Years before the National Women’s Soccer League erupted over allegations of systemic abuse, players on the Chicago Red Stars tried to speak up about their coach.

Over and over, according to interviews and confidential records reviewed by The Washington Post, players had seen Rory Dames cross a line into what they believed was verbal and emotional abuse: controlling, berating and humiliating players, and breaking the boundaries of the player-coach relationship.

The players turned not to the league itself, which has struggled to police abuse in its decade of existence. Instead, they went to the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport’s powerful governing body, which oversaw the NWSL at the time and supported it financially by paying national team members to play in the league.

But Dames kept his job, going on to become the NWSL’s longest-tenured coach. On Saturday, Dames’s Red Stars lost in the NWSL championship game to the Washington Spirit, whose coach was fired midseason amid complaints that he was verbally abusive.

Despite the firing of its head coach, an ownership struggle and coronavirus outbreak, the Washington Spirit won the NWSL championship on Nov. 20. (Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Dames resigned from his position early Monday, as The Post prepared to publish this story. In a statement, he said he was “refocusing my attention to my family and future endeavors.” He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“I think Rory emotionally abuses players,” Christen Press, a U.S. national team star and former player for the Red Stars, wrote in notes compiled for a formal complaint about Dames, which was reviewed by The Post. “He doesn’t have a safe distance between himself and his players. He uses his power and status as the coach to manipulate players and get close to them.” Becca Roux, executive director of the national team players’ union, confirmed that the contents of the complaint were reported to U.S. Soccer in early 2018.

Press is among seven players who told The Post they believed Dames had been emotionally abusive to them or their teammates, including five players who said they sought to be traded or leave the team because of it. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing that speaking publicly could jeopardize their future in women’s soccer, where most coaches, general managers and team executives are men.

“Things were happening that were inappropriate,” Press said in an interview. “But I’d been told to be quiet, that this was fine.”

After The Post presented the Red Stars with a summary of players’ claims, a team spokeswoman, Natalie Bauer Luce, issued a statement that vowed an “independent review of player health and safety and the team’s work culture” but did not address specific allegations. Hours later, the team announced Dames would resign.

U.S. Soccer said earlier this year that it would launch its own investigation of the NWSL, led by Sally Q. Yates, the former acting attorney general. A spokesman for U.S. Soccer, Neil Buethe, said that the federation would make the results of the investigation public but that it could not comment on specific allegations until the investigation was concluded. He noted that U.S. Soccer is under “new leadership” that has been in place since 2020.

“We share the concerns about allegations of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer and are addressing this matter with the utmost urgency,” Buethe said in a statement. “Ms. Yates’s investigation is well underway and her team has been given full autonomy, access and necessary resources to follow the facts and evidence wherever they may lead.”

Dames is the fifth male NWSL coach to be accused of misconduct this year, during which a culture of mistreatment exploded into public view and triggered a reckoning throughout the league. Players have criticized the league and team officials for failing to protect and listen to them. The league’s commissioner, Lisa Baird, resigned in the face of revelations that she had dismissed two players’ pleas to reopen an investigation against Paul Riley, a coach who was accused of sexual misconduct.

But the allegations against Dames also point to the role of U.S. Soccer in the league’s repeated failures to address years of alleged abuse — and in what some players have called the league’s “culture of silence.” Press was an employee of U.S. Soccer, not the NWSL, when she played under Dames.

Press said she first spoke up about Dames in 2014, during a meeting with Sunil Gulati, then the president of U.S. Soccer, and other U.S. Soccer officials. She remembered telling them that Dames had created a toxic environment on the team, yelling at his players in a way that seemed like “harassment.”

Gulati dismissed her concerns, Press recalled, by saying Dames’s behavior was normal for a professional coach. Press, who said she had been told she needed to play in the NWSL to keep her spot on the national team, said she felt she had no choice but to return the next season.

Gulati declined to comment, citing the pending investigation.

In 2017, Press said, she told Dames that she wanted to be traded, a request she said she made because of Dames’s treatment of her. The next year, she filed a formal complaint against him with U.S. Soccer, sparking an investigation. She wanted to protect her teammates, she told U.S. Soccer, according to documents reviewed by The Post.

The documents show Press detailed to U.S. Soccer how Dames had repeatedly violated its policies against “emotional misconduct” and those put in place by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an independent organization charged with protecting athletes from abuse.

