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National Women's Soccer League cannot be viewed as a safe workplace, some players say

U.S. Soccer tapped former acting Attorney General Sally Yates to lead the investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct against a former coach.
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National Women's Soccer League players demanded accountability from the league's leaders Sunday after "no one in a position of power or ability" acted against a former coach accused of sexual misconduct.

In the first on-camera interviews of players since North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was fired and NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned, Orlando Pride goalkeeper Erin McLeod and NJ/NY Gotham FC midfielder McCall Zerboni told NBC News that the league cannot be viewed as a safe workplace.

"No, absolutely not," Zerboni said. "How do we know that if we turn up to work every day that this is not going to happen to us? Or that it's not going to happen again? Because it did, again and again and again, and no one in a position of power or ability stopped it."

U.S. Soccer, the sport's national governing body, announced Sunday night that it had appointed former acting Attorney General Sally Yates to lead an investigation.

"U.S. Soccer takes seriously its responsibility to vigorously investigate the abhorrent conduct reported, gain a full and frank understanding of the factors that allowed it to happen and take meaningful steps to prevent this from happening in the future," it said in a statement.

Riley was fired after a report in The Athletic detailed allegations by several players on teams Riley has coached since 2010. Specifically in The Athletic report, veteran midfielder Sinead Farrelly said she had been coerced into having sex with Riley on multiple occasions.

Farrelly and midfielder Meleana "Mana" Shim also told The Athletic that, after a night of drinking in 2015, Riley took them to his apartment and pressured them to kiss each other as he watched. At the time, he was coach of Portland Thorns FC, which he led from 2013 to 2015.

Riley responded in writing to 23 questions from The Athletic, saying in an email that the majority of the allegations are "completely untrue."

"I have never had sex with, or made sexual advances towards these players," he wrote.

Riley wrote that he sometimes socialized with players and occasionally picked up bar tabs, "but I do not take them out drinking."

He said "there's a chance I've said something along the way that offended someone" before adding that "I do not belittle my players, comment on their weight, or discuss their personal relationships."

Riley could not be reached for comment Monday.

McLeod said: "It hurts my heart knowing that this has happened to so many players in this league. I want to play in a league that I'm proud to play in, and I think things have to change. Or else I don't think it's a league worth playing in."

She and Zerboni said the league has failed to protect players from abusive coaches.

McLeod and Zerboni, who played parts of four seasons under Riley with the Western New York Flash and the North Carolina Courage, declined to discuss individual coaches, saying they wanted to focus on broader systemic issues in the league.

Image: Erin McLeod
Erin McLeod of the Orlando Pride waits for the ball during a game against the Houston Dash at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Sept. 5.Jeremy Reper / ISI Photos via Getty Images

"I have to acknowledge the courage that it took Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly to come forward with their stories," McLeod said.

"I cannot imagine the weight that they felt for so many years about that," she said. "I think every player right now is experiencing a different level of hurt and fear. And I think what's really clear right now is there is a toxicity in the NWSL that we have a chance to get rid of completely, and I think this is the opportunity to do that."

The NWSL postponed all games over the weekend after the bombshell report.

Fans of Portland Thorns FC rallied outside their team's stadium Saturday night, demanding that the club answer for its actions while Riley was coach.

Image: Portland Timbers and Thorns Fans Protest Sexual Harassment
Portland Timbers and Thorns soccer fans mounted a vigorous protest at a Portland Timbers game Sunday against sexual harassment and professional coercion exerted against Portland Thorns soccer players.John Rudoff / Sipa USA via AP

"The article is a difficult read and there are some horrifying revelations," the Thorns said in a statement. "We have grown since 2015 as an organization and will continue to seek to improve and get better."