NWSL announces veteran US soccer executive Marla Messing as interim CEO, search for commissioner continues

Marla Messing, who was instrumental in the 1999 World Cup that transformed women’s sports around the globe, will be the interim chief executive officer of the NWSL.

Messing will oversee day-to-day operations of the league, which has been in turmoil over reports of toxic and abusive culture that threatened the health and well-being of players. The search for a commissioner will continue, and the NWSL said the NWSL Players Association will be able to meet with candidates and will have input in who is selected.

“I … want to commend the bravery and strength of each and every player in the league to demand the change that should be at the core of every organization,” Messing said in a statement Monday. “Gaining the trust of our players and uniting players and owners is central to my approach so that we can most effectively create systemic change.

“The executive committee and board of governors have already begun important work and I am committed to overseeing league operations to implement widespread reform initiatives intended to protect all players and staff, and further advance the popularity of and love for women’s soccer here in the United States.”

Former commissioner Lisa Baird resigned under pressure Oct. 1, hours after the league and NWSLPA agreed that weekend would not be played following a report by The Athletic that a now-former coach had emotionally abused and sexually coerced his players. Paul Riley was fired by the Portland Thorns in 2015 after an internal investigation of complaints about inappropriate behavior with players found “clear violations of our company policies.”

But he was hired by the North Carolina Courage, and won NWSL titles in 2018 and 2019.

Riley was fired by the Courage after The Athletic report, and U.S. Soccer stripped him of his coaching license. The U.S. Center for SafeSport also temporarily suspended him while it conducts an investigation.

But Riley’s case was just the latest to raise questions about the NWSL’s commitment to its players. Last month, the Washington Post reported on abuse and toxic culture at the Washington Spirit, which resulted in the firing of coach Richie Burke.

The OL Reign also confirmed that it had dismissed coach Farid Benstiti after he made “comments regarding nutrition and fitness” to players. The Reign had hired Benstiti despite World Cup champion Lindsey Horan’s allegations that he and his staff had body shamed her and monitored her eating when she played at Paris Saint-Germain.

Though this is Messing’s first role with the NWSL, she has a long history of involvement in women’s soccer and American soccer.

She was executive vice president of the men’s World Cup that was played in the United States in 1994. She then served as the president and chief executive officer of the 1999 women’s World Cup, also held in the United States.

That tournament is considered a watershed moment in women’s sports. The U.S. team played to sold-out crowds in NFL stadiums, and nearly 18 million tuned in to watch the USWNT beat China in a penalty shootout in the final. It was the largest-ever U.S. television audience for a soccer game, men’s or women’s, and stood until 2014.

Messing was one of the founders of Major League Soccer, and most recently served as a full-time consultant for the Los Angeles Football Club of the MLS and F.C. Barcelona. She also was vice president and executive director of the Los Angeles bid for the 2024/2028 Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NWSL appoints veteran soccer executive Marla Messing as interim CEO