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‘Nobody believed those teenagers’

Former NWSL coach Rory Dames was accused by youth players of misconduct decades ago, records and interviews show. He coached his way to power and prominence anyway.

A former youth soccer player, now in her 40s, alleges Rory Dames “groomed” her and used his power as her coach to have sex with her when she played for him on an elite girls' youth team. (Allison V Smith/For The Washington Post)

Last fall, when players in the National Women’s Soccer League publicly accused prominent coach Rory Dames of verbal and emotional abuse, Megan Cnota was immediately transported to two decades before, when she was a teenager playing for Dames in suburban Chicago.

Yes, she recognized the behavior the players described, she said. But she also recognized something else: The NWSL players said they had twice before raised alarms about Dames, only to see him continue coaching.

Cnota and her teammates tried to do the same, she said. In 1998, a police officer in Arlington Heights, Ill., investigated after a former player complained that Dames had touched her inappropriately on her upper thigh when she was a minor, according to a police report obtained by The Washington Post.

Cnota spoke to police too, she said, telling them Dames had made degrading sexual jokes about her. Other players on Dames’s club, Eclipse Select, reported similar comments, according to the police report: One told police that Dames would “talk about foreplay and ‘blowjobs’ and often referred to male climax as ‘snowing.’” Others reported that Dames, who was 25 at the time of the report, would talk about sex and their bodies, and multiple players told police they were concerned that Dames spent too much time with young players outside of soccer.

But police closed the investigation after the accusers decided not to file formal complaints and prosecutors declined to pursue the case. Just as he would decades later, Dames kept his job.

“We tried to make it come to light 25 years ago,” Cnota said, “and nobody believed those teenagers.”

Dames spent the next two decades wielding significant power in girls’ and women’s soccer: building the youth club he owned, Eclipse, into an elite soccer powerhouse in Chicago and going on to become the NWSL’s longest-tenured coach. In November, he resigned from the Chicago Red Stars as The Post prepared a story about allegations of verbal and emotional abuse against him, part of a wave of male NWSL coaches who left their jobs while facing allegations of misconduct.

But a subsequent Post investigation found that allegations against Dames surfaced decades before in the youth soccer system, with the 1998 police report. And the mistreatment alleged by youth players, in the police report and in interviews with The Post, went beyond the verbal and emotional abuse described by NWSL players.

One woman told The Post that Dames cultivated an inappropriate relationship with her from age 14 — conduct she now sees as “grooming.” Once she turned 18, the woman said, he used his power over her soccer career, and the control he had long exerted in her life, to have sex with her as she was still playing for him at Eclipse in the early 2000s.

“I felt like I didn’t have a choice,” the woman told The Post.

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The 1998 police report also includes statements from two other players who accused Dames of “batteries”: a girl who said he pinched her when she refused to give him a massage, and a boy who said Dames punched him in the stomach.

Fourteen of Dames’s former youth players told The Post that he was verbally and emotionally abusive toward them as teenagers, for many in ways that they say left lasting psychological damage. Their allegations in many ways mirror those that were raised and ultimately dismissed by authorities in 1998. They include body-shaming and public humiliation of girls as young as 10. Among the names multiple players said Dames called them and their teammates when they were teenagers: “c--t,” “fat ass,” “p---y,” “retarded.”

In an email to The Post, a lawyer for Dames, Susan Bogart, said the allegations of sexual harassment and grooming against Dames were false. She said Dames never called players names and that allegations against him from the 1998 police report were “unfounded.” Bogart did not specifically address the former player’s allegations of Dames abusing his power to have sex with her, saying she could not respond to anonymous allegations. She declined to make Dames available for an interview.

“Mr. Dames has a reputation as an excellent soccer coach over 25 years of coaching thousands of soccer players. With the exception of a few players disgruntled for one reason or another, the vast majority of players have thanked Mr. Dames for investing in them as players,” Bogart said. She accused The Post of “damaging and destroying” Mr. Dames’s reputation “with false allegations of sexual misconduct for which there are no facts and relying on anonymous sources.”

Bogart also pointed out the decision by the U.S. Soccer Federation, which twice heard complaints from NWSL players, to not discipline Dames, including after a 2018 investigation conducted by the governing body. “U.S. Soccer cleared Mr. Dames,” Bogart said, “issued no sanctions against him and expressly permitted him to continue coaching.”