Press’s former teammates told similar stories to the powerful federation, according to two players who said they spoke to U.S. Soccer investigators. Jen Hoy, a former Red Stars player, recalled detailing incidents where she had witnessed or been a victim of what she said was Dames’s abusive behavior.

One player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared retaliation, recalled telling investigators how the coach pushed her into an “emotionally abusive” dynamic that made her deeply uncomfortable: texting her at all hours, asking her to spend significant time with him outside of soccer and retaliating against her when she eventually tried to pull away from him. When he asked her as a young player to frequent lunches and dinners, she said, she did not feel able to say no.

Gulati had left U.S. Soccer by the time of the investigation. But the outcome was the same as it had been four years earlier: The federation took no apparent action, and it continued to pay national team players to play for Dames with the Red Stars. Former players, including Press, said they never heard another word from the federation.

The Red Stars’ majority owner, Arnim Whisler, who had worked with U.S. Soccer to help found the league in 2012, was aware of the 2018 investigation against Dames at the time, two people with knowledge of the investigation said, and was informed by investigators of some of the players’ allegations as part of an interview. Whisler did not respond to requests for an interview.

Bauer Luce said the team had never received any final report on the outcome of the investigation nor any official recommendations from U.S. Soccer. After the investigation, she said, the team had “taken steps on its own to address what it understood to be the concerns,” including shifting coaching responsibilities and adding “regular player surveys.”

U.S. Soccer oversees American soccer at every level, from its youth development system to coaching licenses and the men’s and women’s national teams. The federation has been deeply involved in the NWSL since its launch in 2013, acting as the manager of the league until just this year. For a time, NWSL officials worked out of U.S. Soccer’s headquarters in Chicago.

Multiple players criticized U.S. Soccer’s handling of the investigation to The Post, saying they had never heard from investigators despite wanting to share their stories. Press and other players who gave their accounts for the investigation said the federation’s response discouraged her and her teammates from speaking up, making them feel powerless.

“I was terrified of what Rory would do and say if he found out this was something I’d said,” Press said of her decision to speak up to U.S. Soccer officials in 2014. “And then I was made to feel by U.S. Soccer that I was in the wrong, there was nothing to report, and that this was acceptable.

“For so many women in this league, you think you don’t have any worth,” Press said. “And if you stand up and you say what you think is right or wrong, nobody cares.”

‘A completely different person’

It has never been a secret that Rory Dames often yells at his players. From the earliest days of the NWSL, his screams have echoed from the sidelines of games, directed at referees and players alike.

But there is one story that Dames’s players return to when asked about the kind of coach he was to them. It was a day at training when he zeroed in on one player, as he often did. This time, he felt she had not been communicating clearly. When she failed to talk enough, he turned to the player, who was the mother of a young child, and screamed, according to multiple players who witnessed the incident. If you can’t even talk on the field, he said, what kind of mother are you?

The player, stunned, started to cry. (The player could not be reached for comment.) It was not the fact that Dames yelled, players said, but how he did it: in a way that was personal and public and, by extension, for players, painful and humiliating.

“Something happens to [Dames] when he comes to work, because he’s a completely different person, and he does not have to be that way,” said Sam Johnson, a former Red Stars player who witnessed the incident. “It’s extremely demoralizing and definitely verbally abusive. Is verbal abuse against the rules? I don’t know, but I just know I wasn’t comfortable with him challenging my teammate like that.”

“It was really sexist,” said another former player who saw the incident. “You would never say that to a male player.”

Dames routinely made his attacks personal when he was angry, three former players said. He would mock players’ educations and personal lives on the field, they alleged. He sometimes joked that an Asian player should be smarter than she was playing, two players said, in a way that they felt made implications about her race, and he frequently commented to religious players about their holidays. Two players remembered Dames calling a player from Appalachia “trailer trash.”

Three former Red Stars players said they had intentionally withheld personal information from Dames, including the fact that they were dating someone, fearing he would use it against them.

“I realized that this man would use information he has about me in a way that will harm me and in a way that he can manipulate me,” one of those players said. “I don’t want him to know about the things that matter most to me.”

Dames, like a number of other NWSL coaches, came to the league from youth soccer, where he still heads the elite youth club that he founded, Chicago Eclipse Select. He is known for cultivating Red Stars players from the Chicago area, and he has known some of his professional players since they were teenagers. Eclipse Select did not respond to a request for comment.

