Sinead Farrelly playing for Gotham FC

When NWSL veteran Sinead Farrelly retires this year––for the second time––she will leave behind a league changed for the better. 

Three years ago, when Farrelly went public with harrowing accounts of the abuse she experienced within the NWSL, she shone a much-needed light on the league’s lack of player protections and rampant abuses of power.

Then, last year, she made an extraordinary return to the game after seven years away, earning a place at the World Cup with the Irish National Team and winning a hard fought championship with Gotham FC.

As Farrelly’s career ends due to post-concussive syndrome, her impact on and off the pitch will not soon be forgotten.

A turning point for the NWSL

Without the courage of Sinead Farrelly, systemic abuse in the NWSL might never have been exposed.

Farrelly suffered years of sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of her coach, Paul Riley, while playing for the Philadelphia Independence, New York Fury, and Portland Thorns. Riley repeatedly used his position of power to harass players, coerce them into sexual relationships, and retaliate against those who defied him.

In 2021, years after Farrelly had stopped playing, she and former teammate Mana Shim went public with their stories of mistreatment by Riley. At the time, Riley was still in the league coaching the North Carolina Courage.

The resulting article, written by Meg Linehan for The Athletic, described Riley’s agonising abuse of Farrelly and Shim in detail. It was a crucial turning point—for the first time, the league was forced to reckon with its systemic issues and the players who suffered as a result.

Players and fans rallied in solidarity with Farrelly and Shim. On 6 October 2021, players across the country paused their games at the sixth minute to represent the six years it took for the two womens’ voices to be heard.

A flood of new allegations came to light, and Riley, along with half the coaches in the league, was finally fired.

Embed from Getty Images

As a result of Farrelly and Shims’ stories, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) commissioned attorney Sally Yates to conduct an investigation into abuse in the NWSL. The Yates Report, released in 2022, found “a league in which abuse and misconduct—verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct—had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims.”

The 173 page report details a long pattern of abuse by Riley, as well as former Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly and former Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames. Although the three men are the focus of the report, the investigation also discovered “numerous other incidents.” 

The problem was systemic, rooted in a fundamental failure to protect players. According to the report, the league lacked “the most basic of workplace protections.” For instance, there were no anti-harassment or anti-retaliation policies until 2021, when Farrelly, Shim, and former teammate Alex Morgan petitioned for them.

In the rare instances coaches were reported, such as Riley was by Shim in 2015, they were often released from clubs without a public statement and hired at other clubs without issue. Over and over again, the league protected abusers, while players were left to fend for themselves.

Farrelly, Shim, and Erin Simon, whose abuse by Holly was described in the report, released a joint statement shortly after the report came out. It read: “It is time for action, accountability, and change… this will be the first of many necessary steps to finally hearing our voices and keeping our players safe.”

Farrelly’s triumphant return to the game

Embed from Getty Images

Then, in 2022, seven years after leaving the world of professional sports behind, Farrelly decided to return. Although the 33-year-old had not touched a ball for years, she missed playing and was determined to give it her best shot.

Farrelly secured a tryout spot with Gotham FC for the 2023 season, and after tremendous amounts of hard work, the team offered a contract. In a blog post for the NWSL, she later wrote: “Securing a spot on the team required every ounce of my willpower.”

Returning to life as a professional athlete was difficult to say the least, but Farrelly persevered, enjoying her new team and second chance with the sport.

When Ireland offered her the opportunity to join their national team and play in the World Cup, Farrelly took it. After years off the pitch, she was now thriving on the world’s biggest stage.

Despite her talent, Farrelly had never played internationally before. Her chances at playing in the 2011 World Cup for the US were ruined by Riley’s interference

Embed from Getty Images

Later, Shim signed a contract with Gotham too, also coming out of retirement in an unexpected return. Shim had used her time off to become a lawyer, and now serves as the Chair of US Soccer’s Participant Safety Taskforce, where she oversees the development of player protections.

Reunited, the two were playing together for the first time in years. Farrelly wrote: “At one point, we looked at each other in our hotels and said, ‘I can’t believe we’re back here.’”

Because Gotham had finished last the year before, nobody expected them to succeed. 

But against all odds, they did. Gotham squeaked into the last playoffs spot on goal difference, and beat the North Carolina Courage, then the Portland Thorns. Finally, in San Diego at the championship match, they beat the Seattle Reign to win the title.

The team had gone “worst to first,” and Farrelly and Shim were now champions of the league that had once hung them out to dry. It was a picture perfect moment. 

Embed from Getty Images

“The beginning of something new”

But for Farrelly, the conclusion of this new and exciting chapter would come sooner than she imagined.

Last Friday on 7 June, 2024, Farrelly announced her plans to retire at the end of the year. She was also placed on the season-ending injury list, meaning she will not play the remainder of the season.

She has post-concussive syndrome, the result of years of cumulative head injuries. Her neurologist advised her to stop playing for her own safety.

But instead of feeling anger or resentment, Farrelly met this new development with grace and understanding.

In a retirement announcement post on Instagram, Farrelly expressed gratitude for her past year and acceptance of her circumstances. 

She wrote: “I promise this ending is a gift, a blessing and just the beginning of something new. I am so grateful that this insane chapter even existed at all, let alone gets to end in such a way where I am feeling so fulfilled and at peace. This truly has been so special. Second chances exist!!”

Featured image courtesy of Hameltion via Wikimedia Commons. This image has been cropped (as per the license guidelines permit). License details found here.