of the Portland front office.
"I would say that it's been heavy and being with the players at Portland, the sadness, the anger, the need to want to create change, it's been tough. It's been really tough," she said. "I mean we've had a lot of conversations amongst the players. We've had talks with front office. We've had talks with HR, and it's just all I can say. It's been really heavy and we've leaned into one another a lot. I've had a lot of hard, open conversations about what happened and what needs to change."
Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, who also owns the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer, has previously said he regrets not being transparent after cutting ties with Riley in 2015.
Sauerbrunn admitted that such has been the perception of fragility surrounding the NWSL that there has long been an undercurrent of fear within the player ranks that if anyone stepped out of line, or did anything to cast the league in a poor light, the league might fold. Now that feeling has evaporated.
"I think the outrageousness of this year, with the amount of coaches that have been fired, now with the allegations of sexual misconduct, it's just been too much," she said. "And if you want to talk about when is that feeling of, 'OK, we have to stop protecting the league. We need to start protecting ourselves,' that definitely happened this year I would say. I think you've seen that in all the players coming together, the demonstrations, the demands from the PA to protect the players. So yeah, I would definitely say the outrageousness and the tragedy of this year is that moment."
U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski said during his media availability that he held a team meeting in which the misconduct permeating the NWSL was discussed.
"We talked about the importance of creating a safe environment for the players, and just talked about what this camp is all about, how everything that they've gone through in their markets, in their team environments, club team environments, where they've led their teams through these tough times," he said. "But also the importance of being in this camp and leaning on each other and leading together, and overcoming, everything that has been going on. I said before, I'm just saddened and feel terrible for the players that are directly involved in this, but also all the other players and staff in in the league, and women's soccer in general in the States."
When asked if there had been subsequent meetings, Andonovski said there hasn't been much time to delve deeper. He added that U.S. women's national team GM Kate Markgraf was on hand to engage in more conversations.
"It is extremely important that we're here for each other and support each other through this healing time," he said.
Sauerbrunn, while not a part of the NWSL Players Association because of her status as an allocated player, lauded the work that the NWSLPA has done during the crisis, leading from the front and pushing for change.
"I know the NWSLPA has been doing such an amazing job, demanding certain changes, making sure the scope of the investigation is broad enough to make sure that the players are protected," she said. "And at the end of the day that's what we want, that all the players are protected."