PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Karina LeBlanc is ready to lead the Portland Thorns out of recent turbulence as the team’s new general manager.
A widely respected proponent of the women’s game, LeBlanc replaces Gavin Wilkinson, who was placed on administrative leave by the Thorns in the wake of sexual harassment and coercion allegations made against former coach Paul Riley.
LeBlanc, also a former goalkeeper for the Canadian national team, is currently the head of women’s soccer for CONCACAF, the confederation for North and Central America and Caribbean soccer. She plans to step down from that post to focus on the Thorns.
In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, she said she spoke to the current Thorns players over the weekend. She vowed to put players at the forefront going forward.
“I felt that this was the right move based on their response, because I think it’s time that everyone understands that this is a moment in time where we pause, we learn, we realize what we can do better, and then we connect and then we rise,” she said. “And that’s how I’m looking at it. It’s a time for us all to connect and rise. And I get to do that knowing what it’s like to sit on the other side and playing for the club and now knowing with all my years of experience in CONCACAF and doing a lot of things at the global level, I see a bigger picture.”
Wilkinson was placed on administrative leave last month by the National Women’s Soccer League team after two former NWSL players went public with their allegations against Riley.
Riley coached the Thorns for the 2014 and 2015 seasons but Portland did not retain him following a team investigation after a player complained. Riley went from there to the team that eventually became the North Carolina Courage, which fired him in late September following a published report about allegations that spanned his time with both teams.
NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird stepped down amid the scandal. The NWSL and U.S. Soccer are conducting independent investigations into the allegations.
Thorns players also called for Wilkinson’s ouster. Management announced a short time later that he had been placed on administrative leave from duties connected to the Thorns, but not from Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers. Wilkinson will continue as GM of the Timbers.
LeBlanc was goalkeeper for the Thorns in the 2013 season, when the team won the inaugural NWSL championship. She went on to play for two season with the Chicago Red Stars.
“I came back because for me, it’s an opportunity,” she said. “I will never forget my year playing at this club. I’ll never forget how the community made me feel. I’ll never forget what it felt to put that jersey on, and have the crest on your heart. I will never forget the moments that people don’t even know about, with my teammates. And it was one of those things when I got traded away, I was just like, `You know what? I’m going to come back.’”
LeBlanc also made 110 appearances for the Canadian national team between 1998 and 2015. She has served in her role with CONCACAF since 2018.
The Thorns won the NWSL Shield this season for the league’s best regular-season record. Portland has a bye for the first round of the playoffs, which start this weekend.
“The global soccer network she has fostered during her career has perfectly positioned her to lead the Thorns, and it is hard to think of anyone with a more innate leadership ability and unique blend of skills than Karina,” Thorns owner Merritt Paulson said.
LeBlanc said she was inspired to take the job, knowing that it comes with challenges, because of her infant daughter, Paris.
“The one thing I know I can do is I can make people feel like we are going forward with enthusiasm, with hope, with belief, and everyone can feel seen and heard in the process,” she said. “And that’s why I’m like: I can answer a million questions about a million things, or I can say, ‘Let’s go! Let’s get people excited again about women’s football.'”