How The Chicago Red Stars Became The Epitome Of NWSL Dysfunction
2:39 PM EDT on October 18, 2022
When Brooke Elby found out in 2018 that she had been traded from the NWSL’s Utah Royals to the Chicago Red Stars mid-season, she wasn’t sure what to expect. Chicago was going back on a previous trade in a way, in a triangle of deals moving Sofia Huerta and Taylor Comeau to Houston and Christen Press to Utah—all after the Red Stars had sent Press into exile in Sweden upon agreeing to a previous trade with the Dash that had caused the striker to leave the league entirely.
In the small world of women’s professional soccer, players were also generally aware of the struggles that their colleagues were having with Chicago head coach Rory Dames, including an official complaint that Press and others had brought to U.S. Soccer in 2014 and 2018, saying Dames had emotionally abused and manipulated players. Elby knew about Dames’s reputation for having a temper, but still she packed up her things and waited for word on her next steps.
What Elby got initially from her new club was silence; she didn’t hear from the Red Stars for 24 hours. She had to track down a phone number herself and reached out to the team to get a flight booked to the Midwest. She was lucky that her college teammate Summer Green played for the team at the time and could personally pick her up from the airport.
Green then drove Elby to the short-term housing Chicago had put together for her: a Holiday Inn in La Grange, Ill. She stayed in the hotel for days, while being told that Red Stars majority owner Arnim Whisler was exploring options for her housing. She interpreted the tone loud and clear: Despite including her for value in the trade, Chicago was utterly unprepared for her to actually show up.
Elby found a place to stay through the generosity of U.S. women’s national team midfielder Morgan Gautrat, who had recently returned to the NWSL after a stint with Olympique Lyon in France. Elby had been in La Grange for more than a week when Gautrat offered her a spare bedroom in the short term. The two hit it off, and Elby would stay with Gautrat and her husband for the rest of the season—in a building owned by Whisler.
“He owned the properties," Elby said. "He would come try to fix things, or he would be bringing furniture over or doing things like that."
This was far from the only thing that seemed unprofessional to Elby once she joined the Red Stars. And this issue, like others she experienced, all seemed to trace back to the way Whisler ran the club.
Whisler might not be a household name, but he's been a key figure in professional women's soccer in the U.S for well over a decade. He's owned the Chicago Red Stars since the Women's Professional Soccer league folded in 2012, then shepherded the team into the upstart NWSL where they gained a reputation for steady performances.
Fans knew Whisler as a personable presence, both in person and on social media. He was readily available to banter on Twitter and could be seen giving toasts in the parking lot of the team’s stadium at pregame tailgates, chatting with fans about player performances, and even hinting at future roster moves. In a still-growing league, the can-do attitude in Chicago seemed to provide a buffer for a lack of resources in other areas.
But the team’s success covered up a lot of problems within the Red Stars that increasingly couldn’t be explained away by the usual growing pains of a new league.
As far back as 2017—well before the Washington Post broke the story about Dames in November 2021—Elby and three former employees who spoke to Defector said that Whisler disregarded concerns brought to him about Dames’s behavior. On Oct. 3, the investigation by Sally Q. Yates found that Press’s complaint about Dames in 2014 had been shared with Whisler, who in response said that members of the U.S. Women’s National Team wanted “this league to shut down” and simply had an “axe to grind” with Dames. In September 2021—after The Athletic reported on former players who said then–North Carolina head coach Paul Riley had sexually coerced them, leading to Riley’s firing as well as losing his coaching license—a subset of new investors asked Whisler about concerns they had heard directly from players about Dames, according to a source close to minority ownership. Whisler, per the source, downplayed their concerns.
(Dames’s lawyer did not return calls or emails from Defector seeking comment. Dames did not comment on the original Post story but, in a follow up about multiple accusations of abuse by Dames in youth soccer, his lawyer sent the newspaper a statement denying the allegations and accusing the newspaper of "damaging and destroying" Dames's reputation.)
Whisler's blind spots went beyond Dames’s behavior. Whisler never pretended to be the richest owner in NWSL. But beyond the budget, his paternalistic idealism of a team of gritty underdogs punching above their weight permeated the entire club, according to those who witnessed it—which placed players and staff in harm’s way.
