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Rhian Wilkinson to resign as Portland Thorns head coach

The resignation comes amidst concerns over player relationship cleared by NWSL/NWSLPA investigation

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NWSL: Racing Louisville FC at Portland Thorns FC Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The shocks keep coming for the Portland Thorns, as today it was announced that first-year head coach Rhian Wilkinson will be resigning as head coach of the team.

The announcement comes after the conclusion of an investigation into Wilkinson’s conduct as head coach, where she and a current Thorns player expressed feelings for each other. Those exchanges were self-reported to the Thorns human resources department, and a joint NWSL/NWSL Player’s Association investigation was conducted into the situation. Following the three-week investigation, it was concluded that Wilkinson did not violate any team or league policies, and no legal wrongdoing or misconduct had occurred.

Still, in a self-penned letter fully explaining her resignation, Wilkinson expressed that she felt that she had lost the confidence and trust of the Thorns team. And therefore, she made the decision to step down as head coach.

The announcement comes just two months after Wilkinson led the Thorns to their league-best third NWSL Championship after just her first season in charge. It also comes not even 24 hours after yesterday’s announcement that Merritt Paulson is putting the Thorns up for sale.

In her letter, Wilkinson expresses her appreciation for her past year at the helm. “I would like to thank the Portland Thorns organization, the fans, the staff and most importantly the players for a remarkable year,” Wilkinson shared. “I have met some incredible people and been fortunate enough to coach some of the best players in the game; it was a year to remember.”

Wilkinson also goes into more detail around the situation that developed between her and a Thorns player: “During my time as the Thorns coach, a player and I formed a friendship that turned into more complex emotions. In mid-October the player shared her feelings for me, and I reciprocated.” Wilkinson also claims that a relationship did not develop, and that “it went no further than this expression of feelings for one another.”

Wilkinson shares that she self-reported the incident to Thorns’ HR, triggering the league and PA investigation. At the conclusion of the investigation, which conducted a review of all communications between the coach and player, and interviews with the coach, player and club staff, Wilkinson shares that she “was completely exonerated of any wrong doing”.

NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman, commenting on the investigation and the ensuing conclusions, shared, “The Portland Thorns and Coach Wilkinson followed all League processes and policies and fully cooperated with this investigation. The joint investigative team conducted a thorough investigation that resulted in a finding of no violation of League policies.”

After the conclusion of the investigation however, Wilkinson still had lost the confidence and trust of the locker room, and was facing asks from players for her resignation.

Additional reporting from Meg Linehan of The Athletic revealed more of what the players were feeling. Following the investigation after players were made aware of the situation, a group of unnamed players sent a letter to commissioner Berman and the league’s chief legal officer, Bill Ordower, where they expressed concerns with the thoroughness of the investigation. The group of players also expressed that they felt “unsettled and unsafe” after attempting to report their concerns about the relationship to interim Thorns CEO Heather Davis and GM Karina LeBlanc, for both policy reasons and in the interest of the player’s personal safety.

Linehan reports that that the player Wilkinson exchanged messages with was defender Emily Menges. A longtime Thorns player, Menges overlapped with Wilkinson during her playing days in 2015 when both players were on the roster for Portland.

In the letter sent to the league the players expressed concerns about the power imbalance that exists between the coach and the player, and also their concerns about how thorough the investigation into the matter was. Additionally, they shared concerns about retaliation from Wilkinson should she remain with the club.

“We believe that employees of the club are already being threatened with potential retaliation since we have come forward with our concerns,” the players wrote.

The end result of all of this is that Wilkinson is leaving the Thorns after just one season in charge. Coming off a year in which the Thorns lifted the league championship and retained much of their core contributors, it appeared that Portland was set to run it back for another challenge for multiple pieces of hardware next season.

But in just the span of 24 hours, the team is now without a head coach and has its future ownership situation in flux.

You can read the Thorns full press release on Wilkinson’s departure here. Meg Linehan’s deep-dive into the situation can be read here (subscription required). And the full text of the anonymous letter sent by the group of Thorns players can be read here.