Portland Timbers, Thorns owner Merritt Paulson steps down as CEO, takes responsibility for ‘organization’s failures and mistakes’

Facing mounting public pressure from fans, sponsors and the Portland soccer community, Merritt Paulson announced Tuesday that he is stepping down as CEO of the Portland Timbers and Thorns effective immediately, removing himself from the operations of a club he has owned and operated since 2007.

In a lengthy Tuesday morning statement revealing the news, Paulson also apologized to players, the organization and the community, saying that “our organization’s failures and mistakes were ultimately my responsibility.”

“As you know, I removed myself from Thorn’s decision-making,” Paulson said in the statement. “Yet, in order for the organization to move forward and unite, I feel that another step is necessary. Effective immediately, I am removing myself as CEO of the Portland Thorns and Portland Timbers, and announcing a global search for a CEO of the organization.”

Paulson will maintain his ownership stake in PTFC. But he will no longer be involved in day-to-day operations. A team source confirmed to The Oregonian/OregonLive that Paulson will no longer be involved in operational decisions for either club.

General counsel Heather Davis will step in as interim president and CEO of both clubs, and Sarah Keane, Davis’ chief operating officer appointee, will lead the search for a permanent CEO. Davis and Keane have both committed to having Thorns and Timbers players meet their final CEO candidates, Paulson said in his statement. A team source confirmed to The Oregonian/OregonLive that Davis and Keane will be the ones making operational decisions at PTFC.

Paulson’s franchise-altering move to step away from team operations comes after he fired top executives Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub last week, following a damning investigative report from US Soccer that found Paulson and Wilkinson enabled and vouched for former Thorns coach Paul Riley, who has have been accused by former players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly of sexual misconduct. Golub has been accused of making an inappropriate sexual remark to former Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone in 2013 and previously faced criticism for fomenting a “toxic” work environment for his employees.

“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 owe Sinead and Mana, the Thorns players and the NWSL my tireless effort to actively make sure what happened in 2015 never happens again.

“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. 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.”

Paulson said that while the future of the organization is unclear, ensuring the “long-term health and success” of the Thorns franchise — far more tenuous than that of the Timbers — is of “critical” importance to him. A sale of one or both teams is still a possibility, but Paulson did not address the issue in his statement.

“While a determination has yet to be made on the future of Merritt’s ownership of the Thorns, his North Star is to ensure the franchise’s continued viability and that it remains in Portland,” a team source told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Paulson, 49, son of former Goldman Sachs CEO and US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, purchased the Timbers in 2007 and joined Major League Soccer in 2011, paying a $35 million expansion fee. The Thorns joined the NWSL as one of its founding member teams in 2013.

The club, which is known as PTFC — combining the Timbers and Thorns under one business umbrella — is reportedly valued at $685 million today.

Paulson’s accomplishments as owner include a transformation of Providence Park into one of the top soccer venues in the United States, the establishment of two perennial on-field contenders in the Timbers and Thorns — they have combined to win three championships — business relationships with tendrils throughout the city of Portland and beyond, and helping build and embrace Portland’s reputation as “Soccer City, USA.”

Famously outspoken, brash and often intemperate on social media, Paulson gained a reputation as a new kind of professional sports owner: one whose constant accessibility often served as a double-edged sword. He could be basking in cheers as he cut off a log slab with Timber Joey’s chainsaw one day, then be sitting in hot water for calling a hyper-critical fan a “loser” on Twitter the next day. He was no stranger to calling out game officials, either in real life or on social media.

The early years of Paulson’s tenure as owner were relatively scandal-free, despite his bombastic personality. But according to the US Soccer report, Paulson knew as early as 2014 that Riley was verbally abusive to players, and in 2015 the club quietly fired the Thorns coach after Shim accused Riley of sexual harassment. The reason for his firing — and that he was fired at all — was not made public until October 2021, when The Athletic reported about Shim and Farrelly’s allegations.

What’s more, Paulson, Wilkinson, US Soccer and the NWSL failed to convey the details of the firing to the future teams Riley would coach, the US Soccer report found.

Paulson continued to vouch for Riley in the years after his firing, neglecting to inform the Western New York Flash of the reasons behind Riley’s termination. In March 2016, according to the US Soccer report, Paulson told the president of the Flash in an email: “Best of luck this season and congratulations on the Riley hire. I have a lot of affection for him.”

Meanwhile, in an open letter to fans after The Athletic’s report, Paulson called Riley “a predatory coach.”

Off-field scandals plagued Paulson and the PTFC front office for the past year.

In addition to the issues surrounding Riley, former Timbers player Andy Polo was accused of domestic violence by his partner Genesis Alarcon in February. The Timbers terminated Polo’s contract soon after, but the club knew of previous allegations made by Alarcon and sent club representatives to the couple’s residence after an alleged incident in May 2021.

The Timbers did not report the incident to the league, an action that eventually drew a $25,000 fine from MLS. Wilkinson went on to renew Polo’s contract, but claimed the club was looking to trade him. The alleged mishandling of the incident underscored fans’ frustrations with how the club handles issues when women are the victims.

Front office relations with the Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters have frayed in recent years, reaching a point in which the groups regularly organize in-game protests and extended moments of silence, while sometimes even boycotting concessions. Some longtime fans canceled season tickets due to the myriad off-field scandals, although attendance at both Timbers and Thorns games has dipped only slightly.

The 107 Independent Supporters Trust, Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters eventually called for Paulson to sell the clubs — after the release of the US Soccer investigation — which widened an already significant gap between the club’s owner and its fans. Leadership of the fan groups said they would cut off all communication with the PTFC front office until Paulson sold both teams and fired Wilkinson and Golub. He has now done all but divest his financial interest in the teams.

“As a leadership group, we were lied to,” the TA, Riveters’ and 107IST statement said hours after the release of the US Soccer investigation. “Although we remained cautiously optimistic at each meeting and in each interaction with PTFC leadership, reading the report highlighted the multiple bold-faced lies we were told, both in meetings and in town halls.”

As he steps away from the operations side after 15 years at the helm, Paulson has a complicated legacy initially defined by his creation and nurturing of a unique and beloved Portland sports institution, but marred by off-field scandals and a broken relationship with some of the most passionate soccer fans in the country.

Read the full US Soccer report here.

— Ryan Clarke, rclarke@oregonian.com, Twitter: @RyanTClarke

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