Defector spoke with a total of 13 people who were or are in contact with the team, including multiple former employees. Many of them described an environment in which Whisler continued to behave as if the NWSL were still a small mom-and-pop league on the brink of bankruptcy, with all the bad or even dangerous habits that come with that mindset. He joked about the team’s lack of a human resources department. He provided the cheapest meals possible for his players and only on certain days of the week. His team routinely lacked basic resources and facilities for players, according to Elby.
Those who worked for Whisler described him as aloof, and sometimes inept in his attempts to micromanage the team’s budget. According to former employees, he told them to stay inside team offices during gas leaks. The housing he provided for players included apartments he owned, making him not only their boss but their landlord. Minority investors raised concerns about those housing conditions after getting player feedback.
And Whisler was told repeatedly about Dames.
Defector sent the Chicago Red Stars a list of more than 20 questions as well as a request for comment on this story. In response, the team sent the following statement: "We continue to encourage players and staff to share their experiences to inform the ongoing joint NWSL/NWSLPA investigation and further shed light on past club and league failings to help inform how we rebuild the culture of our organization and create an environment where players and staff feel safe and supported."
The statement went on to say that the team had taken steps to improve player housing, including plans to move players into independent housing during the offseason before closing with "we remain committed to making investments in best-in-class resources for the team and to giving our players the full support they need to be successful on and off the field."
Defector also reached out directly to Whisler, who did not respond to any emails, calls, or text messages requesting comment. However, Whisler did speak with the Yates investigators in regards to Dames. He told them that there was “nothing to this day” that he saw or was told about Dames that could have been interpreted as abuse or misconduct. He also said that he was “never provided a full readout of the breadth of the allegations against Dames nor provided any findings related to the investigation prior to The Washington Post article.”
The club’s reputation exploded in late November 2021, soon after losing their second NWSL Championship in as many seasons. The next day, Dames abruptly resigned at 11:54 p.m. CT, less than 24 hours before the Post published a report full of testimonials from former Red Stars players who described abusive coaching practices by the club’s manager of 10 years. A number of players had asked to leave over the years due to their treatment, and that wish had been granted in decisions made by both Dames and Whisler.
Then came the Yates report. In response, the team’s board of directors voted to remove Whisler as chairman of the board. On Oct. 10, the current players of the Red Stars issued a statement of no confidence in Whisler. “We are united with the Board of Directors in their decision to remove Whisler from the organization entirely and look forward to finding a new majority owner who can help us realize the full potential that we as players always knew existed for this club,” the statement read.
Actions have already been taken to greatly limit Whisler's influence, but the process of removing him as owner could prove trickier. As detailed as the Yates report was, former employees who spoke to Defector said that there were points that the report could have gone into even more detail about the Red Stars, a club they described as shaped by normalized unprofessionalism and toxicity.
A source close to the team in 2019 didn’t get the impression that Whisler’s intentions were necessarily bad, but that he approached the team with a paternal instinct due to the years and money he’d spent making sure the team existed at all.
“He almost made it seem like you should be grateful for what you have now,” the source said, “even if you think it's not enough.”
As outlined in the Yates report, it’s impossible to separate the history of the Red Stars from Dames’s role as coach and general manager. Dames used his connections as a youth coach in Chicagoland to scout talent, and the club also benefited from drafting locals who had material off-field support as they tried to navigate making the team. Dames began his career with the Red Stars as a volunteer, relying on his reputation as the president of Eclipse Youth Soccer, then became a contractor who didn’t take much of a salary. Per the Yates report, no due diligence was done before hiring him. Even as the NWSL grew, Dames continued his role with Eclipse Youth Soccer during his career with the Red Stars.
With Dames at the helm, Chicago had a number of outwardly successful seasons on the field, with top-four finishes in six-straight seasons, one Cup final, and two championship final appearances. With stars like Press, Sam Kerr, Yuki Nagasato, and Julie Ertz on the team’s roster through the years, the squad’s success contrasted with the chaos players had to deal with behind the scenes, and it came with a price.
Throughout Dames’s tenure, submissions to the NWSL injury report came with a sense of gamesmanship, not always giving a clear picture of which players were struggling with lingering issues as they carried heavy minutes, and sometimes even misrepresenting dips in form. “Rory got very lucky that we had some amazing women who played through pain or didn't get hurt very often," Elby said. He also controlled almost all of the flow of communication to players, which made them dependent on him, per the Post.
