Portland Thorns secure playoff spot, hailed title favorite, despite organization’s scandal

Illustration of a Portland Thorn player with thorns curling around body
Stella Mercer / The Mossy Log

Last year, the Portland Thorns won the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Shield, but lost to the Chicago Red Stars in the playoff semifinals. This year, the Thorns have continued their streak of dominance despite failing to clinch the NWSL Shield in a tight, regular-season race. 

Going into the last match, the Thorns sat atop the league with 38 points while the OL Reign trailed with 37 points. However, the Thorns were kept to a 3-3 draw against Gotham FC while the OL Reign secured a 3-0 win over the Orlando Pride, leapfrogging the Thorns with a league-winning 40-point total. 

The Thorns’ stellar regular-season campaign was spearheaded by Most Valuable Player nominee Alex Smith, as well as anchored by goalkeeper Bella Bixby and Defender of the Year nominee Becky Sauerbrunn. Smith led the Thorns’ offense, notching three assists and netting 14 goals, which was second in the league. Despite not being nominated for Goalkeeper of the Year, Bixby was the league joint-leader in clean sheets meaning games where no goals were conceived, securing nine in 20 games played. Veteran defender Sauerbrunn managed the defense throughout the season which was crucial to maintaining a high number of clean sheets. Additionally, Sam Coffey, a second-round pick out of Pennsylvania State University, earned a Rookie of the Year nomination after consistent, strong performances at midfield. 

These performances, however, were overshadowed.  In 2021, The Athletic published a story in which Meleana “Mana” Shim and Sinead Farrelly, former Portland Thorns players, accused Former Head Coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion during his time working for the organization. Riley was dismissed by the organization after a 2014-2015 stint, but the reason for his release was not publicly announced. The Thorns’ response has been controversial as members of the front office knew of the scandal in 2015 and did not make it public. In an independent report commissioned by U.S. Soccer, which was released on Oct. 3, Yates accused the Thorns organization of ignoring complaints by players and covering for Riley, allowing him to coach other teams despite accusations of sexual coercion. Furthermore, the organization was accused of concealing information and not fully cooperating with the investigation. 

In the wake of the report’s findings, President Mike Golub and General Manager Gavin Wilkinson were released from the organization on Oct. 5. Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Thorns and Portland Timbers, resigned from his position as chief executive officer of both organizations. Paulson has no plans to sell the clubs in spite of widespread protests from Thorns supporters.

The Thorns are set to face the San Diego Wave in the semifinals of the NWSL playoffs on Oct. 23. The third seed San Diego Wave has only lost one of their last seven games and beat the Thorns in their last head-to-head match in August. It is uncertain how the recent scandal and sudden managerial changes will affect the Thorns’ play. In a conference call with reporters on Oct. 4, Becky Saubrunn gave insight into the team’s mindset.

 “The players are not doing well,” Saubrunn said. 

Given their excellent regular season performance and the triple threat of Smith, Bixby and Sauerbrunn, the Portland Thorns remain favorites to win the NWSL Championship.

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