The National Women's Soccer League playoffs are here, a time of year when the best players and teams from one of the world's top leagues are on display. For the second straight year, however, there is a heaviness around what would otherwise be a celebratory moment. NWSL players again enter the postseason shortly after publicly reliving some of their most traumatic experiences.
It was a little over a year ago that the allegations of sexual harassment and coercion against former Portland Thorns head coach Paul Riley were first reported by The Athletic. The report came out the same week that former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was fired following an investigation into alleged verbal abuse. By year's end, five of the 10 teams had fired a coach for cause or allowed him to resign amid allegations of misconduct.
This time around, the aftershocks of the Yates report -- which detailed not only what happened with Riley but also with Rory Dames, formerly of the Chicago Red Stars, and former Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly -- are still being felt. The blind eye turned by team and U.S. Soccer Federation executives was also laid out in more detail, adding to the level of pain.
"It's really sad to say, but in a way, I think we're used to having to deal with one thing or another," United States and OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe said last week, letting out a knowing exhale at the reality. Now, the players, who have already been through so much, must find a way to absorb the contents of the Yates Report, and carry on trying to push their teams to a championship. That requires a delicate balancing act.
Players -- at least those who have spoken publicly since the Yates report was released -- are asking for focus to remain on their play on the field. Their intent is not to ignore what has happened, but rather to not let it define them. "I feel like we've said our piece, we've done as much as we can," San Diego Wave forward and MVP finalist Alex Morgan said Friday.
Morgan is one of San Diego's NWSL Players Association team representatives and last year played a key role in bringing to light the allegations of former teammates Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly against Riley, after they were ignored for years by league executives. Morgan said she has participated in more NWSLPA calls over the past two weeks than she has all year, and that players -- in contrast to last year's in-game stoppages to show solidarity with victims of abuse in the league -- are supporting each other in those NWSLPA channels.
"Players want the world to see our greatest moments, not just our darkest ones," NWSLPA executive director Meghann Burke said in a statement to ESPN. "We're ready for playoffs, even while the work of our joint investigation continues. Players are asking fans to pack the stands, be loud, and stand with us now, more than ever."
Over the next few weeks, the hope -- the request, even -- is to move forward, to celebrate the players who make the league special.
"In terms of solidarity, us players throughout the NWSL are incredibly supportive of each other," Morgan said. "I'm not sure if you're going to necessarily see something before the game or us wearing something in particular for the game. It's kind of been a really heavy two weeks, and I'm not sure that we want to put any more added pressure on players to come up with something when we've really all tried to process it just at the very least. Yeah, it's been an interesting time, but we're really hopeful looking forward."
Kansas City Current midfielder Desiree Scott knows that every player handles the emotions of the moment in their own way. The 35-year-old was in training camp with Canada when the Yates report was released, and she connected with her Kansas City teammates over Zoom and text messages. The goal of the conversations, she said, was to help each other through the highs and lows.
"It's obviously a long season," Scott told ESPN. "I think there's some tired mental states, heavy news coming in with that report that's come out. And also knowing that we have a big playoff journey ahead. So, I think there's kind of that mix of emotion from the group."
"Obviously, some excitement there, but also, it's kind of, you're having to teeter through this news and kind of deal with it on a day-to-day basis. And I think everyone deals with that news differently, and it's just about having patience with one another but also getting our work done on the pitch as well."
Alex Morgan shares her frustration at the NWSL's failure to support Meleana Shim after speaking out against Paul Riley in this behind-the-scenes clip from E60: Truth Be Told, available now on ESPN+.
Sophie Schmidt was in camp with Canada at the time, too. The Yates report hit home with the group, she said, because they know that the abuse and inaction detailed about the NWSL goes beyond the league and its borders. Canada has dealt with its own issues handling sexual abuse, including with the Vancouver Whitecaps women's program, which many players -- including Schmidt -- once played for.