Favored players had to carry heavy minutes due to Dames’s lack of rotation and trust in his bench, according to Elby. Meanwhile at training, substitutes sometimes wouldn’t even engage with Dames, separated completely from the starting XI. Dames coached with a clear hierarchy, with key starters holding court—sometimes even leading tactical changes, Elby said. While players never let it become a problem between them, the difference in treatment between starters and reserves was all-encompassing, extending into weight room scheduling, recovery priority, or even just actual coaching tips by the technical staff. Players who weren’t tagged to make the 18-player roster on away days wouldn’t travel with the team, and reserves would go into training dreading being treated as an afterthought.
According to both Elby and former employees with knowledge of operations prior to 2021, there were years when Dames would wait until training the day before away trips to name his traveling party and, because Whisler would not pay to travel players not on the bench, players would have to pack for games without knowing if they would actually be making the trip. The cheapness extended to flights themselves: Multiple former employees remember Whisler using players' and coaches’ free checked bags based on their own Premier Status to check team gear like ball and jersey bags for free.
Dames would also be very particular about how he wanted the locker room set up on gameday, and would blame staff if they didn’t line the players up in the correct order, with starters on one side and substitutes on the other, according to two sources. On at least one occasion, he moved gear around himself to make sure starters were sitting according to his approval, according to a former employee who helped with gameday setup.
Without a clear hierarchy to answer to—as Dames was also general manager—staff would find themselves caught between coach and owner at times, almost always at the cost of their mental health. At least one former employee was left in tears by Dames due to mistakes made by miscommunication, after which Whisler would ask his head coach to apologize but would take no further action. A different employee described the day-to-day swings as “you never knew what you were going to get with Rory.”
“He’d defend Rory to anybody,” Elby said. “He knew everything Rory did. And if he didn't know firsthand by seeing it, he knew because every player was in that office at some point telling him.”
Whisler told the Chicago Sun-Times and Yates that he had no recommendation from U.S. Soccer in 2018 to remove Dames from his role as both general manager and head coach, and that all the concerns brought to him over the years never warranted swift action. But simply due to the closeness of the organization and the way Whisler wove himself into players’ lives, at times acting as their boss and landlord, Elby said she thought it had to be impossible for Whisler to not know what was going on. Many people echoed this sentiment in the Yates report, with multiple former players saying there was no way that Whisler didn’t know, as well as recounting his “axe to grind” comments from 2014. The report also stated that back in 2013, “Whisler himself reported to [then–NWSL executive director ] Cheryl Bailey that a player had raised ‘concerns about Rory.’” (Whisler does not explicitly deny this in the Yates report, which said that Whisler also told Bailey that the same player was using her concerns to get more money and the team was “aggressively exploring trades within the league for her.”)
In the Yates report, former Red Stars defender Sam Johnson said that her trade to the Utah Royals came suspiciously soon after a meeting she had with Whisler complaining about Dames’s treatment of the team. A former employee said they suspected that Johnson wasn’t the only player to have that experience; Whisler and Dames always had plausible soccer reasons for moves, or that they were honoring requests, but the timing between complaints and trades was noticeable to the staffer.
A different former employee remembered one meeting with Whisler in 2018. They heard about about Dames’s reputation as a youth coach through colleagues in the Red Stars' office, who had met former Eclipse players, as well as bad experiences other front office staff had with him at training.
“When we’d meet someone who’d played for Rory as a kid, our response would be, 'I’m sorry,'” they said.
Alarmed by a number of instances of front-office dysfunction, the staff member asked for a meeting in August 2018. Whisler dismissed one particular story—that Dames had given a youth player an eating disorder—to the staff member as old, and named Red Stars that Dames had good experiences with in the past as a counter-argument to what was occurring at the professional level, the former employee recalled.
Another former employee described Whisler as both aloof and a little strange at times, and yet another felt he frequently had his “head in the clouds.” One former staffer said he operated with a “white-knuckle death grip on the past,” and an overbearing focus on the Red Stars as a blue-collar group that punched above their weight. A fourth former employee recalled that Whisler would joke about Dames working for free, despite the head coach making $108,000 a year by the end of his tenure at the club, according to the Yates report.
