Sporting KC reverses course on hire of former Portland executive Gavin Wilkinson after fan pushback

Wilkinson was fired in 2022 after multiple investigations, including one into the sexual misconduct of former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley

PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 22:  Portland Timbers president of soccer, Gavin Wilkinson, speaks at the Portland Timbers Media Day on January 22, 2020, at Providence Park in Portland, OR. (Photo by Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

Sporting Kansas City said Friday that it was no longer moving forward with its hire of former Portland Timbers and Thorns executive Gavin Wilkinson.

The MLS club announced last week that it was hiring Wilkinson to be the team’s sporting director. Wilkinson previously served as the Timbers’ general manager and president of soccer for both the Timbers and Thorns until he was fired in 2022.

Wilkinson was removed from his role in Portland amid loud calls for his ouster after investigations into his role in covering up the alleged sexual misconduct of former Portland Thorns head coach Paul Riley and the organization's role in not communicating domestic abuse allegations against a Timbers midfielder to the league.

Wilkinson’s hire in Kansas City was met with immediate scorn from Sporting Kansas City supporter groups after it was announced, and SKC made it clear in its statement that it had heard that pushback.

“In making this difficult decision, we want to first acknowledge the passion of our fans, our community of supporters, our partners and our stakeholders,” Sporting KC owner Michael Illig said in a statement. “Together, they comprise our deeply valued Sporting family. Our action today demonstrates our longstanding, unequivocal respect for their voices, and the belief that we are all stronger when we listen to one another.

“We ran a diligent and exhaustive process to identify our new sporting director. It was grounded in the deeply held principles and standards we have adhered to since the day we acquired the team.”

“That said, the impassioned response from our fans reinforced to us a fundamental philosophy that has driven us since day one: to honor and protect our valued relationships. It is in that spirit that we take this action today, reflective of our abiding appreciation for our unrivaled SKC fans and our Kansas City community.”

Per a U.S. Soccer investigation into the way Portland handled Riley’s actions, Wilkinson recommended Riley for the Western New York Flash’s head coaching position after Riley was fired for cause by the Thorns in 2015. Riley was accused of fostering a hostile work environment as coach of the Thorns, had sent a player sexually explicit text messages saying he wanted to have a relationship with her and that he asked two players to kiss in front of the team.

In an email to Riley after his firing, Wilkinson wrote, “As you know, we have conducted an investigation as a result of statements made by a player. While our investigation did not reveal any unlawful conduct by anyone, we did confirm that, on occasion, you exercised poor judgment in your interaction with one or more players.”

Months later, according to the investigation, the Flash said that Wilkinson “referenced only one incident with a disgruntled player but indicated that an internal investigation resulted in no findings of wrongdoing against Mr. Riley and the investigation was otherwise closed. His comment at the time was to get him if we could.”

The investigation said the Flash were not made aware that Riley had been fired for cause by Portland. The Flash hired Riley and he remained the organization's coach until 2021 when a report outlining his conduct as the coach of the Thorns was published.

In 2021, Portland Timbers midfielder Andy Polo was accused of domestic abuse. According to a report by The Athletic, the Timbers knew of the accusations against Polo shortly after they were made, but didn't tell the league office until they became public nine months later. The organization was ultimately fined $25,000 by MLS.