Dave Hannigan: Paul Riley scandal the latest in US soccer’s dark history of abuse

Dysfunctional cult of the coach has allowed predatory figures to get away with abuse

Former North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley is the latest in a long line of American senior sporting figures to face allegations of abuse. Photograph: Brad Smith/Getty Images.

Former North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley is the latest in a long line of American senior sporting figures to face allegations of abuse. Photograph: Brad Smith/Getty Images.

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Vancouver-born Ciara McCormack won eight soccer caps for the Republic of Ireland, the country from which her parents, a father from Athlone, a mother from Cork, emigrated in the 1970s. A sporting feat to garland any emigrant family history yet far from her most enduring achievement. Two years ago, McCormack wrote a powerful essay on her blog detailing the abusive regime of Bob Birarda, a former coach with Team Canada and the Vancouver Whitecaps. Thanks to her whistle-blowing, he is currently awaiting trial on charges that include sexual exploitation, sexual assault and child luring.

Danny Gildea grew up in Scarborough in the north of England, claimed to have once been on the books of Leeds United, and carved out a neat coaching niche for himself across America and online. His Soccer Assassins account boasted 500,000 followers on Instagram and he even featured in a commercial for Adidas. Following a peripatetic career that has included stops in Boston, Dubai and Wisconsin, the 37-year-old was recently extradited from Texas to Madison where he is facing charges of repeated sexual assault of a child he trained. It is alleged the abuse began when the girl was 11.

Sean Johnsen’s extensive coaching resume saw him working with boys’ and girls’ teams at Franklin Square soccer club on Long Island, and holding part-time positions at a local university and a high school. Earlier this year, he was arraigned on one count of use of a child in sexual performance, 23 counts of third-degree rape, 23 counts of third-degree criminal sex act and three counts of endangering the welfare of a child. The girl involved played for his club team, and was one of three whom he is accused of menacing at different stages.

Ciara McCormack in action for the Republic of Ireland. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Ciara McCormack in action for the Republic of Ireland. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

These random, disturbing outtakes from recent soccer coaching news in these parts illustrate why the NWSL chose to cancel a week of games last week following revelations that Paul Riley, one of its longest-serving coaches, was a serial exploiter of women throughout his career. The league commissioner resigned, and the United States Soccer Federation, a body that could give the FAI a run for its money when it comes to incompetence, retained Sally Yates, a former acting US Attorney General, to investigate allegations of abusive behaviour and sexual misconduct throughout the women’s professional game. Solid first steps.

The problem is the issue appears to run far deeper than nefarious characters like Riley and Richie Burke (a story told in a previous edition of this column) abusing women at the highest level of the game. This affects every strata of the sport. Ever before becoming a fixture in the distaff pro scene, Riley made a lucrative living for decades in the ultra-competitive youth soccer scene in Long Island. Indeed, he retained the title of director of coaching at Albertson, one of that region’s most prestigious children’s clubs up to last year, long after the Portland Thorns first investigated serious allegations made against him by Mana Shim back in 2015.

If there was enough evidence to prevent the Thorns from renewing his contract, there wasn’t enough to persuade a club with hundreds of boys and girls in its care to end its association with him and the soccer academy that bore his name. And, of course, within months, the Western New York Flash, another NWSL outfit, hired Riley again. Despite troubling whispers about his proclivity for drinking to excess with his players and hosting wild parties at his home that they were bizarrely compelled to attend, he was also reportedly in the shake-up at different times for both the USA and England national team jobs.

Even in an age when there are supposed to be safeguards, protocols and background checks to protect children in sport, Riley is not an outlier. Visit any of the online forums dedicated to American kids’ soccer (their existence is a problem in itself) and you will read horrific stuff accusing coaches, some identified by name, of grooming and molesting underage girls, sleeping with players’ mothers, insisting on private one on one sessions, throwing pizza parties for teenagers at their homes, and encouraging players to hang with them off the field in order to get more playing time on the field.

America’s freewheeling libel laws allow anybody to say anything about anybody but if even ten per cent of the claims being made online are true, the issue here looks to be systemic and may well be a product of this society’s dysfunctional cult of the coach. In this country, much more than others, there is a peculiar reverence for those who hold coaching positions, no matter the level of the sport. The man or woman on the sideline is too often regarded as beyond criticism, deserving of deference and always to be trusted.

Around coaches, otherwise intelligent adults can turn into obsequious, gullible fools, and plenty of charlatans (especially possessing accents) have made easy money parting the same idiots from their cash, simply by telling them their kid can make it all the way to the show - if only they just give them some expensive private sessions. That predators will exploit those situations and that stupidity to gain access to young girls and boys is inevitable.

This week, the NWSL seems determined to, belatedly, listen to its players and to put in place structures to protect them. It’s long past time for the rest of American soccer to start cleaning house too.

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