SINEAD FARRELLY — Finding Her Way Back Home (updated; 11/12/23)

Jonathan Coleman
18 min readMar 25, 2023

by JONATHAN COLEMAN

Sinead Farrelly last played professional soccer in 2015 for the Portland Thorns. She was traded after the season to the Boston Breakers, but never played for them. A car accident after the season ended resulted in a concussion and other injuries and she felt unable, or unwilling, to do what it would take to make her way back. She officially announced her retirement in the fall of 2016. Nearly six years earlier, she had been the #2 selection, behind Alex Morgan, in the 2011 Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) Draft.

But there was, as there often is, more to the narrative, and hers was particularly complex.

In college, at the University of Virginia, she was an All-American midfielder from the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown, the ACC Offensive Player of the Year in 2010, and for anyone who ever saw her play and who views the game as more than sport but as art, she was a ballerina, but not just any ballerina; she was the principal dancer, the maestro who deftly orchestrated all that went on, who knew what her teammates’ strengths were and how to play to them and please them and help them shine. Watching her play, her feet never seeming to touch the ground, you had the feeling of being at Lincoln Center at night rather than at Klockner Stadium in Charlottesville, even though its setting in autumn has its own undeniable appeal.

She had grown up in U.S. Soccer’s youth system, beginning at U-15, and that meant trips to the training center in Chula Vista, California, which she saw as vacations, cross-country escapes from an Irish-Catholic home in which she had precious little privacy, something she still laughs and grimaces about years after the fact. Yes, she had her own room, but a knock on the door was immediately followed by someone who entered, without waiting to find out if she wanted them to or not.

As it can be for many athletes, her purview — the soccer pitch — became a special refuge for Sinead, where she could be who she was, or wanted to be, in her mind’s eye — a child at play. As it happens, she had a number of fields to play on because she was a member of more than one team, not uncommon in an America crazed by youth sports and the possibility of a scholarship. If her parents felt she could help a team win, they signed her up without really determining if this was something she wanted or not. There was an expectation of Sinead — its own brutal form of pressure — to perform and win and make others happy. “No” was not a word that came easily to her.

She loved her four years at Virginia overall, but they were not always easy on the personal front. When the Philadelphia Independence drafted her, she still had a semester of school to complete, but she seized the opportunity to play before family and friends. Her rookie season was going so well that when the USWNT was looking for a late-in-the-process replacement for an injured player leading up to the World Cup that summer of 2011, they decided to bring her to camp. The only problem was that Sinead didn’t know this, and so she essentially felt “kidnapped” by Erica Walsh, a U.S. assistant coach, after a game the Independence were playing in Atlanta. Sinead had planned on spending some time with a former teammate from Virginia who played for the Beat, but the national team had other plans for her and so, unhappily, she flew to Boston with Walsh.

Once there, things got no better from her point of view. The team at that point had become a close-knit unit and Sinead did not feel particularly welcome. She missed her Independence teammates and the successful season they — and she — were having. But the coaches liked what they saw enough to invite her to one more camp before a roster needed to be set. Sinead stunned everyone by graciously declining to return, explaining that her primary desire was to not have her season interrupted, that she felt an obligation to the Independence.

It is essentially understood and accepted as a universal truth — an article of faith — that every soccer player, if given the opportunity, wants to play for their country and get to a World Cup. If an archive existed of written “promises made to self” or “hopes for the future,” it would be overflowing with this essential sentiment. Sinead had been part of that pipeline for a long time, but she had found, for her own reasons (one of which wouldn’t become clear until years later), the Irish stubbornness to say the one word that had never come easy to her. Jaime Frias, who was a national team evaluator, said that “Sinead checked every single box” for being a successful USWNT midfielder, but he also observed that, for her, the most fun she appeared to have when playing was when she felt she was playing “in a beer league,” free of expectation. Her college coach, Steve Swanson, told me years ago that if she “could ever get her mind and body on the same page, she could be one of the best box-to-box midfielders who ever played for the national team.”

Players do cite “family reasons” for not being able to join a camp, and during Covid, it was assumed that some players who did not go overseas for a match or two did not go because they didn’t want to be vaccinated — a requirement at the time. But as best I can tell, Sinead Farrelly is the only player who had a strong chance to go to a World Cup and turned the opportunity down, knowing that the chance would probably never come again.

* * *

I had breakfast with Sinead in Portland in September of 2018 at the Hotel deLuxe not far from Providence Park, where the Thorns played, as well as the Portland Timbers. We had actually never met in person before, but had spoken on the phone, and yet she came bounding up the steps and into the lobby and greeted me as if I were a long-lost relative. I had come to town to get a better sense of why Portland was considered such a soccer hotbed, and felt she would be a good person to speak with.