This attitude manifested in many ways. Even after Elby played with the Red Stars, Whisler was still talking about hiring a human resources administrator. Before then, anyone with concerns was supposed to report them to an assistant coach. According to a former employee, Whisler would joke with staff about the HR department that he knew did not exist, while crossing the line into asking employees—a number of whom were young women—about their sexualities and dating lives while ”trapped in his office, which is a windowless room.” (Whisler denied this in his interview for the Yates report, which said that Whisler told them “the only context in which he would ask about an employees’ relationship status would be if he heard concerns that the employee was involved in an inter-office relationship involving a subordinate or superior.”)
Two other former employees also recalled a culture in which assistant coaches would join players and staff at local bars after games in 2018 and 2019, with a culture of drinking together, which would lead to inappropriate comments. A former employee also remembered Dames making a flippant comment in 2018 about not speaking to her alone, lest he be investigated again.
Many staffers, like players themselves, began working for the team right out of college, and the Red Stars were their first experience in professional sports. Unprofessional behavior then became normalized, as devotion to players kept them at the club as long as they could stand to stay. Staff were offered uncompetitive salaries by Whisler for years, turned down for raises, and not provided healthcare until 2020, several former employees said. On one occasion Dames even weaponized an employee taking a better job, telling players on her behalf immediately after a bad postseason loss, according to a former employee.
For the players, the Red Stars’ folksy reputation for doing a lot with a little actually translated to what Elby saw as consistent sub-par treatment for players as well. After having post-training meals taken care of regularly in Utah, her new club told her that they only had money to pay for food on certain days of the week. Former employees say that Whisler wouldn’t pay for catering provided by Chicago’s stadium due to cost, opting for chains like Chipotle and Potbelly instead. Players would bring their own supplementary items, combined with what the team provided: "a blender that worked half the time, and protein powder for days,” Elby said.
Elby remembered disruption in the day-to-day as they played second fiddle to the Chicago Fire, who were the clear priority at the Bridgeview training facility at the time. Red Stars players didn’t have access to the facilities’ weight room, and they had to defer in scheduling, causing training times to be moved at the drop of a hat, Elby said. On travel days, the team would be put on multiple flights at odd hours to save money on flight tickets, placing extra strain on their bodies.
The public is used to stories of athletes in women’s sports sacrificing for the greater good, dealing with unfair treatment as young leagues progress. But Elby felt what she experienced in her time there was specific to the Red Stars, and led from the top by Whisler.
“For what you expect as a professional athlete, it was a joke,” Elby said. “To already come in knowing your team is the poorest team out there isn't a great feeling. Because we already know everything we're going to get is going to be like a downgraded version of what everybody else has.”
Elby retired from professional soccer after the 2019 season, in large part because of her experiences with the Red Stars. In classic NWSL fashion, word had gotten around.
“It’s not a feeder team, it’s a ‘you stay there for the rest of your career’ team,” she said. “The stigma that comes with Chicago: You are on that team from the day you get drafted to the day you retire. The only reason this team and these players are so successful is because they have such a good mentality, and a family within the team.”
In addition to owning player housing, Whisler would also sometimes act as property manager, sometimes even fixing problems himself in an attempt to save money. One particularly notorious building in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village had a converted space—without a door—designated as an extra bedroom according to Elby, who said she and Gautrat also had a unit with kitchen ventilation issues. She described a blurring of the work-life balance, as Whisler became omnipresent in players’ lives.
A former employee remembers the process of placing a player who joined the team mid-season in one of Whisler’s apartments, and the conversations that went on between owner and staff about how to prepare for her arrival. The team made sure that basic amenities were met, but when staff suggested little touches like supplying fresh soap or freshly laundering sheets once they arrived, Whisler said that players are adults and can do those things themselves. Other employees remembered being handed “hundreds of unmarked keys” to sift through to personally let in locked-out players, and that they’d be the first people called to fix things in player apartments.
In 2020, the NWSL began a year-round housing mandate, forcing teams to allot more of their budget toward making sure their athletes had a place to live in their home markets. Team housing in the NWSL, as confirmed by the collective bargaining agreement ratified in 2022, is supposed to work one of two ways: Either a player can opt in to team-provided housing that is fully paid for by their club, or they are given a cash stipend to spend on rent elsewhere. The housing and automobile spending cap, separate from the league’s salary cap, has been meant to help teams supplement living expenses in markets where players are not making a supportable wage.
