Canadian Karina LeBlanc is leaving her post as CONCACAF's head of women’s football to become general manager of the NWSL Portland Thorns.
The move reunites the former Canadian goalkeeper with veteran forward Christine Sinclair, who captains both Portland and Canada. LeBlanc won 110 caps for Canada between 2000 and 2015 while Sinclair is at 306 and counting.
LeBlanc takes over for Gavin Wilkinson, who was placed on administrative leave from his Thorns duties in early October. Portland players had demanded Wilkinson step down pending an outside investigation into his handling of sexual harassment allegations involving former coach Paul Riley and his departure from the organization.
The NWSL has been rocked in recent weeks in the wake of two former players coming forward with allegations of harassment, including sexual coercion, against Riley, then coach of the North Carolina Courage.
Riley was immediately fired by the Courage, and both FIFA and U.S. Soccer have opened investigations into why he was able to continue coaching after the players brought their concerns to the league.
Wilkinson remains GM and president of soccer for the MLS Portland Timbers.
LeBlanc and Sinclair won the NWSL championship with Portland in the league's inaugural 2013 season. LeBlanc started and played in 21 of 22 regular-season matches that year, recording seven shutouts, a goals-against average of 1.10 and a record of 11-5-5.
LeBlanc was traded to the Chicago Red Stars in January 2014.
The 41-year-old LeBlanc is the second former Canadian 'keeper to rejoin their old club as GM on Monday. Pat Onstad was given the same job with the MLS Houston Dynamo earlier in the day.
The Thorns said LeBlanc will be responsible for the overall management of the technical soccer operations of the club, reporting directly to owner and CEO Merritt Paulson. She has been tasked with "helping to create, cultivate and manage the culture of Thorns FC."
“I could not be more excited to welcome Karina back to Portland,” Paulson said in a statement. “The global soccer network she has fostered during her career has perfectly positioned her to lead the Thorns, and it is hard to think of anyone with a more innate leadership ability and unique blend of skills than Karina.
“She will make an impact in the Portland community and help push the NWSL forward, as well as strengthen our influence and standard in the international game."
LeBlanc said there was "unfinished business" when she left Portland in 2014.
"The way the community, the club and the team made me feel, was something that I would never forget. I thought I might come back as a player, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be coming back as the general manager of what is for me, the greatest club in the world," she said. "My experience as a Thorn helped shape me into the woman I am today.”
LeBlanc played in five World Cups and two Olympics, winning a bronze medal at the 2012 Games in London.
“With Karina the sky is the limit. I’ve never met someone more passionate and set on growing the game,” Sinclair said in a statement. “To have her back in Portland for me is a dream come true because she is going to take this club to places I don’t think people think are possible. She’s going to help this club be the benchmark for women’s football around the world and I just can’t wait to get started.”
LeBlanc also played in the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) with the Boston Breakers (2001-03) and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) with several teams before finishing her NWSL career in 2015 with Chicago.
Born in Atlanta to parents from Dominica (the family was taking refuge from a storm in the Caribbean at the time), LeBlanc was eight when she moved from the Dominica capital of Roseau to Maple Ridge, B.C.
A graduate of the University of Nebraska, she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management. LeBlanc has served as a UNICEF ambassador and spoken at UNICEF events at the United Nations General Assembly.
“I have learned that in trying to live a life of purpose, the things that are meant for you will come to you,” said LeBlanc. “My dream is that together we take this club to new levels which inspires us all to be the best version of ourselves.”
The Thorns topped the regular-season standings at 13-6-5 and have a bye to the Nov. 14 playoff semifinal, where they will play either Chicago or NJ/NY Gotham FC.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2021.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press