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NWSL: 'Having women at top so important for league' – US star Kelley O'Hara

Kelley O'Hara shoots in a friendly match against Korea in 21 October 2021
USA international Kelley O’Hara believes her club has taken a big step forward in responding to allegations of misconduct towards players

Having women in key roles will help the National Women’s Soccer League move on from one of the most difficult times it has faced, says USA World Cup winner Kelley O’Hara.

The NWSL season is getting under way where it left off – under a cloud – after further allegations of misconduct by a coach emerged this week.

Houston Dash announced on Tuesday they had suspended head coach James Clarkson as part of an investigation into “current and historic complaints of discrimination, harassment and abuse”. Clarkson has denied the allegations.

The league, which is beginning its 10th season this weekend, has seen a number of coaches resign or be sacked following complaints by players.

New NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said this week the league was “turning a corner”, with a system now in place for players to be able to bring forward concerns.

O’Hara, who scored the extra-time winner for Washington Spirit in the NWSL final last season, says the increasing presence of women in senior roles at clubs across the league will help.

The 33-year-old United States international told BBC World Service’s Newsday: “I think that with everything that happened last year – players coming forward, individuals being fired and held accountable – that was very necessary.

“I don’t want to put it down to a men versus women thing, but a lot of these teams that have had these issues in the league, they were being owned and run by men.”

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Last year, North Carolina Courage sacked English coach Paul Riley because of sexual misconduct allegations made by some of his players when he was in charge of the Portland Thorns in 2015. Riley has denied the allegations.

The NWSL’s commissioner, Lisa Baird, resigned after the allegations came to light, while Fifa opened an investigation into the case.

The scandals also affected O’Hara’s side Washington Spirit. Former coach Richie Burke was dismissed after an investigation into allegations of harassment and a toxic work culture. Initially he was offered a role in the front office but, following the completion of the report, the NWSL terminated his contract. Burke has not publicly commented.

Players from Spirit released an open letter calling for the owner and chief executive, Steve Baldwin, to sell the club, which he eventually did to business executive Michele Kang, the first person of colour to own a club in the league’s history.

“Having women involved in decision-making positions is so important for this league and I was extremely grateful that our ownership debacle has been settled and Michele Kang is now leading this franchise,” said O’Hara.

“She’s already shown an immense step forward and just an understanding and an ability to listen to the players and support the players how we feel we need to be supported.

“I definitely think that having women, and especially women of colour, in those roles is immensely important.”

‘Sometimes you want to pound your head against a wall’

Kelley O'Hara
Kelley O’Hara scored an extra-time winner in last season’s NWSL final as Chicago Red Stars were beaten 2-1

Despite all the struggles, the NWSL enters a landmark year – with O’Hara noting its longevity.

‘When I first turned pro, I got drafted into the WPS [Women’s Professional Soccer League],” she said. “That was around for two seasons and it folded. I went a whole year without playing professional soccer or at least club soccer.

“This is the longest a domestic league [in the US] has survived. It’s been extremely difficult at times and there have been a lot of frustrations. Sometimes you want to pound your head against a wall.

“But I’m really thankful we’re coming into our 10th season. I’m excited that we’ve hopefully laid the foundations for the league to continue to grow and thrive.”

But O’Hara knows the game can’t rest.

“You have a houseplant and you don’t water it, it’s going to die,” she said. “I think when it comes to NWSL, US soccer, there has to be equal, if not more investment – because the women’s game hasn’t been around as long as the men’s game.”

O’Hara has won two World Cup titles with the US and an Olympic gold medal, but feels she still has much more to offer the game.

“I still feel like there’s another level that I can get to as a player and I also feel like I still have a lot to give in terms of experience and leadership,” she said.

In 2020, she started the Just Women’s Sport’s podcast, interviewing high-profile sportswomen such as United States team-mate Alex Morgan and seven-time Olympic gold medal-winning athlete Allyson Felix. She’s also launching a new podcast, the Players’ Pod.

“I think what’s cool about playing and having a podcast is that although I’m interviewing or have interviewed athletes that play different sports than I do, we have similar and shared experiences,” O’Hara said.

“Even though we might have not gone through the same exact thing, there’s there’s a lot of similarities amongst professional women athletes.

“I get to talk to so many incredible women and it makes me have a better perspective on my journey.”

With an NWSL title and a World Cup in 2023 to defend, O’Hara knows she can help generate investment in the game by producing on the pitch and telling women’s stories off it.

“If you’re going to complain about something or be frustrated with an issue, which for me is the coverage and visibility of women sports, you should be ready to be part of the solution,” she said.

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