But in Chicago, it’s still unclear what the exact financial relationship is between the team and Whisler as a landlord, or how Whisler has offset costs within Chicago’s housing budget in the past. A front-office employee who was provided housing by the club in 2017 described a process where Whisler set a unit’s rent based on the employee’s circumstances (if they were relocating, for example). Prior to 2020, Whisler would also charge certain players some rent to live in his apartments, according to two former employees. The team also used host families for players through at least the 2019 season.
When Defector reached out to the Red Stars for comment, the team gave the following statement in response: "We believe it’s imperative to change the current state of our player housing. Earlier this year, the board took measures to improve conditions of the player apartments and the property management, as well as initiated plans to move players into independent housing during the offseason. We also recently offered all players immediate housing options and accelerated the plan for relocation in the offseason."
While Whisler’s door was always open, Elby said players didn’t always feel they could go to him, even for issues unrelated to Dames; if he conceded on one point that would cost money, he’d have to make concessions elsewhere.
The club’s physical office space is also in a building owned by Whisler. Multiple former employees remember gas leaks while working, during which they were told not to leave the premises while a technician was called. Whisler had installed cameras at all office entrances and exits, making employees feel they could not leave without him knowing.
The 2020 Challenge Cup highlighted other stressors for players. The Red Stars roster had a visibly splintered response to the playing of the national anthem following the murder of George Floyd, and defender Casey Krueger was left in tears on the league broadcast before their opening match. After that game, Dames refused to let players be made available to the media.
Behind the scenes, the Yates report found that Dames had resorted to racist name-calling. No dates are given in the document, but one of the allegations in the Yates report was that Dames would call players from Ohio and Kentucky “trailer trash,” called black players “thugs,” and referred to one black player as a “bodyguard.” (Dames declined to be interviewed for the Yates report, instead providing them with a statement that the 2018 investigation by the US Soccer had “cleared him of any misconduct” and denying any abusive behavior.)
This wasn't the first time this issue with Dames had been brought up publicly. In tweets she later deleted, the league’s first-ever draft pick, Zakiya Bywaters, wrote in 2016 about Dames using the comment “trailer park trash.”
As the pandemic swept across the country, Whisler continued his cost-cutting ways. Rather than paying for their home stadium’s cleaning capabilities or paying more for more rooms to accommodate social distancing, Whisler had his staff find fields in Wisconsin and Indiana for the teams to drive to in order to train, according to a source close to team operations. He was reluctant to expand the team’s stadium operations at times, with one employee remembering an all-purpose room used for both storage and team lifting, with repeated requests for better workout equipment denied.
Despite every NWSL team suffering significant losses in the 2020 pandemic year, Chicago publicly took steps in early 2021 to try to help steer the team forward. For the first time in club history, Whisler welcomed in a group of outside investors, ushering in what was supposed to be a new era of club stability. In their introductory press conference, he admitted there was interest in the team as a whole, saying he fielded “lowball” offers from those looking to buy a controlling stake.
“We had people that were trying to steal the team,” Whisler said. “You’d say they're definitely trying to purchase the team for pennies on the dollar. Take control, do it their way.” He referenced a desire to update his own attitudes as the league grew, admitting he needed to evolve his own mindset to compete with other clubs.
Well-known names in the investment round included ESPN personality Sarah Spain, former Chicago Bear Israel Idonije, and Team USA hockey player Kendall Coyne Schofield, as well as other behind-the-scenes leaders in both business and entertainment. As excited as the new group was to get involved, they needed some time to get acclimated with the women’s soccer space, and Whisler had promised to be their guide. But, like Elby in 2018, what they found when they got closer to the team surprised them.
Some Red Stars used a meet-and-greet with new ownership in August 2021 to come forward with concerns both about their housing situations—which were described as having mold and water damage in an internal email reported by the Athletic—as well as Dames’s coaching—which was described by players as “crossing the line,” according to a source present. Alarmed by what they were hearing, a group of those investors reached out to Whisler, who responded by citing SafeSport’s determination in 2019 that they did not have enough information to do a full investigation into Dames, which was referenced in the Yates report. Whisler insisted that the players' housing was safe.
