KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes, the longest-tenured coach in MLS history, is giving up his role as the club’s sporting director.
Former Portland Timbers General Manager Gavin Wilkinson will step into that role and report to Vermes, Sporting KC co-owner Michael Illig announced as part of a wider front-office restructure at a press conference Thursday afternoon at Compass Minerals National Performance Center in Kansas City, Kansas.
Vermes, who took Sporting KC's reins in August 2009, will remain the club's manager and also take on the role of chief soccer officer, while Wilkinson — a 50-year-old New Zealand native, who served as the Timbers’ GM or president of soccer operations from 2009 until his October 2022 firing — absorbs the sporting director duties.
Wilkinson also served as the president and GM of the NWSL’s Portland Thorns from its 2013 founding until October 2022, when he was fired from both clubs for his role in concealing sexual harassment allegations against former coach Paul Riley.
There’s no denying Wilkinson’s success as a GM, which included a 2015 MLS Cup title and runner-up finishes in 2018 and 2021 as well as NWSL tiles with the Thorns in 2013 and 2017 along with NWSL Shields in 2016 and 2021.
But Wilkinson's name also appears 50 times in the Yates Report, an investigation commissioned by U.S. Soccer and led by former U.S. attorney general Sally Q. Yates that exposed years of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer.
“Importantly, I want you to know that Sporting KC took this very seriously,” Illig said.
He addressed Wilkinson’s name appearing in the Yates Report, but termed them “lapses in judgment” and indicating that he deserved “a second chance.”
“I would like to take this moment to apologize for the unintended consequences and to the individuals who were impacted,” Wilkinson said. “I should have done more in my previous role to protect and empower women athletes and not hide behind legal advice.”
Wilkinson said the Yates Report didn't actually portray his role in the misconduct that took place in Portland.
According to the Yates Report, Wilkinson allegedly downplayed Riley’s behavior, when he was in consideration for a coaching vacancy with the NWSL’s Western New York Flash, saying the Thorns’ former coach was “put in a bad position” by a player and that he’d “hire [Riley] in a heartbeat.”
Former Thorns player Mana Shim emailed Wilkinson and other team executives about Riley’s ongoing and repeated unwanted sexual advances and the retaliation she endured after asking him to stop.
The Yates investigation found that Wilkinson helped sweep allegations of sexually suggestive text messages and other inappropriate behavior, including encouraging Shim and another player to kiss to avoid extra running at practice and greeting her at the door in his underwear for a meeting in his hotel room before a game, under the rug during the 2015 season.
When Wilkinson spoke with a Flash executive about Riley’s termination, he said “an internal investigation resulted in no findings of wrong doing [sic] against Mr. Riley” and encouraged his hiring, suggesting Riley “did not mesh well with all personalities in the locker room” and the allegations were made by “a disgruntled player,” according to the Yates report.
Wilkinson said he didn’t go into detail about the issues that led to Riley’s firing from the Thorns “at the advice of legal counsel.”
During Thursday's news conference, Wilkinson pushed back at some of the report's findings and denied making the comments alleged in the Yates Report, supporting Riley's hiring. In hindsight, he said he would have "done what's right" in trying to prevent Riley's "future hiring" rather than tempering his comments out of fear of possible litigation.
The Timbers, under Wilkinson, also failed to report allegations of domestic violence against midfielder Andy Polo in May 2021, extending his contract seven months later before releasing him in February 2022 after more details and allegations went public, according to The Oregonian.
MLS fined Wilkinson's former club $25,000 for failing to report the original incident, which it was aware of shortly after it happened, as required by the MLS Constitution.
“Do I deserve a second chance? That’s not for me to decide,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson said “he’s met with numerous players and met with numerous staff” since a September 2021 article in The Athletic first exposed the allegations against Riley but claimed to have limited knowledge of the full scope of Riley's misconduct at that time.
The Flash hired Riley in February 2016, and he coached the club — which moved to North Carolina and became the Courage a year later — for six seasons.
Wilkinson denied recommended that the Flash hire Riley, but didn't do enough to dissuade them from making the hire.
The Courage won three straight NWSL Shields for accumulating the most regular-season points from 2017 to 2019, winning NWSL championships in 2018 and 2019.
Riley, the league’s 2017 and 2018 Coach of the Year, was banned from the NWSL for life in 2023 after the bombshell allegations in the Yates report came to light.
As far as the front-office restructure, Vermes said he'd become spread to thin with the Sporting KC II and the SKC Academy under his umbrella along with the addition of Leagues Cup to the MLS schedule.
"We needed more horsepower," Vermes said, adding that "my focus needs to be on the field."
Wilkinson will be in charge of "the club’s long-term player recruitment strategy, roster building and budgeting, technical staff management, and the continued development of Sporting’s professional player pathway, including MLS NEXT Pro team Sporting Kansas City II and the Sporting Kansas City Academy," according to a release from Sporting KC.
Brian Bliss will remain Sporting KC's technical director and vice president of player personnel, while the on-field staff — assistant coaches Kerry Zavagnin, Zoran Savic and Ashley Wallace along with goalkeepers coach Alec Dufty — also remain unchanged.
Sporting KC heads to Miami on Sunday to begin preseason training for the 2024 season. The club opens the season feb. 24 at the Houston Dynamo FC and plays its first home game March 2 against the Philadelphia Union.