New Portland Thorns General Manager Karina LeBlanc aims to bring “hope, healing and this opportunity to rise up” to the turbulent club


When Karina LeBlanc strolled through the Portland Thorns locker room for a secret reunion with players this weekend, her new club wasted no time in welcoming the former keeper to the Pink City.

“I walked into the locker room and they started clapping,” said LeBlanc. “I think at that point I knew (I made) the right decision.”

The Thorns introduced LeBlanc as their new GM on Monday, adding the 41-year-old former goaltender and Olympian at a time of great controversy and transition. She replaces Gavin Wilkinson, who was put on administrative leave on October 6 following the Paul Riley abuse scandal, and will assume responsibility for football’s technical operations in addition to providing a voice in key club affairs.

Hiring LeBlanc is the latest, and perhaps most important, step for the Thorns as they work to mend frayed relationships with fans and players. She not only has a decorated resume that includes an 18-year international playing career, but also an intimate familiarity with Portland – having played in the 2013 NWSL Championship club – and a reputation of being universally respected and appreciated in circles. of football.

“With Karina, the sky is the limit,” Christine Sinclair, former LeBlanc teammate and current Thorns captain, said in a statement. “I have never met someone more passionate and determined to make the game grow. Finding her in Portland for me is a dream come true as she is going to take this club to places that I don’t think people think of. possible. She will help this club become the benchmark for women’s football in the world and I can’t wait to get started.

The return to Portland came quickly and unexpectedly, LeBlanc said, and she was not looking to quit her job as the women’s football manager for CONCACAF, the North and Central American and Caribbean football confederation. . But the opportunity to help provide a dose of “healing” and “hope” to a franchise and a city she loves dearly has proven to be too good to pass up.

LeBlanc joins a club that has been very successful on the pitch – the Thorns won the NWSL Shield last week and clinched the No.1 seed in the upcoming playoffs – but have become embroiled in controversy.

Wilkinson was put on administrative leave last month after former NWSL players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly went public with allegations of sexual coercion and harassment against Riley.

Riley coached the Thorns for two seasons in 2014 and 2015, while Wilkinson was general manager, but was not selected following an internal investigation that took place after Shin told the team in 2015. that Riley had sexually harassed her. However, the Thorns did not disclose the allegations publicly and Riley continued to coach, eventually landing with a team that became the North Carolina Courage. Courage fired him in late September after a published report exposed the allegations.

In the aftermath of the scandal, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned, Thorns players called for Wilkinson’s dismissal, and NWSL and US Soccer opened independent investigations into the allegations. These investigations are ongoing.

In a 35-minute interview with reporters on Monday afternoon, LeBlanc said she spent a weekend “thinking, feeling, crying” over the allegations while considering how to help the sport which she calls the “greatest … in the world”. Then, out of the blue, Thorns CEO Merritt Paulson approached her with an unexpected chance to move the Thorns forward.

LeBlanc repeatedly referred to the opportunity as “personal” during her interview session, noting that as a former player who still maintains relationships with current players and administrators, she has an intimate knowledge of women’s soccer and its history. culture.

“It’s a time in women’s soccer to be part of that change,” said LeBlanc. “And so when that opportunity arose and I started talking with the organization, the players, I realized it was an opportunity to do something that would be really personal to me. little girl who dreamed of playing a game. I dreamed of going to the Olympics, going to a few World Cups and now I can give back to the game in a different way and be real and genuine and real. And with this club is really special to me.

“I think this is the time for me to really look at myself and say, ‘What can I do to help change this conversation? What can I do to inspire this group of players? What can I do to help inspire the community of people who love our sport. ‘ And that’s how I got here.

LeBlanc has been a widely respected defender of women’s soccer for decades, first as a player and more recently as a presence at the international level. She has made 110 appearances with the Canadian national team, played five World Cups and two Olympics – winning a bronze medal at the 2012 London Games – and spent 15 years in a multitude of leagues in the United States, including the Women’s United Soccer Association. , women’s professional soccer and the NWSL. Along the way, she became the first professional soccer player to be named an Ambassador for UNICEF Canada, was named Honorary Captain of the Royal Canadian Navy and worked with the FIFA Women’s Leadership Program.

Three years after her playing career ended in 2015, she joined CONCACAF. That same year, she established a foundation aimed at empowering young girls and women by offering scholarships as well as grants for girls to attend camps.

But of all his stops and causes, LeBlanc has never forgotten his year in Portland with the Thorns.

“I can easily say this has been the best year of my life,” said LeBlanc.

She said she thinks her background as a player and captain, in addition to her familiarity with the Thorns, makes her uniquely suited to be the GM here because she and the players share a mutual respect and relationship.

That said, this is her first experience as a club executive, and she has never been in charge of assessing talent or leading a team. So there will surely be a steep learning curve. And on top of everything, LeBlanc and the Thorns will also have to replace beloved coach Mark Parsons, who will be leaving the Netherlands Women’s National Team after the season.

LeBlanc said she has spoken with agents and players before and attended meetings with Thorns executives to learn about the club’s position on personnel and coaching issues. And although she technically lacks front office experience, she said she’s been preparing for it since her first professional job in 2001 with the Boston Breakers at WUSA. At the time, LeBlanc visited General Manager Joe Cummings’ office twice a week to search his brain and assess how he was doing his job.

Now that it’s his time, said LeBlanc, his goal is to help create “the most connected and determined women’s soccer club” in the world.

It is, after all, personal to her. And not just because LeBlanc loves the Thorns and has a connection to the NWSL.

In March 2020, about a week after giving birth to daughter Paris, LeBlanc was threatened with a medical emergency. She was having trouble breathing, her heart was failing, her blood pressure was dangerously high.

Out of the blue, LeBlanc and her husband Jason Mathot rushed to the hospital, fearing she might die. As she ran for help, LeBlanc watched Paris as the week-old baby squeezed her mother’s finger.

“I thought that was it,” said LeBlanc. I said, ‘God, if you give me one more chance, I promise it will count. “”

Doctors eventually stabilized LeBlanc’s health, but on top of everything, there were concerns that she was exposed to COVID-19. She was therefore quarantined in hospital for 14 days.

Finally, after two weeks of days, she and Paris were reunited.

Almost two years later, as the Thorns courted her to get them out of the scandal, LeBlanc couldn’t help but remember that promise she made in a high-speed car.

“It is I who promise to make it count,” she said as she accepted the post of general manager of Thorns. “I think this league is at a time when we need leadership to come together and connect. I think players want to feel seen and heard. And I think this is just the time for us to come together and give hope and healing and this opportunity to rise up.

– Joe Freeman | [email protected] | 503-294-5183 | @BlazerFreeman | Subscribe to The Oregonian / OregonLive newsletters and podcasts for the latest news and the best stories.

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