Sinead loved Portland and anything and everything that could be done outdoors. Though she had moved to Boston, along with McCall Zerboni, in the deal with the Breakers, she moved back to Portland once she realized, or decided, that it was going to be too difficult to recover from her car accident. I have had hundreds of conversations with people over the years — what I used to call interviews, but stopped doing so, after careful thought, because I worried the term suggested a one-sidedness of pursuer and pursued, when in fact it is so often the case that the person being “interviewed” has as much reason, if not more, to talk and explain themselves than the one asking the questions. In any case, the conversation I had with Sinead that Friday morning is seared into my memory because of its intensity and the tears that flowed. It’s not that people haven’t cried before, often unexpectedly, when discussing this or that, but this seemed different in a way I couldn’t fully understand until three years later.

Sinead was to be married the following February, in 2019, and she said she was excited about that. She also indicated previous relationships had not been easy for her, “traumatic really,” particularly in college, but I chose not to pursue that. I asked if she was planning to go to the NWSL Championship game the next day, between the Thorns and the North Carolina Courage, and she said no. She had been invited, but had little interest. She actually had only gone back to Providence Park on a couple of occasions since she retired, and found it difficult when she did so. She had never wanted to leave the Thorns, but she also understood that being traded was part of the business. It is not uncommon for an athlete, once one retires, to not want to go to games of the sport one participated in, at least not right away. It is simply too painful, too hard to be reminded of what you did for so long at such a high level.

But on the few occasions Sinead did consent to go, with close friends, many of whom former Thorns players, she wouldn’t stay the entire game. Tears filled her eyes as she told me this. There was something else going on, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I do know that my being there, in that hotel restaurant, made her feel at home because she knew of my closeness to Steve Swanson, and that I was an unapologetic fan of her work, so to speak, and because I grew up in the same area she had, less than an hour away. I knew what Philly and the Main Line were about, knew about hoagies and cheesesteaks and the best places to get them, knew what going “down the Shore” was all about. And because she knew that I had both a deep sense and understanding of how wonderful and pure sports could be — and of how precarious they could be at the very same time — tribe recognized tribe.

When she asked where I was going after breakfast — she had told me to make sure I had coffee at one particular place in Portland and a meal at another — I said that I was going to Providence Park, to resume talking with Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Thorns and Timbers, and his colleague Mike Golub, among others.

Sinead grew quiet. She needed to get going, to the family for whom she was a nanny. She loved children and was good with them, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to have any of her own. I asked her, before she left, if she missed playing, and the question, in some ways, was more than she could bear.

She had lost something, or something had been taken from her, or a combination of both. That was poignantly clear.

At Providence Park a half hour later, I mentioned to Paulson and Golub and to Gavin Wilkinson, the general manager, that I had just had breakfast with Sinead. They acted, at first, as if they didn’t know who I was talking about.

“Oh, yeah,” Gavin finally said, “she used to play for us.” That was it, nothing further, no “Is she still living here?” or “How is she doing?” — no nothing.

Three years earlier, he had sung her praises at the time of the trade to Boston. She had started nearly every game she had appeared in during her two seasons with the Thorns, and was a fan favorite.

A year or more passed. By the time I corresponded with her next, she had gotten married (it was a destination wedding, in Mexico, and she appeared happy in the photos I saw on Instagram), but she had also gotten divorced — all within ten months, she told me, matter-of-factly. She took an active part in the 2020 summer of protests, in Portland, following the death of George Floyd, she went on and off Instagram, changing her handle each time, and wound up living in California. It seemed clear, from things she would write, that she was still seeking and searching, still hopeful of a brighter and better day. In separate emails, I recommended the work of Joan Didion to her, as well as a very successful book called The Body Keeps the Score, mainly because of things she said that morning over breakfast.

I went back and re-read what she had written on December 2, 2016, when she officially announced she was retiring from soccer, this time though with the benefit of having spent time with her in person.

After much thought, it saddens me to announce my retirement from professional women’s soccer. As some of you know, I was forced to take this past season off after suffering neck/back injuries and a concussion sustained from a car accident in September 2015. As the road to recovery has been a lot longer and more intense than I had initially thought, it is easy to say that the past fourteen months have been the most difficult time of my life.

Soccer thus far has been so many things for me, if not so much of who I am. Soccer has given me joy, love, friendship, freedom, and a career. Soccer was my outlet when times were hard. It was a place I felt so safe, yet it continued to push me past my comfort zone day after day. Losing soccer for me was losing my identity. And with the loss of that, came the loss of everything. At a time of so much self doubt, it terrifies me to leave that behind. But at this point in my life, the stress of trying to come back and play again is far too much for me to bear. No matter how hard I’ve pushed, or how hard I’ve convinced myself and everybody else that I am okay, my body is just not ready to do the things that it used to do. And the only real problem with that is that I’ve completely beaten myself up for it. I have always believed that if I had enough desire and enough self discipline, I could accomplish anything. But all that did for me was to create a world of self hatred and constant anxiety. I became so negative with myself, continually thinking that I had let myself down. If I wanted these things so badly, then why couldn’t I just do them? I began to pity myself. I felt confused, alone, misunderstood and not whole. There have been too many days where making it through the next minute have seemed near impossible. And truthfully, I will continue to have days like that. I’m not here writing this from the other side. I am still recovering. I am still learning to accept the way things are and trying to grasp the reality of everything that has happened. I have days where i cant make it out of bed due to headaches, fatigue, depression and anxiety. I feel more drained in social situations, I’m extra irritable and more emotional. All symptoms of post concussion and all things I haven’t experienced in such severity for the majority of my life up until recently. Needless to say, the battle between accepting who I am now and pushing myself to get back to who I was has been absolutely exhausting.

