Bill Oram: Oregon Youth Soccer prepares 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 soccer around Oregon.

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

But in the wake of a bombshell report that led to the firing of top executives Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub, it’s a tie that is almost certainly about to be severed.

“There’s no way in God’s green earth that this contract’s going to be renewed,” Steve Baker, the president of the OYSA said Friday.

More on that in a second. But first, some perspective from a pizza parlor.

A few decades back, 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. Arms shot up. Just one problem. Beaverton didn’t offer a spring season for third graders.

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

“I talked to some friends and made some deals,” Baker said. “Cost me some money.”

Ultimately, he pulled together a spring league.

When he thinks back to that inaugural season and standing on the sideline with other parents, he remembers being struck by the sounds of kids laughing and chattering and having fun.

“This is why we do this,” Baker said. “We do it so kids can play soccer, which is a game all of us love.”

The community born out of that love was shook to its core this week over the latest revelations in the ongoing scandal regarding sexual misconduct within the Thorns organization.

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

Some clubs in the state had already begun to disassociate 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 from the U.S. Soccer Federation and former Attorney General Sally Yates led to calls for even more dramatic change.

Baker said he expects two resolutions to be introduced at a Tuesday meeting of the OYSA’s 13-member board: one calling for a vote of no confidence and condemnation of the Timbers and Thorns; another calling for the OYSA lawyers to look into 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 around the state. The contract runs through the 2023-24 season. Even if Oregon Youth Soccer cannot get out of its contract with Paulson’s clubs, something Baker acknowledges as possible, he still doesn’t see future boards renewing the deal.

“I and most of our board want to disassociate with anything to do with the Portland Timbers or Thorns until they clean their act up,” said Baker, whose term runs through January. “It’s as simple as that.”

What would cleaning their act up entail beyond the firings of Wilkinson and Golub?

Baker, who coached both his kids and grandkids before becoming president of the OYSA for a second time in 2017, laid it out in terms that even a 6-year-old soccer player would understand.

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

Firing Wilkinson and Golub, Baker believes, is not enough. Paulson needs to take accountability for why the allegations against Riley were protected 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 not acceptable.”

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

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

Baker, who said he has been inundated by emails and phone calls since the release of the Yates report on Monday, understands the consequences of disassociating from Portland’s two professional teams – particularly for young girls. There is a unique power in girls being able to see women playing soccer at a professional level and then being able to wear that same logo when they play their own games.

Boys don’t have to look too far to find sources of inspiration in the sports world. They can dream of playing for the Trail Blazers, the Seattle Mariners or an English Premier League club. Even in the growing world of women’s sports, there are fewer beacons of women’s team sports, and even fewer that have the loyal following 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 degree, I think it’s good they don’t know. We want them to want to play for the Thorns, we just don’t want the management to be what it was.”

Before the Yates report, Baker had proposed to Wilkinson that the Timbers transition to having a marketing relationship with Oregon Youth Soccer, as opposed to an operational one. In reality, the association ran its own youth leagues, with the Timbers taking control of its Olympic Development Program.

Baker proposed keeping the logos but taking back control of all programs. Wilkinson was fired before those discussions could be finalized. Baker said his calls to Heather Davis, the club’s general counsel who was appointed president of Peregrine Sports amid the upheaval, had so far gone unreturned.

“I do not believe right now that Oregon Youth Soccer has any trust in the Portland Timbers/Thorns organization,” Baker said. “Do we support the players? Yes. Do we want to go watch the players? Yes. Do we want the players to win? Hell yes.”

But the remaining leadership?

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

Bill Oram | | Twitter: @billoram

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