"It's what we've done for so long, and also it's part of being professional," Schmidt told ESPN. "When you step across that line, you've kind of got to compartmentalize it and do the job at hand. Unfortunately, we have to do that more [often] than not, especially in the NWSL. It's a challenge but I think that the players have done a really good job. The next couple weeks will be challenging."
A striking dichotomy looms for the weeks ahead. On Sunday, Schmidt's Houston Dash will play in its first playoff game in franchise history, against Kansas City. The Dash organization waited eight years for this moment, one which, after last year's late-season collapse, felt like it might never come.
The Dash announced Friday that 17,000 tickets have already been sold, which would smash the team's previous record attendance. In a vacuum, it is a monumental moment for a franchise that historically struggled to attract fans and for years faced questions about the market's viability. Later that day, San Diego hopes to fill Snapdragon Stadium with another 32,000 fans.
But Sunday -- and the rest of the playoffs -- cannot be viewed in isolation. Even in Houston, it has been "a challenging year," as Schmidt put it. Head coach James Clarkson was suspended on the eve of the regular season following preliminary findings from the NWSL and NWSLPA's joint investigation into misconduct within the league. The investigation remains ongoing, and the league has not issued any updates since the suspension was announced on April 27.
Fans, at least anecdotally, feel torn. How can they support players while protesting the institutions that failed them? Nowhere is that question more pressing than in Portland, where the Thorns will host a semifinal on Oct. 23. Team owner/operator Merritt Paulson announced Tuesday that he would step down as CEO, but Portland's supporters' groups maintain their demand that he sell the team because of the role he played in allowing Riley to continue coaching in the NWSL.
The Thorns publicly thanked Riley when the parties separated in 2015, announcing that the coach's contract would not be renewed. It was revealed in the 2021 report from The Athletic, and confirmed in the Yates report, that Riley was terminated for breaching his contract following the complaints made by Shim. A few months later, in 2016, Riley was hired by a rival team whose executives claim they were not aware of what happened off the field in Portland. Riley went on to win three more league championships, coaching until 2021.
Thorns forward and MVP finalist Sophia Smith called for fans to support the players in the stands on Oct. 23, 2022, saying the support is "one of the positive things we have left in Portland." Smith said that only days after Portland and U.S. teammate Becky Sauerbrunn called for the removal of any executive who enabled abusers -- including those in Portland.
Fans are left with a dilemma on how to act at this important juncture of the season.
"It's tough," Schmidt said. "I can't imagine being a fan and how to think and feel at the moment. They're grieving all of this with us as well. There's going to be time that needs to happen [to heal], but it's tough. People who've made their mind up that they don't want to come support physically, in stadiums, that's their decision and that's fine."
Witness the powerful story of the reckoning in women's professional soccer from the point of view of those who experienced it first hand. E60: Truth Be Told is available on-demand on ESPN+.
"I've read some of the things that the Portland girls have put out, about 'we need you as fans.' I think sometimes not showing up also hurts the players. So, I don't know. It's twofold and it's tough, and I think everyone needs to make a personal decision for themselves and what they're comfortable with. I think in this moment and time, we have to be OK with that."
Sunday will undoubtedly be another emotional return to play for the NWSL's athletes. Many of them played for their countries during the international break as they processed the news. As Sauerbrunn said last week from U.S. camp in London, "The players are not doing well. We are horrified and heartbroken and frustrated and exhausted and really, really angry."
Still, the players once again are asked to do their jobs. Not just to show up, but to put together their best performances of the season and play for a championship. That is, after all, what they've always wanted to do -- and to do safely, with protections in place. There is also a hope that they'll find something that has been taken away from them, and buried in places that aren't easy to find. That is the joy of playing, competing, and with some luck, basking in a victory that takes them one step closer to their ultimate goal.
"I think for a lot of us, being on the pitch is our happy place," said Scott. "It's a place where we have those connections. We love our jobs, we love being on that field, and I think that's sort of our place of freedom where we can not think for a minute, we can just enjoy the game and each other's company and getting better. So I think it's great to continue and have our season continue on because it allows us to refocus, laser in a little bit and just enjoy the game for what it is."