Is Portland still Soccer City, USA?
The Timbers Army seems more interested in society than soccer
On April 3, Madison Shanley hit the national airwaves with the shirt she wore to sing the national anthem at the Portland Timbers’ game with the visiting LA Galaxy at Providence Park.
It was the message on the shirt, and reaction is caused that attracted attention, which Shanley had hoped for as she realized that singing the anthem provided her with a platform for making a public statement. Shanley’s statement, though, wasn’t aimed at supporting the home team Timbers in their game with LA, but with embarrassing the home team franchise ownership and management over a simmering social issue.
“You Knew” adorned Shanley’s shirt, which the team’s most passionate fans - the Timbers Army - have adopted as a rallying cry to promote its knowledge of the team’s efforts to hide issues of sexual coercion and domestic violence that had been discovered and dispersed over the previous seven months.
The shirt did more than spark embarrassment for the franchise, especially when it became public the team tried to lobby Shanley’s father to get her to wear a different shirt prior to talking to her in person. The shirt signaled how the hardcore fanbase, located at the North End of the stadium, has shifted its priorities.
Once identified as “Soccer City, USA,” Portland has now become “Social City, USA,” with fans choosing to promote social issues during games rather than support the home team Timbers, and NWSL franchise, Thorns.
The passionate support is vibrant as ever during matches, but attendance is down, and social media is adorned with commentary of how the franchise, in particular owner Merritt Paulson and team President Gavin Wilkinson, are essentially a disgrace to the city and not worthy of the revenue the fans deliver to them.
Capitalism be damned; if Paulson and Wilkinson cannot figure out how to better represent fans on social issues, then the team isn’t worthy of the Army’s support. Wilkinson needs to be fired, and Paulson needs to sell the team.
Welcome to Social City, USA.
Social justice only needs a slight breeze to become a hurricane
The Timbers Army and the franchise as owned by Paulson and his father since 2007, have clashed numerous times in the past, starting with the days prior to MLS with the simple language from chants - the ones involving the F-word. Ultimately, Paulson relented, but the Army only uses it once or maybe twice per game.
In 2019, the clash involved The Iron Front, a symbol of justice and anti-fascism from 1930s Germany, which the team wanted to keep out of the stadium as it didn’t have anything to do with soccer. The league wanted that, too. Fans revolted by simply staying silent for the first 34 minutes of a nationally televised game with Seattle, and the team and league relented again.
The symbol still is in the crowd, but not every game and it hasn’t attracted the attention it did - when Donald Trump was President.
But, the big-time social issues caught fire on September 30, when one-time national team member Meg Linehan, writing for The Athletic, published an investigative feature that revolved around two former members of the Thorns: Sinnead Farrelly and Mana Shim, who both played for the team in 2014 and ‘15. Those were the years Paul Riley coached the Thorns. (Shim also played for the Thorns in 2013.)
Riley, who had coached in the previous women’s pro league (Women’s Professional Soccer), regularly socialized with Farrelly and Shim, according to Linehan’s story. Farrelly was playing for the third team Riley coached, including the WPS (where Riley was Coach of the Year twice). The two regularly socialized after practices on those teams, too. Riley, having successful soccer camps back on the East Coast, had funds to pay for most of the socialization, which included large numbers of the players on the teams in all the leagues at various points.
In Portland, Shim was part of the socialization, and it delved into what could be called Tinder-level texting, with Riley, according to Shim’s comments in the story. On more than one occasion, Shim said, he sent her a photo of him in various forms of undress.
The socialization went South one night in 2015 when, after an evening of drinking, Riley, Farrelly and Shim ended up at his apartment and he coerced them into kissing ... in exchange for the team not having to do a dreaded bit of running at the end of practice for a week. They did, and the team got the benefit. The two players, though, were done with socializing with Riley and put their experiences with him together as a form of sexual abuse they were unable to deflect due largely to his position with the team.
The two women found a veteran on the team, Alex Morgan, to assist in bringing their issues to management, including Paulson and Wilkinson.
