Canada's Karina LeBlanc returns to Portland as GM, rejoins Christine Sinclair

·6 min read

Before accepting the job of general manager with the Portland NWSL team, Karina LeBlanc had a long conversation with Thorns captain Christine Sinclair.

The two have history with a combined 416 caps for Canada. LeBlanc stopped at 110, retiring in 2015. Sinclair is still going.

"I wanted to know where we really were," LeBlanc told reporters Monday, after leaving her post as CONCACAF's head of women's football to take over Portland "And we had a beautiful conversation … She was just like 'We need you.'

"I know you all don't get to know Christine Sinclair the way that I know her. But when somebody like that says that, it makes it very personal and very right."

In returning to Portland, where LeBlanc and Sinclair combined to win the title in the league's inaugural 2013 season, LeBlanc inherits a 13-6-5 team that has earned a bye to the playoff semifinals after winning the NWSL Shield with the best regular-season record.

But the former goalkeeper is also filling a position that became open when Gavin Wilkinson 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. The NWSL has retained an outside firm to investigate allegations and report to its new three-woman executive committee.

"What we'll learn from the investigation will give us a lot of clarity," said LeBlanc, who met with the Thorns players on the weekend. "But moving forward I think one of the most important things is that we find and we create an environment so that everybody feels seen and heard."

Wilkinson remains GM of the MLS Portland Timbers, who like the Thorns are owned by CEO Merritt Paulson.

LeBlanc said she cried when she read the original story detailing the players' allegations against Riley, who has denied any inappropriate behaviour.

She realized "this is a moment in time in women's soccer to be a part of that change." The Portland job, which she said had not been on her radar initially, allows her to do that.

"I'm a little girl who had a big dream of playing a game … And now I get to give back to the game in a different way and be true and authentic and real."

"I need to do my part to make sure I'm a voice that matters. And everything that I've been through to this point in my life has helped prepare me for this," she added. "Do I know everything? No. But I use my experience and my voice to help move us forward together — as a club and as a league."

Sinclair welcomed LeBlanc's return.

“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 released by the club. “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 has had to deal with her own issues recently, surviving a serious health scare after the birth of daughter Paris in March 2020.

A week later, LeBlanc and husband Jason Mathot were racing back to hospital with baby Paris clutching a freaked-out LeBlanc's finger. LeBlanc was suffering from shortness of breath, the result of fluid buildup in the lungs caused by heart failure and dangerously high blood pressure.

"I thought that was it … I said 'God if you give me one more chance, I promise to make it matter,'" LeBlanc recalled. "So this is me promising to make it matter.

"I think this league, (it) is a time where we need leadership to come together and connect. I think the players want to feel seen and heard. And I think it's just a time for us to come together and provide hope, healing and that opportunity to rise."

At the time, doctors believe her body didn't fully process that she had given birth. LeBlanc's health improved and she was finally reunited with her daughter after 17 days apart.

Now 41, LeBlanc was 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 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 played in five World Cups and two Olympics, winning a bronze medal at the 2012 Games in London.

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 where she arrived via trade from Portland in 2014.

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.

The Thorns will play either Chicago or NJ/NY Gotham FC in the Nov. 14 semifinal.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2021.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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