The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ten years in, the growing NWSL is facing more scrutiny than ever

A crowd of more than 22,000 at Providence Park in Portland, Ore., helped push the Thorns past San Diego last week and into Saturday's NWSL title game at Audi Field. (Amanda Loman/Getty Images)

The National Women’s Soccer League arrived in Washington this week for its championship game carrying the weight of a recent report documenting widespread malfeasance but also bearing signs of a brighter future.

Saturday night’s title game at Audi Field, pitting the Portland Thorns against the Kansas City Current, will culminate a month of surging interest in the 10-year-old league: The four largest playoff crowds in NWSL history came in a seven-day block this month, with an average of more than 22,000.

Attendance for this neutral-site final is expected to surpass 18,000 and, for the first time, receive prime-time network TV coverage (CBS).

Viewership this year increased 30 percent and sponsorship revenue 90 percent, Commissioner Jessica Berman said Friday. Regular season attendance averaged almost 7,900, 28 percent higher than the WNBA, which completed its 26th season this fall.

At least five groups are expected to file expansion applications soon for two slots in 2024, she added.

“It can be true that the league has incredible momentum and incredible opportunity ahead of us,” Berman said. “It can also be true that we have some very hard things to address and to work on and to face down. And we are going to own and be transparent that both will be a priority.”

The championship comes less than a month after an investigation — commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation and headed by Sally Q. Yates, the former acting attorney general — found “systematic abuse and misconduct” perpetrated by former NWSL coaches and team executives.

A separate investigation, launched by the league and its players’ association, is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

The Yates report — which followed investigative reporting by The Washington Post and the Athletic into sexual coercion and emotional abuse by coaches, plus subsequent inaction by team and league officials — shined a light on problems the players have confronted for years. Its release forced players to balance off-field stress with on-field demands during the final stretch of the season.

“It is a balancing act, for sure,” Kansas City midfielder Desiree Scott said.

Her teammate and goalkeeper Adrianna Franch said, “This has been going on for way too long. People are calling it distractions, but it’s what people deal with every single day. . . . We’ve been speaking up for a long time. It’s just finally being heard, and it’s unacceptable that it’s finally being heard. But that tells you how strong these women are that constantly deal with stuff like that on a regular basis.”

Portland has been in the center of the storm. Fallout from management concealing player abuse by former coach Paul Riley resulted this month in the firing of general manager Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub.

Team owner Merritt Paulson also was implicated in the scandal and subsequently stepped down as chief executive. He is under pressure from fans to sell both the Thorns and the MLS’s Portland Timbers.

Fan desire to support the players collided with wanting to boycott the organization. Days before the Thorn’s 2-1 semifinal victory over the San Diego Wave last weekend before a crowd of 22,035, goalkeeper Bella Bixby posted a letter asking supporters to attend the game “because the club belongs to us.”

Striker Christine Sinclair said Friday: “The players have been hurt enough in everything that’s happened. For our fans to come and show the support that they did last week, it was one of the loudest stadiums I’ve experienced. They supported us when we needed them the most.”

The Yates report also detailed abusive misbehavior by coaches in Chicago and Louisville. Separately, a few days later, the league announced it had terminated the contracts of Orlando Pride coach Amanda Cromwell and assistant Sam Greene for retaliatory conduct against players. They had been on administrative leave since June 6.

The NWSL has yet to announce the findings of an investigation into James Clarkson, Houston’s coach and general manager, who was suspended in April amid an investigation into complaints of discrimination, harassment and abuse.

“In order for this league to heal — and these players to trust the league and the future direction of the NWSL — they have to know that [uncovering all issues] is the sole priority of the joint investigation,” Berman said.

While the investigation winds down, the league continues to mark gains. Both expansion teams this year were well received. Los Angeles-based Angel City FC led the league in attendance with a 19,105 average, ending Portland’s eight-year reign.

San Diego began the season at a 6,000-seat college venue before moving late in the year into San Diego State’s Snap Dragon Stadium; for a first-round playoff match, the Wave set a league record with a crowd of 26,215.

Kansas City’s owners opened an $18 million training center and broke ground on the first stadium built for a first-division U.S. women’s pro team. The 11,500-seat riverside complex is due to open in 2024.

“Ownership is very clear: It’s a player-led, player-first environment that we’ve tried to create for them,” Current Coach Matt Potter said. “In many ways, we were lucky the [stadium] groundbreaking came with the [Yates report] news, and that got to shed some light on a dark moment for everybody. The light has continued to shine a little bit for the right reasons with this group.”

Kansas City’s success lends belief that, in the wake of the abuse scandal, the league is on the right path.

“This will be a year that every club and every player can say, ‘Hey, we’re in this together and we want better for the whole league,’ ” Portland star Crystal Dunn said. “We can look back on our careers and say, ‘Yeah, this was a tough year, but we were able to create all the change that we ever wanted for this league.’ ”