Portland Thorns Coach Rhian Wilkinson to Resign

Just a year after her hiring, the Canadian soccer coach reported a relationship with a player to the club and league. While an investigation cleared her of wrongdoing, she says she has lost the players’ confidence and that they asked for her resignation.

By Margaret Seiler December 2, 2022

Rhian Wilkinson at Providence Park in fall 2021, when she was hired as the Thorns head coach

Portland Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson will resign this month, according to a statement released by the team the morning of December 2. Wilkinson offered further details on the reason for her resignation in a near-simultaneous Twitter post, describing a friendship with a player “that had turned into more complex emotions.” Wilkinson says she and the player ceased communication outside of soccer, and the coach reported the situation and initiated a National Women’s Soccer League investigation.

“Late in the season, Wilkinson followed internal processes by self-reporting a matter to Club leadership, who then elevated it to the NWSL,” the team statement read. “A joint investigation was then conducted in partnership with the NWSL [Players Association]. The investigation concluded following the end of the 2022 season, at which point Wilkinson was cleared of any wrongdoing.”

Wilkinson wrote in her social media post that other players found out about the situation before she could tell them herself: “The narrative regarding my actions has now taken on a life of its own, and as a result I can understand that the Portland players feel hurt and have to deal with another non-soccer situation. The result of this being that the players have asked for my resignation, and I have agreed to it.”

Wilkinson told the Athletic on Thursday that feelings "were shared by text message and I reciprocated feelings" with Emily Menges, a Thorns defender since 2014 who spent much of the 2022 season out with injuries. The feelings had not been acted on, Wilkinson said, and there was no physical relationship. (The two were teammates when Wilkinson played for the Thorns in 2015.) 

Menges, who is on the board of the NWSL Players Association as its treasurer, also spoke to the Athletic: “If you’re going to believe players like we’ve been preaching for the last year—longer—then you ... can’t just believe players when they are actually victims, you have to believe players when they’re not victims. There’s no pick and choose situation.”

The Athletic reported that after the investigation wrapped in late November some Thorns players communicated concerns to the league about potential power imbalances and risk of retaliation, and that there was much awkwardness around the communication of Wilkinson's initial decision to not resign.  

A Quebec native and former Canada national team player, Wilkinson was hired in fall 2021 to replace Mark Parsons, who left Portland after six seasons to coach the women’s national team for the Netherlands. He resigned from that position this summer and was announced in November as the head coach for the NWSL’s Washington Spirit, returning to a post he previously held from 2013 to 2015.

In her first press conference November 30, 2021, a day after being named coach, Wilkinson described the Portland job as “a dream come true.” Addressing the challenges the team was facing at the time after the revelation of allegations of sexual coercion on the part of a former coach and what the organization had and hadn’t done to address the situation and protect players, she said, “A lot is happening I think for the good, the transparency, the power dynamics…. I’ve worked in Canada. I’ve worked in England, and the stuff that’s happening here is happening everywhere, and it’s not good. It needs to be cleaned up, and I love that I get to be a part of an organization that’s going to be a forerunner in that.”

In a January interview, she told Portland Monthly that the players were very involved in her hiring. While she said she couldn’t comment directly on the investigations that were ongoing last winter—“and that drives me wild, because the fans obviously deserve the truth”—she did say it was important to her that the organization seemed serious about change. “I try and be super open, honest and transparent as much as I can,” she said. “I definitely wouldn't want to represent a club that I didn't feel was doing what it should.”

After the Thorns won their third league championship in October, some players told reporters they’d been shocked Wilkinson hadn’t been in the running for the NWSL’s coach of the year, saying at the time that she’d earned buy-in from the players in her first season. While the official investigation cleared her of wrongdoing, that is not the only standard to meet for Wilkinson, according to her Twitter statement.

“The investigative process and player and staff willingness to use human resources and league reporting is critically important. If the women’s game is to avoid further power imbalances and player abuses, these systems must be used and there must be trust in the process and the results. We must keep highlighting these processes.”

The official team statement on the resignation quoted NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman as saying that the team and Wilkinson “followed all League processes and policies and fully cooperated with this investigation,” which has not always been the case for the Thorns/Timbers organization. A report released in October from a team led by former Deputy US Attorney General Sally Yates that the team caused delays in the investigation: “The Portland Thorns interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents.”

Following the Yates report, team owner Merritt Paulson announced he would step down from any active role with the women’s side. On December 1, the day before the Wilkinson announcement, the team issued a statement that Paulson would be selling the Thorns but maintaining ownership of the Timbers, the men’s Major League Soccer team.

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