As Linehan’s story progresses, Thorns management investigated the claims, and shortly thereafter removed Riley as coach. But not, however, due to the assertions of Farrelly and Shim. The Thorns had underperformed under Riley, including missing the NWSL playoffs in 2015 (the only time the franchise has missed the playoffs), so removing him was already being discussed prior to off-field issues. Lack of performance was the natural explanation the team made publicly.
In Linehan’s story, the allegations of Farrelly and Shim are termed “sexual coercion” not “sexual abuse.”
The Thorns forwarded the assertions of the players to the league, which conducted its own interviews.
With Riley’s removal, the situation seemed to have found a result. Farrelly and Shim both continued playing, although Farrelly with the Boston Breakers after a trade, and Shim in Japan after being loaned there. Neither played more than a year longer.
Riley, though, continued to coach ... much longer than a year.
Five months after being let go by Portland, he landed in Buffalo with the Western New York Flash, a franchise that existed in the WPS as well. Team management knew of him from that league, and publicly responded they felt lucky to have been able to hire him. Team results followed that response.
In Riley’s first year with the Flash, the team won the NWSL title. After moving to Raleigh, N.C., and being re-branded as the Courage, the team played in the following three league title matches, winning twice more. Riley was voted the league’s Coach of the Year in 2017 and ‘18.
But, the 2015 result of his stay and removal in Portland remained active.
As players in the NWSL have found a collective voice, in part surrounding the national team’s lawsuit for equal pay and treatment in relation to the men’s national team, and having formed a union in 2017, Farrelly and Shim brought their allegations up to league commissioner Lisa Baird in early 2021. She told them the league had investigated Riley in 2015, and found closure to their claims in his removal from Portland.
The logic behind Baird’s response actually seemed pretty simple. Western New York hired Riley despite those claims in part because there wasn’t any evidence to support them other than the statements by Farrelly and Shim. The Tinder-level texts and photos from Riley to Shim had all been eliminated by Riley and Shim, who did not want them to be somehow seen by her partner. Legally, they did not exist. And, as to the evening of kissing, the players were adults who could have said “no” and just had the team run as usual.
Linehan’s story included she had contacted Riley with a questionnaire, and he denied all the player claims. Her story does not quote him once.
Directly after Linehan published her story on The Athletic, the Courage fired Riley and Baird resigned.
The story regarding Riley followed a summer investigation by the Washington Post in regards to Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke and his domineering and aggressive coaching style that caused some players to actually quit the game altogether. The Spirit removed his as coach and eventually fired him from his desk job.
Eventually, all the coaches from the 2021 season were either fired or quit, as happened with Portland coach Mark Parsons, who moved to being The Netherlands national team coach - a move he had announced prior to the season.
The primary reason for coaching removal was out of simple player respect as charges of body-shaming, racism and sexism were rampant, especially with Burke. Riley had the same charges by players on teams he coached, according to Linehan. Linehan’s story, though, only included quotes from three players - Farrelly, Shim and Morgan. Linehan had contacted players from every team Riley had coached since the WPS and gotten similar responses regarding his coaching style, but they were all unnamed sources, and there were no other charges of sexual coercion.
Farrelly is the lone player, according to Linehan’s story, who has publicly stated she had sex with Riley. In one case, their sexual encounter also included another unnamed player. The sexual encounters continued after the WPS folded in 2012 and Riley moved to a team in Long Island. Farrelly followed him there to continue her playing career.
Riley, seeming to know the gravity of having slept with as many as two players at one time, got Farrelly to understand the gravity of her having slept with a coach, and both agreed to never speak about it. And, neither did. The sexual encounters did not continue in Portland.
Social City responds
Immediately after Linehan’s story was published, Thorns fans responded vehemently to team management’s mishandling of the situation in 2015, especially that the team hadn’t publicly promoted the fact players had charged Riley with sexual misconduct. Rather, the team simply stated publicly Riley was let go because the team underperformed.