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A spokesman for U.S. Soccer declined to comment on its past investigation of Dames or the allegations against him, citing an ongoing investigation of the NWSL. The organization did suspend Dames’s coaching license, it said in a statement, but Bogart said it occurred only after The Post contacted the federation with some of the allegations in this story. U.S. Club Soccer, a separate nonprofit that is a member of the U.S. Soccer Federation, disqualified Dames from coaching in Nov. 2021, after the NWSL players’ complaints were made public, according to a U.S. Club Soccer spokesman.

Mike Nesci, who replaced Dames as president of Eclipse Select after Dames resigned from the Red Stars last year, said he was not aware of the 1998 allegations. Dames “voluntarily ceased” coaching at Eclipse in October, Nesci said, but he did not respond to questions about whether Dames still owned Eclipse or was involved in its governance. The club referred to Dames as the owner of Eclipse in news releases as late as last year.

The wave of allegations against NWSL coaches last year, especially revelations of failures by the NWSL to address sexual misconduct by a former coach, led to the commissioner’s resignation and triggered multiple investigations of the league. But the allegations against Dames by former youth players are another signal that “systemic abuse” alleged by NWSL players is rooted in the much larger elite youth soccer system, which includes thousands of players nationwide.

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Two other NWSL coaches publicly accused of abuse last year, Paul Riley and Richie Burke, were also once prominent youth coaches. Dames’s sway in youth soccer, though, was especially significant. In 2009, he and Eclipse were among the founding members of the Elite Clubs National League, a breakaway group of exclusive youth clubs that produces many of the country’s top girls’ players; Dames sat on the league’s board of directors. He and Eclipse have produced players who have earned coveted Division I scholarships, professional contracts and roster spots on all levels of the U.S. women’s national teams.

It was that influence, many of his former players said, that kept them for years from speaking up about the mistreatment they said they experienced — afraid that Dames could ruin the chance at a scholarship or a spot in the professional league.

“I will never be able to fully explain the power that [Dames] had over everybody, adults included,” said Lauren Hall, who said Dames verbally abused her and repeatedly mocked her weight in front of teammates when she played for him, beginning in 2009. “[I’ve thought] ‘Why, why did we let this happen?’ But the monopoly over Chicago soccer, our belief that his connection to the college world was the only connection we would have — he used all of that to get away with doing and saying whatever the hell he wanted to us.”

‘What do you do?’

One incident with Dames is burned into Cnota’s memory.

She played for Dames for several years in the mid-1990s, both at Eclipse and at her high school, St. Viator, in the wealthy suburb of Arlington Heights. One day at practice, when she was around 15, she said Dames told his players to get on their knees for a drill. As she knelt alongside her teammates, she said he turned to her and remarked, “Cnota, I bet you know this position well.”

“I remember feeling uncomfortable, but what do you do? Because the way he portrayed himself to us was, you don’t want to do anything to piss him off because then you won’t play,” Cnota said. “He held soccer and us loving the game so much over our head, and he could do anything to us because we wanted to play so bad.”

There were other instances, Cnota said, when Dames targeted her with sexual jokes and comments, frequently bringing up her boyfriends and her sex life and making comments that “no adult should be making to a teenager.” She remembered a popular song called “Laid” that Dames would often say reminded him of her when it played on the radio, calling it “your song.”

As a teenager in the 1990s, Cnota said, she did not have the understanding or language to describe Dames’s treatment of her. But as an adult, she said she saw his behavior as sexual harassment.

Cnota was still at St. Viator when one of her teammates went to her former high school to report Dames. The girl told the school that Dames had touched her on the thigh and that he was “very verbally inappropriate,” according to a police report, which The Post obtained through a public records request and which has not been previously reported. She told the officer, the police report said, that she wanted only to “protect other players from [Dames’s] advances.”

The woman whose complaint triggered the investigation declined to comment, and The Post does not identify alleged victims of sexual misconduct without their consent.

In addition to the players who said Dames had pinched and punched them, according to the police report, another player told police that her teammate disclosed an “incident” involving Dames to her and felt the girl was “telling the truth.”

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The officer who investigated the allegation of unwanted touching in 1998 interviewed 150 of Dames’s current and former players, he wrote in his report. Many players, including some who described Dames’s sexual comments, said Dames had not made them feel uncomfortable, and many said they thought he was a good coach, the police report said.

But the report also documented multiple allegations of “degrading” and sexual comments by Dames, including an incident during practice when Dames told a player “she had a nice ‘a--’ and he wanted to sleep with her,” and one where he had joked that a girl should have taken off her shirt.

Multiple players also told police they were concerned with how frequently Dames spent time with girls outside of soccer, going with them to the movies or riding with them in his car. One girl alleged a teammate “was always going over to [Dames’s] apartment,” the police report said. A former player said she thought it was “strange” that Dames “did not want an assistant coach, rather he wanted to coach the team by himself.”

