Evanson: What will come of Merritt Paulson and the teams he represents?
What will come of the Portland Timbers?
The team was eliminated from this year's postseason after failing to earn a win or draw against Real Salt Lake Sunday afternoon, losing the game 3-1. While the first time the team has missed the MLS Cup playoffs since 2016, the organization's shortcomings on the field pale in comparison to the one's they're facing off of it.
Last week's release of the U.S. Soccer investigation detailing abuses and misconduct across the National Women's Soccer League led ultimately to the dismissal of general manager Gavin Wilkinson, now ex-president of business Mike Golub, as of the morning of Oct. 11 team owner Merritt Paulson as CEO, and painted the organization — and, prominently Paulson — in a level of darkness bordering on charcoal.
Paulson's documented ineptitude stemming from his mishandling of serious off-the-field issues pertaining to both Timbers and Thorns players, coaches and front office, have made the once shining prince owner of both the MLS and NWSL, an ugly frog under a spell of his own doing.
Now, with U.S. Soccer's investigation complete, Paulson's ultimate fate may lie in the subsequent findings of the NWSL's league and player union's investigation expected to culminate sometime near the end of this year. Meanwhile, city officials are said to be looking for loopholes in the city and team's lease agreement for Providence Park, sponsors are threatening to end their relationship with the team, and many fans are putting pressure on both to do something, all in an effort to end Paulson's reign as the de facto president of "Soccer City, USA."
To be clear, this problem is one entirely of Paulson's making. Unlike in other more complicated instances where questionable decision making has led to public outcry in and around the world of sports, the Timbers and Thorns' majority owner undoubtedly failed at times of critical mass.
When his players needed him, he failed them.
When his organization required leadership, he let it down.
And when the city he and his organizations represent expected "right" pertaining to the handling of the guilty, he instead acted wrongly to the detriment of the innocent.
Those are not the actions of a proper steward of the team, game and city, but rather those of an otherwise intelligent and thoughtful person acting in an idiotic, arrogant and irresponsible manner.
He mostly owned that in his Oct. 11 statement regarding his departure as CEO, while apologizing to the players, fans and community he acknowledged disappointing.
"The Portland Thorns were created to be a beacon of what is possible in women's sports," Paulson said in his statement. "A successful team is built on trust, equality and accountability, and today I am holding myself accountable for not doing enough."
I don't know Merritt Paulson. I've never spoken to him, shaken his hand or even been in the same room with the man, but I know people who do and have and even while damning his recent actions, those same people will simultaneously speak to his virtue beyond them. He's no saint, but at the same time not entirely the sinner the somewhat lazy will label him.
In his statement following the release of last Tuesday's investigation, Paulson called the prior Monday "the darkest day I have experienced." I don't doubt that. After all, as a man with a degree from Harvard, he has to be smart enough to understand the consequences in the wake of his wrongdoings. But while smart on a relative scale, the level of his intelligence has to also be in question based on his recent track record with — and even away from — the team.
He's been fined by the league for detrimental tweets pertaining to officiating. He hired a coach — Paul Riley — who was later alleged of sexually coercing a former player into a sexual relationship and upon firing the coach, Paulson — and Wilkinson — chose not to disclose said information to the next team, and this past year failed to report to the MLS an incident of domestic violence perpetrated by former player Andy Polo. MLS later said the Timbers violated rules in their handling of the Polo situation, but added that they did so unintentionally, saying rather that the club's actions were that of "incompetence, not out of a desire to cover it up."
Add that to last week's evidence resulting from U.S. Soccer's independent investigation, and you've got a pretty strong case against an owner sinking a ship thought previously to be unsinkable.
For all of that, you've got the Rose City Riveters and Timbers Army calling for Paulson to sell both the Timbers and Thorns, flag-bearing members of U.S. soccer, including Thorns' and U.S. Women's National Team captain Becky Sauerbrunn, Megan Rapinoe and others suggesting he be removed from his post, and sponsors like Alaska Airlines and Nike putting pressure on the organization with threats of financial withdrawals. That's trouble for Paulson, but also for the Thorns and Timbers who find themselves in the eye of a storm darkening by the day.
"I apologize to our players, the organization, and the Portland community for the mistakes we made, including not being publicly transparent about Paul Riley's termination," Paulson said in his statement. "Our organization's failures and mistakes were ultimately my responsibility, and my responsibility alone. It is devastating to me that my goal of creating the shining example of what a women's sports team could be, has now become synonymous with abhorrent and predatory behavior."
What will happen to the owner and the teams he built? As of Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, that's yet to be determined. But, the damage that's been done? Unlike potentially Paulson, that's not going anywhere.
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