Some Red Stars players have praised Dames’s toughness publicly, saying it has shaped them into better competitors. After the Red Stars’ loss in the NWSL championship game Saturday, one star player, Morgan Gautrat, called him “the glue that’s held this team together. … He’s pushed us, and at the same time he’s made people better.”

One longtime Red Stars player, Danielle Colaprico, recounted this year that Dames’s treatment had sometimes left her “distraught” but that she believed it was because “he wants to get the best out of us.”

“It’s not like he does anything without a reason,” Colaprico told the website the Equalizer for an article headlined “Rory Dames is the last coach standing.” In it, she described how Dames had yelled at her after an early game. A teammate had reassured her that Dames was “just in one of his moods,” she said.

“That’s the thing that I have taken away is that if I’m getting yelled at, there’s always going to be a reason,” Colaprico said. “It’s just a matter of finding that reason.”

But for other players, Dames’s treatment was debilitating.

Hoy, who said she was a frequent Dames target, recalled an offseason when she considered leaving the team because of Dames’s treatment of her and her teammates. Her now-husband encouraged her to leave.

“He’d heard about the environment; he’d seen the effect on me,” she said. “He told me, ‘You staying says to me that you don’t respect yourself, and I know you do.’ He helped me to see what I couldn’t, and I realized then that I had to go.”

Hoy soon asked for a trade because of Dames’s treatment, she said, leaving the team in 2018.

“It affects people’s individual confidence, individual everything,” Johnson said of what she had witnessed her teammates go through. “For some players, you question everything you do, everything you are.”

Power off the pitch

In a league where players already had little power — no free agency and many players making $30,000 per year or less — Dames seemed intent on exerting control over them on and off the field, four former players said.

Three players said they feared that Dames, known for his cunning trades with other teams, would ship them out in retaliation if they defied him or raised concerns about his coaching. Dames handled much of the trading for the Red Stars, who do not have a general manager.

He rarely gave players advance notice of time off, four players said, and sometimes withheld it as punishment. Hoy, who played for Dames for five years, recalled a trip to New York for a game that kicked off a long holiday weekend. She asked him if she could stay in New York to see her parents, who had driven eight hours to watch the game; Dames often gave the team the rest of the weekend off, meaning she wouldn’t miss team events. Dames said he would let her know after the game.

She played poorly that day, she remembered, “caught up in anxiety and fear” that he might not let her stay. She said she sat in the locker room after the game “completely defeated, just thinking, ‘Please let me go see my family.’ ”

Dames approached her and said: “You’ll be traveling back with the team tonight.” She was crushed, she said. When they returned to Chicago, Dames gave the team the entire weekend off.

“Looking back on it now, I realize how controlling and manipulative that was,” Hoy said. “While I was in it, I didn’t realize the full extent of the emotional abuse.”

Dames sought to control players in other ways, they told The Post. During a preseason training trip, five players recalled, Dames told his team that he had planned a day of one-on-one meetings. But he did not give them a schedule, instead telling them they needed to be available with five minutes’ notice.

That day, three players said, no one dared leave the hotel, even for food.

“You knew he had the power in this situation and he was going to use it,” one player said. “All of these young girls, and he’s holding your career in the palm of his hands. He would use that against you in so many situations.”

Press said she frequently witnessed Dames control his players in a way that made her uncomfortable, pushing her at times to intervene. To her, the dynamic felt gendered, she said.

“He asserts control like you’re a little girl, not an adult woman — when you can go out to a concert, when you can say something or you can’t say something, when you can see your family,” she said. “It felt like it’s a disrespect that is related to gender.”

Blurring the lines

There was another side to Dames that players said could be just as damaging as his volatility. Several said they had witnessed Dames intentionally blurring the line between player and coach in a way that made them — and their teammates — uncomfortable.

One former Red Stars player agreed to describe her relationship with Dames on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about professional retaliation. Three of her former teammates confirmed parts of her story to The Post, saying they had witnessed his behavior with her publicly and were concerned by it.

From the time she arrived in Chicago as a rookie, the player said, Dames took a particular interest in her — one she said she felt went far beyond soccer. It started with lunches, usually with just one other player present, and then dinners with just one or two other players before games; he told her they were mandatory. As the player recalled it, Dames sometimes told her they would lose if she didn’t come. At meals, she said, he often asked her about her personal life, quizzing her about her relationship with her boyfriend.

“I felt like I didn’t have the option to say no,” the player said. Early in her professional career, she said, she often saw Dames outside of soccer twice a week and occasionally more.