Wilkinson also came under fire for a meeting he had with Shim shortly after the team won the league’s first title match. A day before the final, Shim, who had become a fan favorite for her explosive play, had publicly come out as being gay. In their meeting, Shim said Wilkinson had instructed her to talk about soccer in regards to public stories. And, they should be organized through the team’s communications department. The meeting left her, she said, feeling very poorly about her standing as a person. Wilkinson, contacted by Linehan, had a different version of the meeting, and called the assertion he would tell a player not to talk about their sexual preference “bullshit.” He later apologized for the wording but reasserted he would never tell a player not to talk about personal issues such as being gay.
Fans immediately wanted him not only fired from the Thorns as General Manager, but fired from the organization, the first demand in an eight-part list of demands published by the Timbers Army two weeks after Linehan’s story. After being placed on leave from being GM of the Thorns, management did remove him from that role. But, he remains as GM for the Timbers and team President for both teams.
Fans promoted a boycott of concessions until the list of demands, which also include hiring an executive-level diversity officer, were met.
Linehan’s story was published in the final month of the season, which was to end with the league championship match played in Portland. Thorns players, feeling the response of the team’s fans, voted for the league to move the final to another city. Louisville, Ky., hosted the championship match with a festive environment that promoted the league extremely well.
The Timbers, with Wilkinson still in the role of GM, which he has held since its days prior to joining the MLS in 2011, reached the league final in December - a match played at Providence Park before a raucous home crowd that promoted the league extremely well.
Social City revolts again
The Timbers’ raucous home crowd, which had been very supportive of the Thorns issue, found its own reason to feel gutted by management in February when midfielder Andy Polo was publicly charged with domestic violence by his estranged wife Genessis Alarcon in a televised interview conducted in Peru. The domestic violence charge stemmed from an altercation the two had on May 23, 2021, which involved police intervention.
Polo had immediately called the Timbers, who had two representatives arrive and talk the officers involved into simply writing Polo up on a misdemeanor harassment citation rather than a more serious charge that would of had him hauled off to jail at least for the night. They promised to separate the two parties and handle them so police would not be called again. They did, and they weren’t even though they did return to living together until the end of the year when they moved back to Peru.
By December, Polo had recovered significantly from the injury that ended his season, and caused him to miss many matches from the Peruvian national team as it worked on qualifying for the World Cup. The injury happened May 22 - the day before the altercation.
Back in Peru, and on the way to playing in a pair of friendlies with the national team in January, the Timbers had already signed him to a contract through the 2022 season, which made good sense as his transfer fee value on the international market (largely in part to being a member of the Peruvian national team) was as much as $2.5 million according to the online service transfermarkt.us.
Following the televised interview in early February, though, the team released him, and the league fined it $25,000 for not reporting the misdemeanor citation - to the league. That the Timbers had not made public the citation following the May 23 incident was not the focus of the fine, but rather its failure to report it to the league.
Alarcon’s interview in Peru on the show “Magaly TV, La Firme,” included the charge of domestic violence from the May 23 incident, as well as a pair of photos that showed her with a blackened eye, and marks on her neck. But, the majority of the interview was devoted to the fact Polo had stopped supporting her, and their two children, financially in spite of being such a well-paid athlete. The conversion of his publicly-know salary from dollars to Peruvian sols was mentioned several times as was the suffering she had endured because of the lack of financial support.
Fans went ballistic following the discovery of the police report, especially a short while later when audio surfaced in which Timbers representatives can be heard explaining to Alarcon that she could press further charges of domestic violence against Polo - elevating the misdemeanor citation to potential jail time, but involving a trial - or allowing the issue to simply stand as a misdemeanor. The team reps can also be heard clearly promoting they hoped she would choose option B. She did.
The full recording of the meeting between Timbers reps and Alarcon was never made public.
Soccer City, USA’s demise in just a year
In early summer of 2021, the online service Sportico published a list of the estimated values for every MLS team, and the Timbers were in seventh place at $635 million, due in part to having the Thorns as part of the franchise. The further explanation highlighted its connection with the passionate fanbase, the Timbers Army and corresponding Thorns fanbase the Rose City Riveters.