“Although she felt Dames was a good coach,” the report said of one player, “his manner of teaching totally shot her confidence and she felt his tactics were mind controlling.”

In interviews with The Post, five women who played for Dames at St. Viator and Eclipse in the 1990s and early 2000s recounted similar stories to those that girls told police in 1998, including that they were uncomfortable with the amount of time Dames spent with girls outside of soccer. Four women told The Post that they had heard Dames make explicitly sexual comments to them or their teammates. Most asked not to be named, saying they were concerned about their privacy.

“Looking back on it, you think, ‘What the hell is that guy doing hanging out with teenagers?’” Cnota said. “It was grooming behavior. It’s sickening.”

St. Viator suspended Dames from coaching as police investigated, according to the police report. But the girl who had first spoken up about Dames ultimately told police she did not want to pursue a complaint, the report said. An assistant state’s attorney assigned to the sex crimes unit declined to pursue the case, the police report said. The police officer, who is now retired, and the assistant state’s attorney, who is now a judge, did not return messages seeking comment.

Social services found “numerous situations involving verbal inappropriateness,” according to the police report. But a social worker determined the girl’s initial report of inappropriate touching was “unfounded,” the police report said, and did not receive any other allegations of physical touching. The report did not specify a reason for the social worker’s finding.

Bogart, Dames’s attorney, pointed to the decisions by the sex crimes prosecutor and the social worker as evidence that Dames had not acted abusively toward players in 1998. After the investigation, she said, there were no formal allegations of sexual misconduct “by three entities specifically charged with and uniquely trained to investigate such cases.”

In a statement to The Post, St. Viator said the school had “no specific information about the allegations” but that it would conduct an investigation. The principal and guidance counselor from the time could not be reached for comment, and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services declined to release records from the investigation because they involved allegations of child abuse.

When the next soccer season arrived, St. Viator allowed Dames to return to coaching.

A singular force

She was just getting started with Eclipse when she spoke to police in 1998, one player told The Post. She told them he was a good coach, and when her high school, St. Viator, brought him back the next year, she assumed it meant he had done nothing wrong, she said. She trusted him.

They grew close over the next several years, she told The Post, and Dames could be sweet to her, taking her to the movies and inviting her to his apartment. But he was also a forceful, sometimes brutal influence in her life, she said. He was prone to angry tirades and degrading insults when she failed to live up to his high standards, she said. And like Cnota, she said Dames was involved in their teenage social lives, asking about their boyfriends and personal drama.

With his power over her fate as a soccer player and knowledge of her life’s intimate details, she said, it felt as though Dames had “ultimate control.”

“He became very entrenched in all aspects of our lives,” she said, “and there was no part that was free of Rory.”

Then she turned 18. She went to Dames’s apartment one night not long after she had graduated, while she still played for him at Eclipse. She and Dames began playing a card game in his living room, and this time, she said, he told her to take off one item of clothing, and then another, as they played. She had been taught since she was 14 to obey his every command, she said, and had been punished with screams and sprints when she did not. She took off her clothes.

She didn’t think they would have sex, she said. But then, when they did, it felt almost expected.

Now in her 40s, the woman spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity, fearing personal and professional repercussions. Her sister and another former Eclipse teammate told The Post that the woman disclosed to them in the mid-2000s that she had had a sexual relationship with Dames.

The Post also reviewed emails between the player and Dames. In 2010, the woman emailed Dames, who by then had married another former youth player at Eclipse. She told him to ask his wife not to tell any of their mutual friends about “what happened between us.”

Dames replied: “Agreed! I will take care of it.”

The woman said she returned repeatedly to Dames’s apartment to have sex with him that summer in the early 2000s. She remembered how her therapist at the time told her that she “always had a choice” — that she could be at the door of Dames’s apartment and, even then, she could still turn away.

“But I always thought to myself, ‘This isn’t a choice for me,’ ” the player said. “If he says come over, then yes, in some other reality of life, maybe I could make the choice not to. But in my life, I felt like, there wasn’t that choice with him. If he [instant messaged] me, ‘Come over,’ it was, ‘Come over.’ ”

She hoped to forget about Dames that fall when she left for college, where she fulfilled her dream of playing Division I soccer. But when she returned the next summer to play for Dames at Eclipse, he invited her to his apartment, and she felt again, she said, that she did not have a choice.

As she saw her former coach rise to prominence in the NWSL, she said she convinced herself that his success must have meant he was treating players differently. But when she read the NWSL players’ allegations against Dames last year, the player said, she realized he had not stopped.

