The National Women’s Soccer League has tapped sports executive Marla Messing to be interim CEO as the nine-year-old league and its clubs navigate the fallout from allegations of verbal and sexual abuse by a number of its coaches.
The scandal, which rocked the soccer league, has sparked a series of investigations and led to several departures, including the resignation of NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird on Oct. 1, just 19 months into her tenure and mere weeks before the close of the regular season.
Baird resigned after North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was fired on Sept. 30, following allegations of sexual misconduct during his time with the Portland Thorns. Riley’s dismissal was one of several within the league in recent months. Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke was fired in late September following an NWSL investigation into allegations of verbal and emotional abuse, and Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly was terminated for cause on Aug. 31. Baird’s handling of the matters came under scrutiny after news of the accusations against Riley broke. Messing will step into the league at a time of pivotal change, with players demanding substantial reform.
Messing most recently worked in tennis, serving as CEO of USTA Southern California from 2019 to 2021. But she has been involved in professional soccer in several capacities—starting as executive vice president of the 1994 FIFA World Cup and then as one of Major League Soccer’s founding senior executives in 1995 and president and CEO of the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup. An attorney by trade, Messing has also done recent stints as a consultant for MLS club LAFC as well as Spanish football club F.C. Barcelona.
Her appointment comes amid a number of investigations into the league, from the club level all the way to U.S. Soccer and FIFA. The NWSL retained the law firm Covington & Burling to oversee its own investigations; review league and individual clubs’ procedures, policies and treatment of players; and make recommendations for reforms and sanctions to a three-person executive committee formed in the wake of Baird’s resignation.
Messing will take over the role of overseeing the NWSL’s day-to-day operations, replacing the executive committee and building on its initial steps in the league’s response to the scandal.
“I am honored to have the opportunity to help lead the NWSL and fully embrace the abundantly clear need to transform the league so that player welfare is central to every discussion and decision,” Messing said in a statement. “I also 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. 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.”
The executive committee members will help Messing transition into the new role.
“[Messing’s] extensive background and passion to see the NWSL succeed serve as a strong foundation for her leadership and for navigating significant decisions moving forward to improve our policies and culture,” the NWSL executive committee—which included Orlando Pride EVP Amanda Duffy, Kansas City co-owner Angie Long and OL Reign board member Sophie Sauvage—said in a joint statement. “The NWSL will continue to engage with and solicit input from players and the players’ association over the course of the league’s ongoing initiatives to transform and promote long-term change.”
A search committee comprised of current board members will lead the efforts in selecting the league’s next commissioner, with help from an outside firm. Representatives of the NWSL Players Association, which is in the midst of negotiating the league’s first-ever CBA, will also be part of the process. The league said those player reps will be given time to meet with potential commissioner candidates and “have a meaningful opportunity to be heard” in any selection decisions, but added that the search for a permanent commissioner is still ongoing.