That the Timbers had won a league title, played in another and were at a level that had them headed for another league title match helped as much as the Thorns having won two league titles, played in another and remain annually among the top teams in the league.
Winning helps attract crowds, and the Timbers and Thorns were among the best teams in soccer in terms of winning.
Eight months later, a USA Today writer published a ranking of ‘The Worst Owners in Pro Sports’ and named Paulson as the MLS owner due to his lack of connection with the passionate fanbase. Many social media postings highlighted that story as more rationale for the demands he sell the team.
So, what do you actually know?
When Shanley sported her “You Knew” shirt, it definitely sparked a feeling as though the franchise has no respect for issues of domestic violence or sexual abuse.
Or a solid connection to its fans and their commitments to social justice.
Paulson had, by Shanley’s anthem, apologized publicly for the team’s handling of the issues involving Riley and Polo, and followed through on fans demands by removing Wilkinson from his post as GM for the Thorns. The team hired former Thorns goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc for the GM position, and then hired former Thorns goalkeeper Rhian Wilkinson away from her position as an assistant with the England nation team to be the team’s coach. But, nothing had made an impact on fans desire for justice.
John Canzano, still with The Oregonian sports department, fueled the movement with a pair of brutal columns, the first in October in which he promoted that he used to think of the Thorns as an elite example of women’s sports teams. But, after the Linehan story, his view changed significantly and he wondered how the franchise would ever recover its glorious public standing: regardless that the story’s key events were six years old, and the coach Portland had hired for those six years had done an exemplary job.
In February, Canzano followed up on the Timbers releasing Polo with a series of questions directed at management in which he pondered how they could have messed up so much, including whether Polo was offered counseling following May 23. That management had helped the couple resolve issues enough to continued to live together didn’t make its way into his column, nor that the key issue for Alarcon was child support and not physical abuse. His column easily generated the question of whether he had watched Alarcon’s video, which was available on YouTube.
In 2018, Canzano wrote a column supporting Paulson to also become the owner of ... the Trail Blazers: “Blazers Army anyone?”
It’s the speed of judgment from the Timbers Army/Rose City Riveters that brings forward that “You Knew” can be easily redirected at them, and further expanded to whether the franchise itself got a fair shake in how it operates.
The reassessment starts with Linehan’s story and it’s headline: “This guy has a pattern: Amid institutional failure, former NWSL players accuse prominent coach of sexual coercion.”
The story outlines Farrelly’s experience with Riley to the level that she felt unable to extricate herself from it, even through three teams. It also focuses on the fact she never related having sex with Riley - starting in 2011 - until Linehan’s story. The Thorns did not know of her off-field relationship with Riley. He did not have sex with her in Portland.
The institutional failure can be addressed through commentary made by Morgan on the NBC’s ‘Today’ in which Farrelly and Shim spoke publicly. Morgan, on hand to support the two players, brought up the challenge they faced in 2015 due to the fact the league did not have any sort of process of support for its players such as a phone line, for when issues of personal safety arose. But, that level of support actually did happen in Portland.
Morgan helped Farrelly and Shim reach out to team management, which listened to their allegations and came to a level of resolution that seemed to address them - Riley stopped being the team’s coach. Releasing Riley publicly due to the team’s under-performance during his two years as coach was probably an easy call. The decision to avoid making public the charges of sexual coercion as to being the main reason why Riley was removed was probably an easy call too, in that it very likely wasn’t the main issue.
Linehan’s story does not address whether the players actually wanted their accusations to be public knowledge or that they just wanted Riley to stop being the coach.
But, the biggest issue that was completely overlooked is that the story was six years old, and Riley hadn’t been publicly accused of any issues of sexual coercion or abuse since 2015, so that he needed to be stopped actually seemed to have happened. North Carolina suspended him immediately after the story was published, and after a short investigation fired him. But, it never pointed to any issues for his firing other than the facts in the story, which all happened before his arrival with the franchise.
