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Sporting Kansas City renege on director hire over fan backlash

Sporting Kansas City has terminated the contract of sporting director Gavin Wilkinson just over a week after his appointment following significant fan backlash.

Wilkinson was implicated in multiple investigations while general manager and president of soccer at the Portland Timbers and Thorns over his role in shielding former Thorns coach Paul Riley, including withholding information about Riley’s alleged sexual harassment and helping him get rehired.

Sporting KC had announced last week that Wilkinson would take on the role of sporting director, with coach Peter Vermes saying: “People deserve a second chance, especially if they understand where they can improve and all those other things.”

However, the club reneged on that decision on Friday, with principal owner Michael Illig announcing the “mutually agreed” termination on the club’s website.

“In making this difficult decision, we want to first acknowledge the passion of our fans, our community of supporters, our partners and our stakeholders,” the statement said.

“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.”

Wilkinson, who was fired from Portland in 2022 amid the findings of the investigations, has not released comment on SKC’s decision.

The Yates Report, which was commissioned by U.S. Soccer, found that Wilkinson gave Riley a positive reference before he took over at the Western New York Flash in 2016, soon to be relocated and renamed as the North Carolina Courage.

The Yates report said: “Wilkinson told the Flash that Riley was ‘put in a bad position by the player,’ and that Wilkinson would ‘hire [Riley] in a heartbeat.'”

Riley was fired from his role at the Thorns for cause in 2015 after an investigation into his conduct.

Wilkinson was also found by the Yates Report to have made inappropriate remarks to Thorns players during his time at the club.

Sporting Kansas City executives also faced backlash from fans critical of Wilkinson’s handling of domestic abuse allegations against former Portland Timbers player Andy Polo.

The Timbers organization was aware of domestic violence allegations against Polo in May 2021, but with Wilkinson in charge as general manager, the club renewed Polo’s contract in December 2021. When Polo’s ex-partner went public with her allegations in February 2022, Polo’s contract was terminated.

MLS conducted an investigation into whether the Timbers failed to notify the league about the allegations against Polo as part of a cover-up, and determined Wilkinson and the club’s in-house legal counsel didn’t understand MLS’ reporting requirements.

Sporting KC had been looking to add to its front office to ease the burden on Vermes, who has served as the club’s manager since 2009 and its sporting director the past four years. Vermes, the longest-tenured coach in MLS history, has led the club to the 2013 MLS Cup along with three U.S. Open Cups and 11 playoff appearances since the 2011 season.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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