Dames made multiple comments to the player about her appearance that made her uncomfortable, she said. Then there were frequent texts at all hours: at 11:30 at night, telling her how disappointed he was in her or asking her what she thought about his lineups. Two other people who had viewed the texts confirmed their timing and frequency.

There was an expectation, she said, that she use her free time to make unpaid appearances at practices for his youth teams, which played near where players lived. “It felt like he wanted control over me,” she said.

After a few years on the Red Stars, the player started “pushing back” against Dames, saying no more often to his invitations, she told The Post. That was when “everything changed,” the player said.

At the beginning of the next season, the player said, shortly after Dames met her boyfriend, he benched her for one of the team’s preseason games. For two weeks afterward, she said, Dames barred her from training with the first team altogether, making her practice with the reserves, a squad below the B-team of substitutes.

“He would take me out of trainings altogether,” the player said. “I would leave the trainings bawling,” she said, or “hyperventilating” enough that she struggled to drive from practice. “It was two weeks of hell.”

Dames did not hide what he thought had happened, the player said. “He would say to me something along the lines of: ‘I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you’ve pulled yourself away from me and you’re playing worse. We’re better when we’re connected.’ ”

One of the player’s former teammates told The Post that she had seen a “power struggle” unfold as her friend began to spend less and less time with Dames.

“Their relationship was awful,” the former teammate said. “It stands out to me how he’d use her personal life, how he’d really integrate it into his way of coaching her. He’d say, ‘I know your boyfriend doesn’t like me.’ It had nothing to do with soccer. He loved having power over these 20-something-year-old women.”

When Dames did start to play her again, the player said, he targeted her with verbal and emotional abuse. When she made a mistake in a game, letting a player she had been supposed to defend score, he singled her out to the media. He did not name her, but when a reporter asked why the team had given up goals, he said it was one player’s fault.

“That person didn’t do their job. … It’s as simple as that. If I was Dani,” he told journalists, referring to a Red Stars teammate, “I’d be pissed off.”

The player recalled one game when Dames singled her out at halftime in front of her teammates, leaning close to her face and screaming, “I swear on my daughter’s life, if you pass the ball backward or sideways one more f---ing time, I’m taking you off the field.”

The player was too jarred to say a word, she said. She simply lifted her arms, a gesture of helplessness, and Dames screamed, “Don’t you tell me to calm down.”

A complaint comes and goes

By the time an investigator for U.S. Soccer contacted her in 2018, the player had been traded to another team. But she was eager to tell her story, she said, backing up Press’s concerns about Dames. She remembered spending more than two hours speaking to the investigator.

That was, she said, the last she ever heard about the investigation. Three former Red Stars players, including one who played on the team at the time of the investigation, told The Post that they had wanted to speak to U.S. Soccer investigators but had never heard from them. Two had left the team because of Dames’s abuse, they said.

Sam Johnson, the former Red Stars player, said the allegations against Dames are a sign of the need for an independent and unbiased governing body, one that is not beholden to NWSL owners, the league or U.S. Soccer. “There’s no one looking over the higher-ups,” she said.

Roux, the executive director of the U.S. women’s national team players association, which brought the complaint against Dames in 2018, said in a statement that the union brought allegations from members “to hold management accountable for both addressing the underlying issue and for putting measures in place to ensure it never happens again.

“There have been multiple, systemic failures to keep players safe in women’s soccer, and all actors in that system — including USSF, NWSL, the players associations, players, staff, youth sports officials — must do better to ensure players’ safety,” Roux said.

Molly Levinson, a representative of women’s national team players, including in their lawsuit against U.S. Soccer over unequal pay, called the federation’s handling of the allegations “very disappointing.”

“The U.S. Soccer Federation should provide safe and accountable mechanisms for players to report harassment and abuse, free from retaliation, and, if necessary, take steps to hold to account anyone who does not adhere to proper standards,” Levinson said. “USSF utterly failed to do any of those things in this case.”

By this summer, when allegations of misconduct against other coaches began to shake the NWSL, former Red Stars players said their minds went to Dames — and to the time they, too, had tried to speak up years earlier.

Dames had become the league’s longest-tenured coach — the only one left from the early days of the NWSL’s founding. Across the NWSL, investigations were launched, reforms were promised and four coaches lost their jobs. But Dames’s name went unmentioned, his team marching into the playoffs for the sixth time.

“It made me think, ‘What happened over the past three years?’ ” one player said. “My teammates gave their stories, and nothing happened.”

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