Polo’s condemnation by fans stems almost entirely from the May 23 altercation that involved police and resulted in a misdemeanor citation. But, the immediate involvement by Timbers management seemed to have helped greatly in addressing the issues that caused the altercation in the first place, and helped their family unit recover so that they spent Christmas together in Peru.
The issue of domestic abuse in Polo’s can easily be seen as one that was tweeked greatly by US media, especially after Alarcon filed suit against Polo in federal, then state court seeking $600,000. The suit was against Polo, but then refiled to include the Timbers, who settled their involvement in March.
The Timbers were involved in the suit due to their role, Alarcon charged, in not following up with Polo on his role as the financial provider for Alarcon and her children.
Following his release by the Timbers in February, Polo returned to Peru and latched back onto the club he started with professionally, Universitario. The club did its own vetting of Polo, and cleared him to play as long as he settled his issues with Alarcon. Apparently, he did.
Fans there were seen protesting against Polo’s signing at first, but that was short-lived. He has started matches since returning. He has not, though, returned to the national team, which lost its World Cup play-in match to Australia just recently.
Had Polo simply continued his financial support of Alarcon, that story would likely not have happened, and no one would have known about May 23.
The power of identity
In the 2004 book “How Soccer Explains the World,” by Franklin Foer, the opening chapter focuses on the most passionate fans of the club Red Star Belgrade, the Serbian team that won the 1991 European Champions League title. The most passionate fans in those days were also classified as gangs, and were known to fight and beat opposing fans regularly prior to games. They still are.
Red Star’s most feared fans, the Ultra Bad Boys, actually stormed into a practice session and beat three of the team’s players because they had determined the players just weren’t committed enough to winning.
The club Partizan, Red Star’s Belgrade rival, has such violent fans that 12 of them were convicted of murdering a French tourist who just happened to be in the wrong place while attending a match. That was 2018.
Soccer clubs were key parts of the Balkan Wars that eventually separated Yugoslavia into five ethnically-based nations.
The Timbers Army certainly isn’t a violent group of fans, but it does now seem to have an identity outside of just being soccer fans and being something of a gang empowered as part of the ownership of the team: because the Army has done such a good job of supporting the team and making it valuable, it deserves a share of managerial-level decision-making. That includes the firing of Wilkinson and Paulson’s selling the team.
In the middle of May, members of the Thorns met with leaders of the Riveters and, as social media postings report, talked about their passion for the game and desire that their fans would return that love through game support. The meeting showcased a key element of the North End’s social missions - the players are the main victims of Social City, USA, because so many fans attend matches in order to protest an issue or support the protest of an issue rather than just watch the match. As fans have revolted against management, attendance has dropped for both the Timbers and Thorns, and public views locally have turned the franchise and its owner into a pariah.
The Army’s role in shifting away from Soccer City, USA, started with bringing the Iron Front into the stadium, as well as Black Lives Matter, but then shifted into high gear with its immediate action as judge and jury following the Linehan story, and Alarcon interview.
All the Army needed was a headline, and it exploded into demands for social justice, including vengeance on team management.
How would the Army have reacted differently as Soccer City, USA, first? The simplest answer is through Capitalism - just stay away from games and allow for the issues involved to be more thoroughly reported. Or continue attending matches as those issues are more thoroughly reported. If the more-complete story still isn’t satisfactory enough, then Capitalism will be more justice than “You Knew.”
Portland’s role within the soccer world started in 1975 when the expansion Timbers developed such a raucous crowd that even local reporters were stunned, and created the identity of “Soccer City, USA.” The Timbers Army started with just a handful of fans when the franchise was restarted in 2001. Empowered by cheap beer night in its early days, the Army has risen to thousands of fans, and garnered national attention. These days that attention is more connected to its leftist views than its support of the team.
Is Portland still Soccer City, USA? Only the Timbers Army can decide that, and its leaders would do well to address that in coming days.