As stories began to surface about managers at other NWSL clubs, players urged an internal investigation be done on the team’s culture, according to the Yates report. The investigation did occur, described as done by a “third-party sports psychologist and others,” by the team. But the club delayed action until after the season was over, and the culture review did not include staff, according to a former employee.
As for the decision to let Dames keep coaching, Whisler told the Chicago Tribune that it was about “allowing the players to finish the season that they wanted to finish.” According to the Yates report, the internal investigation showed that 70 percent of players had shown signs of emotionally abusive coaching, though a loophole in the league’s anti-harassment policy caused the retained sports psychologist not to give a formal recommendation for Dames’s firing, accepting a resignation instead. None of this appeared to change Whisler’s steadfast belief that the Red Stars were the good guys, according to a former employee.
According to a different former employee, investors like Spain kept checking in with staff throughout the year in a way that felt to them genuine and without agenda. Chief business officer Vicky Lynch also told prospective season ticket holders in February that she started attending away trips with the team in the middle of the season and dropping in on training unannounced to try to keep the environment safe. Simultaneously, the team requested that all questions asked of Dames in media availability remain soccer-focused only.
The Red Stars went on an unlikely postseason run in 2021, winning their quarterfinal and semifinal as the No. 4 seed to earn a spot in the championship. That game had all the makings of a traditional Red Stars performance, as the team stuck together in the face of COVID-19 quarantine uncertainty from star striker Mallory Pugh (on a timeline oddly obscured by Dames), a hamstring injury to captain Vanessa DiBernardo (not mentioned until she sat down in tears in the 13th minute), and a torn ACL for forward Kealia Watt (never announced). It was, for lack of a better term, a gritty performance in an overtime loss by a team that had clearly bonded together through adversity.
Coming home the next day without the trophy the team had long desired, the spin toward Dames’s planned resignation began in full. According to an employee present, Whisler called an all-hands meeting to let staff know that a negative story would be coming out in the next few days, underselling the severity of it to maintain office morale. “‘Don’t believe everything you read,’ that type of thing,” they recalled. A different former employee remembers being contacted to write a “sensitive” press release that same night, despite no longer working for the team. Whisler also then informed the investor group of Dames’s resignation, including those who’d flagged concerns about Dames months prior.
On Nov. 22, the team said in a release, “Under Rory’s leadership we have been a remarkably consistent and excellent club on the field. We continually evaluate our team and front office environment, and given the dynamic change underway in the league, it is time to begin the next chapter of the Red Stars with a search for new leadership of the team.” That statement went unsigned, as did the team’s followup statement on Nov. 23 that read in part, “There is no place for any type of abuse in women’s sports. The fact that it happened here, despite the belief that we had mechanisms in place to prevent it, means our club will require significant reflection and evaluation to ensure this does not happen again.”
This past February, the Post published a second piece on Dames’s conduct at Eclipse Youth Soccer, detailing sexual misconduct and an abusive coaching style that dated back to the very beginnings of many players’ careers. The majestic plural of Red Stars ownership lasted more than 80 days. During that time, Whisler reverted to the style he’d always brought to the team—solving things personally.
Whisler reached out to select local media for an off-the-record conversation within a week of the first Post story, assuring them, “You haven’t misunderstood who I and my family are, and what the Red Stars are all about in this first 15 years.” That offer was ultimately turned down. He also sent texts to Sam Johnson and Jen Hoy, two players who spoke on record, to issue the same personal apology, which Johnson described on her social media as “calculated.”
Frustrations continued to boil over. Red Stars supporters group Chicago Local 134 released a statement on Twitter demanding Whisler sell his shares of the club. Whisler responded that he “would never condone, hide, or participate in abuse [...] for 14 years we have worked with you and many to build this club. Your approach is hurting the club and staff.” He then held two private meetings with supporters, both under the condition of full confidentiality, responding to pre-screened questions. “Minority owners have been told we’re not allowed to speak on [Dames’s dismissal]. (We have and continue to demand access to agreements we’re allegedly beholden to but haven’t been shown)," Spain said in a response to a question on Twitter.
In terms of soccer operations, the following Red Stars offseason indicated that, again, many players wanted out. The team sent defender Sarah Gorden to expansion side Angel City FC upon request, along with the rights to Julie Ertz—injured in the 2021 regular season opener, who never returned to market post-injury.
