Bill Oram: Oregon Youth Soccer preparing effort to end relationship with Portland Timbers and Thorns


For nearly a decade, the Portland Timbers and Thorns have played a major role in youth football around Oregon.

The arrangement between Merritt Paulson’s football monolith and the Oregon Youth Soccer Association was initially intended to place the Timbers and Thorns in charge of youth football in the state and provided children across Oregon with a meaningful connection to local clubs.

But following a bombshell report that led to the sacking of top executives Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub, it’s a bond that’s almost certainly on the verge of being severed.

“There’s no way in God’s green land that this contract will ever be renewed,” OYSA president Steve Baker said Friday.

More on that in a second. But first, a view of a pizzeria.

A few decades ago, Baker said, he was coaching his son’s third-grade soccer club. As the team celebrated the end of its fall season with slices of pizza, Baker asked if any of them wanted to play again in the spring. The arms went up. Just one problem. Beaverton did not offer a spring season for third graders.

But Baker didn’t want to let the kids down.

“I talked to friends and made deals,” Baker said. “It cost me money.”

In the end, he assembled a spring league.

When he thinks back to that inaugural season and stood apart with other parents, he remembers being struck by the sounds of children laughing, chatting and having fun.

“That’s why we’re doing this,” Baker said. “We do it so kids can play football, a game we all love.”

The community born out of that love was rocked this week by the latest revelations of the ongoing scandal surrounding sexual misconduct within the Thorns organization.

More than 50,000 children across the state play football under the OYSA umbrella. While it’s not the only organization running youth soccer programs, it’s by far the largest.

Some clubs in the state had already begun to disassociate themselves from the Timbers organization after allegations of sexual misconduct against former Thorns coach Paul Riley were first reported last year – the Westside Timbers became Westside Metro – but the report by the United States Soccer Federation and former Attorney General Sally Yates prompted calls for even more dramatic changes.

Baker said he expects two resolutions to be presented at a Tuesday meeting of OYSA’s 13-member board: one calling for a vote of no confidence and condemnation of the Timbers and Thorns; another calling on OYSA lawyers to consider ending the relationship with the organization as soon as possible.

Baker said the current contract was first signed in 2014 and established Timbers and Thorns leagues across the state. The contract runs until the 2023-24 season. Even if Oregon Youth Soccer cannot terminate his contract with Paulson’s clubs, which Baker acknowledges as possible, he still does not see future boards renewing the deal.

“I and most of our board members want to dissociate ourselves from anything related to the Portland Timbers or the Thorns until they clean up their act,” said Baker, whose term runs until in January. “It’s that simple.”

What would cleaning up their act entail beyond firing Wilkinson and Golub?

Baker, who coached his children and grandchildren before becoming OYSA president for the second time in 2017, explained it in terms even a 6-year-old footballer would understand.

“If you do something wrong, no matter what it is, you have to apologize,” Baker said. “You must apologize. You must explain why you did it or what you did and you must be honest.

Firing Wilkinson and Golub, Baker believes, is not enough. Paulson must take responsibility for why the allegations against Riley were shielded for so long and why he was allowed to coach after leaving the Thorns in 2015.

“The organization needs to explain why they did what they did,” he said. “This is unacceptable.”

Oregon Youth Soccer is among a growing number of organizations calling for systemic change within the Timbers and Thorns. Many sponsors have released statements saying they are reconsidering their support for clubs.

On Sunday morning, Alaska Airlines, the Timbers’ shirt sponsor since its inaugural season in 2011, announced it was redirecting its club sponsorship dollars this quarter to the NWSL’s “Support the Players Emergency Trust” and youth sports. in Portland.

Baker, who said he’s been inundated with emails and phone calls since the Yates report was released on Monday, understands the consequences of splitting Portland’s two pro teams, especially for young girls. There is a unique power in girls to be able to see women playing football at a professional level and then be able to wear that same logo when they play their own games.

Boys don’t have to look far to find inspiration in the world of sport. They may dream of playing for the Trail Blazers, Seattle Mariners or an English Premier League club. Even in the burgeoning world of women’s sports, there are fewer women’s team sports lights, let alone ones with the loyal followings the Thorns have cultivated.

“A 7-year-old girl wants to play for the Thorns,” Baker said. “They have no idea what’s going on. And to some extent, I think it’s good that they don’t know. We want them to want to play for the Thorns, we just don’t want management to be what it was.

Prior to the Yates Report, Baker had proposed to Wilkinson that Timbers move to a marketing relationship with Oregon Youth Soccer, as opposed to an operational relationship. In effect, the association ran its own youth leagues, with the Timbers taking control of its Olympic development program.

Baker offered to keep the logos but regain control of all programs. Wilkinson was fired before those talks could be finalized. Baker said his appeals to Heather Davis, the club’s general counsel who was appointed chairman of Peregrine Sports amid the upheaval, have so far gone unanswered.

“I don’t believe at this time that Oregon Youth Soccer trusts the Portland Timbers/Thorns organization,” Baker said. “Do we support the players? Yes. Do we want to go see the players? Yes. Do we want players to win? Damn, yes.”

But the remaining leadership?

“No,” he said, “we don’t want any of that.”

— Bill Oram | [email protected] | Twitter: @billoram


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