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Denise O'Sullivan and Courage ready to move on after coach's sex abuse allegations

The National Women’s Soccer League was rocked by an alleged coaching sex-abuse scandal.

Denise O'Sullivan pictured at the recent Ireland media day.
Denise O'Sullivan pictured at the recent Ireland media day.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IRELAND INTERNATIONAL Denise O’Sullivan says she never considered leaving North Carolina Courage in the wake of a high-profile sex abuse scandal involving their former coach Paul Riley.

The midfielder has established herself as a key player for the National Women’s Soccer League team since Riley signed her after being released from Houston Dash in 2017.

The 28-year-old helped her side win NWSL Championship in both 2018 and 2019, as well as the NWSL Shield in 2017, 2018 and 2019. She has earned individual accolades too, coming 74th in The Guardian’s list of the world’s 100 best female footballers, while she was also was voted most valuable player (MVP) by her teammates in both 2018 and 2019.

Yet US football was rocked last year when coach Riley was accused by former players of sexual coercion spanning multiple teams and leagues since 2010 in a story by Meg Linehan of The Athletic.

The article resulted in Riley’s departure from the club and prompted a league-wide protest.

The scandal occurred towards the end of the 2021 campaign and O’Sullivan and her teammates are now back training for the season ahead, though those preparations have been interrupted as the Cork native has linked up with the Ireland squad, who are aiming to upset Sweden in an important World Cup qualifier next week.

“Obviously it was a very tough year mentally,” she says, reflecting on it now. “By the end of the season, the players, we just didn’t want to be there at the time. I think it was just so mentally tiring what happened. Obviously having a coach for four to five years and him being a big influence in your life, it was really tough.”

Sean Nahas, who had been working as Riley’s assistant since 2017, was subsequently appointed as the new head coach and the team are eager to move forward with the controversy behind them

“Now, a fresh start,” says O’Sullivan. “We have a new head coach in, and he is fantastic. I really respect him and a very intelligent football brain as well. And the team has changed a lot. So I think we have really recharged as a team and there’s a new energy in the team that’s really exciting. So, a tough year but we’ve moved past it and we’re ready to go again.”

O’Sullivan, who previously praised the bravery of the players who came forward in an interview with the Irish Independent, says she did not consider leaving North Carolina Courage at any stage.

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“Definitely not. I always knew no matter what changes there were in the team, I really love the environment there. I’m playing with some of the best players in the world and against some of the best players in the world. It’s really one of the top leagues in the world, so it’s got me to where I am today going to the Courage. I think that really changed my career and I became better for it. And I didn’t consider leaving at all at the time.”

The nature of the US football calendar means she has not played a competitive fixture in a long time, nonetheless, O’Sullivan insists she is well prepared for next week’s clash in Sweden.

“We had three games this past week [in pre-season], so I think I’m pretty sharp right now. I’m confident in how I’m playing. I feel really fit so I think that’s the most important thing coming in here. I think the most important thing going forward is to be fresh for the Sweden game. I think Vera and the staff manage that really well in training. If you’re feeling tired, you can just say it and then manage around it. So the most important thing is to be fresh going into that game because it’s going to be an intense 90 minutes.” 

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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