Chicago also sent two players to the San Diego Wave, as well as midfielder Nikki Stanton to OL Reign. Their 2021 first-round draft pick, Stanford forward Madison Haley, never reported to the club, and they sent their second pick, Kelsey Turnbow, to San Diego. None of those deals included players coming to Chicago, and at the end of the offseason the only player acquired by the team outside of the draft was the returning Nagasato, who has personal ties to the city.
Whisler told reporters in February that all of those moves came from a desire for more playing time or a player wanting to move to a home market—Gorden was born and raised in Chicago and played every minute for the team in 2021—and also that the organization was proud of getting players into new situations without looking for added value back. One former employee still close with certain players painted a different picture, and said even now some Red Stars are considering their futures with the club due in part to the continued lack of competitive salaries.
A source present in the team office in 2021 said that staff were inundated with angry conversations with fans, while Whisler projected what they perceived as a savior complex.
“He’d talk about finding the joy and the pride in representing the Red Stars,” they said, as office morale hit an all-time low.
With no clear resolution in sight, the tone from the club changed. Whisler went public with both an open letter to fans and limited availability to some media in early February. He then receded from public view for a time, though he was present on the field for Red Stars mainstay Alyssa Mautz’s retirement ceremony in July 2022, and he contributed a quote in a team release as recently as September.
Vicky Lynch, hired as CBO in April 2021, was never intended to run the entire franchise. She told ticket holders that it took months for her to expand into a player-facing role. That role suddenly also became public-facing, and she became a sounding board for media scrutiny, customer relations, and as a player liaison. The team announced a board of directors in February 2022, expanding decision-making duties and sets of available eyes to a wider group of ownership, including things like player housing. Lynch said that, at long last, the club had hired an HR director.
A source who has worked with Lynch in the Red Stars office described her as a businesswoman whose resúmé deserves immense respect, but she lacked empathy at times and people-managing skills, which further affected staff.
“There were multiple instances last year where I think she came in very hot on people, and then realized that people are getting absolutely fed up,” they said, describing interactions that they felt crossed the line into becoming dehumanizing. “Whether that was other supervisors talking to her, or there being a mass exodus of people in the middle of the season.” Lynch apologized to staff in an all-hands meeting early in 2022, according to the same source.
Another former employee described Lynch's style as “very fear-based,” and “not the right hire," but also remembers receiving a personal apology after leaving the club. Two former staffers with knowledge of the situation said that there was a period later in the 2022 season wherein Lynch was actually briefly placed on administrative leave while being internally investigated.
When reached by Defector for comment, Lynch released the following statement: “As the Chief Business Officer of the Red Stars, in April 2021, I came into the role with high expectations for myself and the organization. The pre-existing, systemic challenges that I encountered were unexpected and significant. These challenges put tremendous stress on the staff and we all worked hard to do the best we could given the circumstances. In addition, while shifting my focus to support our players was the absolute right thing to do in order to ensure their safety, it inadvertently put more demands on the staff. I am hopeful that if the club can retain strong ownership and that the necessary resources are provided, the Red Stars can become the organization that the resilient players and staff deserve.”
Defector also asked the Chicago Red Stars for comment, specifically asking for comment on if Lynch had ever been placed on administrative leave. The team did not respond to that question.
Publicly, Lynch told media, “On my watch, there will be no reason for anybody to doubt this club,” and that she welcomed feedback both from the investor group and fans. In hiring the team’s new coach, Lynch said that a committee of nine player volunteers, three assistant coaches, three owners, Lynch herself, and associate general manager Michelle Lomnicki made the final decision. New coach Chris Petrucelli described the hiring process as the most intense he’d ever been privy to, even more so than that of U.S. Soccer.
The hiring search dragged well into the 2022 preseason, with a source close to one other candidate saying they walked away from the experience feeling jilted by a lack of communication. While stepping back from “day-to-day activities,” Whisler remained at the very top of the org chart until the Yates report was published, providing counsel and resources to Lynch when necessary.
