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Karina LeBlanc has thrived under pressure on the field and off, including in 2013 as the Portland Thorns goalkeeper.

COURTESY PHOTO: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER/THORNS FC - Karina LeBlanc, who helped the Thorns win a championship in 2013 as their goalkeeper, will guide the club from the front office as its new general manager.In looking to turn the page, the Portland Thorns have brought home one of their originals.

Karina LeBlanc played goalkeeper for Portland in 2013, the first season of the National Women's Soccer League, helping the Thorns win the league championship. Now, the 41-year-old will set the vision for the club as its new general manager.

The Thorns announced LeBlanc's arrival on Monday, Nov. 1. She will take over the role previously held by Gavin Wilkinson. Wilkinson was placed on administrative leave from his Thorns' duties following The Athletic's reporting about former coach Paul Riley sexually coercing players while Riley was the Thorns' head coach. Wilkinson remains the Portland Timbers president of soccer.

An investigation into the Thorns' handling of the Riley allegations remains under way. Wilkinson was not mentioned in the club's press release announcing LeBlanc's arrival.

In hiring LeBlanc, the owner Merritt Paulson brings an important voice to the Thorns' leadership team, a voice that — because of her vast experience and accomplishments on the field and off — is certain to have the respect of her coworkers and of the players.

A member of Canada's women's national team for 18 years, LeBlanc played in five FIFA Women's World Cups and two Olympics. Before retiring in 2015, she appeared in 110 matches for Canada (108 starts) and helped Canada to a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics and fourth place at the 2003 Women's World Cup. She played 15 seasons of professional club soccer.

Since 2018, LeBlanc has led the women's soccer program for Concacaf, the region that includes North America, Central America and the Caribbean. In that role, her focus was to grow women's soccer in the region's 41 soccer federations.

In her first media conference on Monday, LeBlanc called her 2013 year in Portland the best of her life and talked passionately about the opportunity to be a positive force for the Thorns and the soccer community at large as the sport works to ensure its players are safe to pursue their dreams.

She said becoming the Thorns GM job wasn't among her career goals.

"It was after the (The Athletic's) article had come out and I spent a weekend thinking, feeling, crying and all of those things. I think we all have realized that this is a moment in time in women's soccer to be a part of that change," she said. "So when this opportunity came about and I started talking with the organization and the players, I realized it was an opportunity to do something that would have been truly personal for me."

LeBlanc's refreshing honesty included talking about almost dying a week after giving birth to daughter Paris in the spring of 2020. She experienced severe shortness of breath as a result of fluid in her lungs caused by heart failure.

"I remember racing to the hospital, and I thought that was it. I remember (Paris) was holding my finger and I said, 'God, if you give me one more chance, I promise to make it matter.'" she recalled. "So this is me, promising to make it matter. I think this league is in a time where we need leadership to come together and connect. I think the players want to feel seen and heard, and I think it's just a time for us to come together and provide hope, healing and that opportunity to rise." In her new role, LeBlanc will be responsible for the Thorns soccer operation, and will have some say on the business side, too.

That she doesn't have experience with roster-building doesn't seem to intimidate LeBlanc. While she expects a learning curve, she said the Thorns have proven staff and systems in place, as evidenced by the team winning three competitions already in 2021.

"I don't want to tell Portland's secrets, but there's a lot of depth in what's going in depth charts with players. Portland has been successful not randomly, and I think everybody knows that. It's a club that's well organized in (roster building) capacity."

The first big chore for LeBlanc will be hiring the coach to replace Mark Parsons, who is leaving after six seasons to coach the Netherlands women's national team. The coaching search was well under way before the Thorns began seeking a new GM.

"We've had some great discussions already as an organization about who the next hire will be because we know that needs to happen pretty quickly," LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc said she received an enthusiastic welcome when introduced to Thorns players over the weekend. The value from having someone in the front office who lived their life and understands the challenges faced by women's soccer players is significant.

"Her motives are grounded in growth and improvement inside the club, with our organization's role as part of the league and around the world, but also on an individual level and how she can be a mentor for each player as they grow their soccer career," Thorns defender Emily Menges said.

LeBlanc said she had discussions with Thorns captain Christine Sinclair, a teammate of LeBlanc with Canada and with the Thorns, before accepting the job.

"With Karina the sky is the limit. I've never met someone more passionate and set on growing the game," Sinclair said. "To have her back in Portland for me is a dream come true, because she is going to take this club to places I don't think people think are possible. She's going to help this club be the benchmark for women's football around the world."

LeBlanc said she is proud to be a role model for women and people of color.

"I've gotten messages from players saying: 'Now I want to be a GM.' We need to keep these players in the game," LeBlanc said. "There was nobody before me that made me feel like I could do this. But now I'm so happy I've done it. I've gotten messages from people who look like me, saying it's important to see to believe it, and that it's so great to see somebody like me in these roles."

She was talking about being a minority and female. But, aside from her sharing the players' experience, her goalkeeper's mentality might matter most as LeBlanc takes on this challenge.

"The pressure in this (goalkeeper) position is what makes you," she said. "I love pressure. If there's a penalty-kick shootout, put me in. … There's something in your DNA that makes you made for this."

Some might view her new job as saving the Thorns and NWSL from past transgressions. Yes, LeBlanc's arrival results from past painful and troubling events. But her ascension has transformative potential not only because she evokes healing and caring when she speaks, but because she dreams big.

And, especially, because those dreams are personal.


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