She was especially struck by a former Red Stars player who described how Dames had pressed her to go out with him to dinner and lunch and texted her at all hours, commenting on her appearance and asking about her boyfriend.

“We didn’t have texts then, so for us, it was AOL instant messages,” she said. “He would IM girls at all hours of the day and night."

“It’s all recycled,” the woman said. “He was literally doing this 25 years ago. I thought, ‘In what world are we still living this?’ ”

A field of fear

For Cnota and the woman who had a relationship with Dames, the sexual misconduct they say they endured was tied inextricably to Dames’s coaching — the same behavior that NWSL players would describe to U.S. Soccer decades later.

Dames’s volatility and anger, they said, made them terrified to disobey him; even a single misplaced pass could result in an order to run repeated sprints, sometimes until they collapsed, often as he screamed at them. Degrading nicknames such as “fat ass” wore away at their fragile teenage self-esteem, they said.

By the mid-2000s, some of Dames’s coaching methods had changed, players said, and he no longer made explicitly sexual comments. But several of Dames’s former youth players at Eclipse described verbal and emotional abuse and control that continued long after the police investigation.

“It was just all this belittlement,” said Haley Leanna, who played for Dames starting at age 13 in 2012. “We were always hoping he didn’t show up at practice so we could just have a day to breathe.”

Dames would mock their parents’ occupations, three former players said, or bring up their home lives when they made a mistake. During games and practices, the name-calling was constant: Players recalled Dames calling them “p---ies,” “donkeys,” “f---ing idiots” or “retarded.”

He often called his young players “fat,” several women said, sometimes appending vulgar words — “fat f--k,” “fat c--t,” “fat ass.” The body-shaming included girls as young as 10, two former players said. One recalled how in fifth grade, at a hot summer tournament, she and her teammates tied their shirts up, leaving some of their stomachs visible. Dames singled out the girl, who was heavier than some of her teammates, and said: “Put that down. That’s not a good look for you.” She began to cry, she said.

Bogart, Dames’s attorney, said he “did not and has not called players names.”

Hall, who began to play for Dames at Eclipse when she was 14, recalled a time when she was late to practice and jogged across the field to join a huddle. “Do you feel that?” Dames asked her teammates, as though the ground was shaking. “Hurricane Lauren’s coming in.”

Dames also subjected players to physical punishment, five players said, that went far beyond running sprints.

Lizzie Garrett-Currie, who said she played for Dames beginning in 2008, said he once punished her and her teammates after a loss by telling them to come to practice without wearing any Eclipse gear. When they arrived, she said, he made them don blank T-shirts on which he had written in black marker, “Know your place.” That day, she said, all they did was run sprints as he screamed. Humiliated and exhausted, some players cried as they ran, she said.

“I remember just sitting in the car after, and I felt like, if I tell my mom how I’m feeling, if I tell her what he’s doing to us, she might take me out of this,” Garrett-Currie said. “But I don’t want to be taken out of this, because this is what I have to do in order to get to the next level. If I quit, I’m a quitter — that’s what he tells you.

“I was so terrified. It’s so weird looking back — like, why didn’t I just quit, why didn’t I say something?”

But Dames’s influence in the soccer world — with college coaches, the NWSL and U.S. Soccer — kept players silent, they said.

At Eclipse and across the ECNL, nothing was more important than getting a scholarship to a Division I school. It was a pathway to the pros, but it was also a financial payoff for years of daily practices and, for some families, tens of thousands of dollars in club soccer and tournament fees.

Dames was usually the sole conduit between young players and college coaches, former Eclipse players said. He would recommend players to coaches, multiple former players recalled, but he also would warn coaches away from certain players. Dames dictated who played in the elite national tournaments where college scouts roamed, looking for players.

“He could single-handedly take your future in soccer away if he wanted to,” Leanna said. “No one wanted to risk that.”

A 2014 New York Times article recounted how, unlike many other coaches, Dames generally refused to connect colleges with his players before their sophomore year of high school, chiding coaches who reached out directly to parents or players without going through him. Those players, he said, were too young to make decisions about where they wanted to go to college.

Dames “kept a watchful eye on his players between games, at the pool at the Marriott where they were staying,” the article said. “As the 14- and 15-year-old girls went down the waterslide, he listed the colleges that had called him to express interest in each one.”

Dames’s control of his players also discouraged them from speaking up about him to one another or to adults, four players said. Hall recalled a time around 2011 when she and her teammates had been texting one another about Dames in a private group. When they arrived at practice the next day, she said, he had gotten screenshots of their messages. “He ran us the entire practice,” she said. “We never trusted each other again.”