Team governance now runs through that board of directors, made up of other owners including new chair Kim Vender Moffat, Dean Egerter, Abel Lezcano, Colleen Mares, Brian Walsh, and Kevin Willer. Whisler was removed from his role as chair of the board the day after the Yates report was published, and his lack of operational involvement was “codified,” according to a team release. Egerter has been an owner of the club since 2007. However, on Tuesday The Athletic reported that the Board of Directors and minority ownership who raised initial concerns did not overlap. The same day the board removed Whisler as chair, Spain tweeted, “Maybe one (any?) of my texts/emails will be answered and I'll eventually know more than you do.”
On Oct. 10, Lynch announced she had abruptly resigned from her position at the Red Stars. “I was sickened and felt that I had been misled about what had occurred at the club prior to my arrival,” she said in a statement. One former employee acknowledged difficulty with Lynch, but said they felt the managerial toxicity at the club went far beyond its CBO. A different former employee said they believe she was doing the best she could with the limited resources she had, but admitted that she was “very hard” on her staff. They felt however that “being a bad manager doesn’t make you culpable for the larger issues in the club.”
In a historic counterbalance to club control, the NWSL Players Association ratified the league’s first CBA on Jan. 31. Part of the narrative of 2022 has been the union holding teams accountable for agreed-upon standards; the Red Stars will have to keep up. On Monday, the NWSLPA announced they’d also won in arbitration for players under a team-option contract to become free agents next season in the NWSL’s first ever free-agency period. For Chicago, that means players Vanessa DiBernardo, Danny Colaprico, Morgan Gautrat, Rachel Hill, and Arin Wright will be able to join other teams if they like.
The most recent valuation of an NWSL club came out of a different ownership dispute with the Washington Spirit, in which an over-market offer of $35 million was made and accepted. Some close to the Red Stars wonder if Whisler is waiting for that sort of payday before stepping away. Even if there’s a forced sale of the team in the offing, it hasn’t presented itself just yet, with U.S. Soccer abdicating actionable recommendations in the wake of the Yates report and a joint investigation between the NWSL and the NWSLPA later to come this year.
On the field, the sturdy Red Stars roster of years past has become a talented crew of long-term mainstays filled out with draft picks and trialists, advised by a coach and general manager with unclear amounts of power to invest in the team’s future. Despite losing multiple defenders to long-term injury in addition to other absences due to maternity leave, the 2022 transfer market only produced young Australian striker Chelsie Dawber, who was brought in in April.
In 2021, the team had a little under a thousand season-ticket holders, a number not out of line with smaller NWSL clubs, but nowhere near the 15,000 season-ticket holder mark Los Angeles club Angel City FC announced in March. In 2022, outside of a doubleheader with the Fire at Soldier Field that the Red Stars had very little hand in marketing, attendance has oscillated in Bridgeview, where they averaged about 4,054 people in attendance for 2022.
The team’s performance this year was a pleasant surprise, with a number of players formerly sidelined by Dames proving capable of leading the team and playing heavy minutes, making the playoffs for the seventh straight season. This year’s story on the field reflects the past in some ways, as the players navigated absence, injury, and more to make the city proud anyway. Now they’re trying to take some of their power back. As players said in their collective statement, they are “committed to building a future in which players and staff alike can experience joy and success at our club.”
“You're getting a glimpse into what the last few years have been like here in Chicago, and I'm proud of the veteran group for continuing to fight,” goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher told reporters after Sunday night’s playoff loss to the San Diego Wave. “You know, when I say fight, I mean on and off the field. And it takes a lot out of you. So to be able to still come in, show up every day and do your job and put in the work and fight for your teammates and fight for the person standing next to you. I think that's what you saw this season. I think that's what defined this group, is coming together on the field as players and fighting for each other.”
Elby, who held the presidency of the NWSL Players Association in her last year as a player and is now graduated with a master's degree in business administration at Columbia University, summed up the position in which the team finds itself. On the one hand, the Red Stars are a staple of the NWSL, and how could any league not have a team in a city as large and sports-obsessed as Chicago? On the other, change can’t come with Whisler signing the checks.
“He's clearly not doing a sufficient job if there's this many problems in this short span of time,” Elby said. “And I'm very thankful to him that he was part of the beginning of this league, but that doesn't give you a pass for the rest of your life.”
Correction (12:12 a.m. ET): This post has been updated to reflect that one of the former Chicago Red Stars employees said they heard about Dames’s reputation as a youth coach through colleagues in the Red Stars' office, who had met former Eclipse players.