The message from Dames, she said, was clear: “You’re not safe anywhere, and Rory knows everything. No matter what you do, he knows.”

‘Rory’s way’

As Dames shaped Eclipse Select into a dominant youth club, he also created a culture where other coaches sometimes mistreated young players, according to interviews with players, parents and former employees of the club.

Three other parents, whose children played under other coaches at Eclipse in the past five years, described behavior similar to Dames’s: male coaches who belittled girls for small mistakes and cursed at them from the sidelines during games. And two former Eclipse employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about professional repercussions, said they had seen other coaches at the club treat young players with disrespect.

“Sometimes the other young male coaches [at Eclipse] would almost be mimicking or modeling some of Rory’s way of coaching from the sideline,” one former employee said.

One Eclipse coach would call players “a bunch of retards,” said Kate Stanley, whose daughter played for an Eclipse team starting at 11. “We would just hear him screaming at them. One time, it was, ‘Go apologize to your parents; they pay all this money and you play like crap.’ She was 12.

“It changed her whole personality,” Stanley said. “She was so worried she’d do one thing wrong. She showed signs of being in an abusive relationship.” She eventually pulled her daughter from Eclipse because of the coach, she said.

Nesci, Eclipse’s president, called the allegations of abusive coaching at Eclipse “unsubstantiated.”

“Since it was formed, Eclipse has dedicated itself and its staff to maintain the highest standards and ethics of the sport and has sought to adhere to all of the rules, regulations and guidance provided by the governing and sanctioning bodies of our sport,” Nesci said in a statement.

Dames and Eclipse hired a coach, John Soltani, who was later sanctioned by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an independent nonprofit tasked with investigating child and sexual abuse in sports, for behavior at a previous club. He was placed on probation for two years after a SafeSport investigation found he had engaged in “verbal acts that constitute the sexual harassment of a minor athlete” at a previous club, according to a 2020 notice from the Illinois Youth Soccer Association to Soltani obtained by The Post. The document says the IYSA “determined that this behavior is abhorrent in youth sports.”

In a statement to The Post, a lawyer for Soltani said the SafeSport complaint was the result of “a single, misguided player, prompted by a lack of playing time." The attorney noted that SafeSport had chosen to impose a sanction “unaccompanied by any permanent record, which expressly permitted John to continue coaching soccer on every level," rather than suspending him from coaching. (A spokesman for SafeSport declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of its investigations.)

Dames and Eclipse received a copy of the October 2020 document sent by the IYSA, which said Soltani was barred from meetings and one-on-one conversations with players as part of his two-year probation. Soltani remains employed by the club as the director of coaching at its North location.

Nesci said the club was not aware of a potential investigation by SafeSport when Soltani was hired in 2019. He said Soltani had complied with his probation and the club had not received any complaints against Soltani.

The player who had a sexual relationship with Dames at 18 said she thought parents also bore some responsibility for the abuse she and other girls said they endured. Now with a child of her own, she said, she could not imagine allowing her own child to be treated the way Dames treated her.

“Every parent — none of them knew about the sexual abuse, but every parent knew and had heard Rory be abusive at a practice or game, and they turned a blind eye to it,” she said. “They all decided that it was okay, that it was a means to an end. People were willing to do anything to get their kids on these teams.”

Lasting pain

Dames’s impact stayed with many of the girls he coached as teenagers for years. It stayed with them on the soccer field, where they were terrified to make even tiny mistakes. But for some, it also lingered in their everyday lives and relationships. Four said they sought therapy because of their time playing for him.

“Playing college soccer, winning championships, they’re amazing memories, but they’re all tainted for me now,” said the player who had a sexual relationship with Dames. “None of it is what it should be. We have to do better.”

Leanna, who began to play for Dames at 13, earned a spot on a college team, she said, but quit after one semester. She hasn’t played competitively since. “Growing up, when you’re exposed to someone like him, a man degrading you constantly, you look at yourself and you don’t see your own worth,” Leanna said. “It’s very damaging. Those are your formative years.”

After Dames had spent years belittling her and making fun of her weight, Hall said, she played for a female coach in college in whose office she often cried, struggling to cope with trusting male authority figures after Dames.

“She’d say to me, ‘No one can give or take your confidence away other than you,’ ” Hall said. “I’d look at her and say, ‘You did not have Rory Dames as your coach.’ ”

This story has been updated to include the response by U.S. Club Soccer.

What questions do you have about The Post's reporting? Ask us here.

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