So the point is that I am finally ready to take a different path. I have realized no amount of brute force is going to get me to a place where I feel at peace. Instead, I will choose compassion. I will choose self-love and forgiveness. After sitting with this decision and working through the pain, I have found a sense of relief. I feel lighter. And with that weight gone, I know that I am doing the right thing. So lastly and most importantly, I would like to thank everyone who has supported and believed in me throughout my life and my career. I’m sending all of my love to all of the amazing friendships I have formed over the years and I’m sending all of my gratitude to every fan of myself and more importantly of women’s soccer. You are the ones that keep this dream alive for so many of us and will continue to do so for years to come. SERIOUSLY I love every single person and I just want everyone to follow their hearts and true paths. Be gentle with yourselves and give love Thank you for listening, caring and letting me feel the closure I’ve been needing.

Each and every time I have read this, I have been stirred by it, and pained by it, and awed by the strength it took to write it. Many athletes, for a variety of reasons, stay way too long at the fair. To me, the two most interesting questions are these, especially for those at the highest level: what, to the extent that you even know and or are fully conscious of, are the different things driving you to play the sport you have chosen to play — and who precisely are you playing for? Whatever closure — one of the trickiest words we have, along with “should” — Sinead felt at the time she wrote that did not last.

* * *

On September 30, 2021, The Athletic wrote a story that stunned the world of women’s soccer. It detailed the sexual coercion and harassment that Sinead and Mana Shim had been subjected to by Paul Riley when he was the coach of the Thorns. In Sinead’s case, it had gone back farther, to when she played for him at the Philadelphia Independence (as well as on a semi-pro team), and it did factor in to her decision to not return to the USWNT for another camp before the World Cup in 2011 when the team was seeking a replacement for an injured Lindsay Tarpley. Riley’s Svengali-like hold on Sinead was such that she was made to feel disloyal and ungrateful and beholden, as if she were a spouse who had strayed, as if all she had accomplished could not have been realized without him.

Riley was let go by the Thorns at the end of the 2015 season — which was also Sinead’s last one — but the Thorns, who were made aware of what happened by Shim and Sinead, with the strong encouragement of their teammate Alex Morgan, essentially did nothing, and when the Western New York Flash wanted to hire Riley, the Thorns did not do anything to make them aware of this (nor, as it turns out, did the league itself). At the time the piece appeared, Riley was the coach of the North Carolina Courage, winner of two championships under him (and one with the Flash, before they moved to North Carolina). He was dismissed that week, and to this day has defiantly maintained his innocence.

The day after the report appeared, Sinead, Shim and Morgan appeared on Today. Sinead said what Riley had done “seep[ed] into every part” of her (underscoring what she had told The Athletic: “It took me years away from the game to gain the awareness of how power imbalance works and to be able to tell people close to me what happened”).

“I think it’s just really important to understand,” she later reiterated to CNN, “why we wanted to share our story and share in so much detail the damage that was done to our careers, but who we are as people. The damage to my self-confidence and how I saw myself and how I approach life.

“There is a lot of loss that comes with that and things I will not get back and I think when we can tap into the emotional impact of just showing up to try and be your authentic self, it really can hit home for a lot of people because it’s bigger than the sport. This is about safety in our own lives and our bodies and the players deserve that. We all deserve that. And that’s something that we will fight for.”

That fight, coming four years after the beginning of the #MeToo movement, led to the cancellation of all NWSL matches the following weekend. It led to players from all teams joining together in unity and in silence at midfield for a period of time, many of them wearing jerseys with the names FARRELLY and SHIM on their backs. It led to the three of them being included, along with Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and LeBron James, among the seven “most influential people in sports” for 2021. It led to a number of investigations and reports and an “E60” on ESPN over the next year, the main one of which was commissioned by the United States Soccer Federation and presided over by Sally Yates, the former Deputy Attorney General of the United States (who had, earlier, become known as someone who refused to do Donald Trump’s bidding). It led to a cascade of resignations — including the NWSL commissioner — and coaches being forced out and owners like Merritt Paulson losing the Thorns and Mike Golub and Gavin Wilkinson being fired. And, most important, it led to clear policies, with consequences, being put into place, which is ongoing, as the league began play for next season on March 25.

This was not a spotlight Sinead Farrelly ever sought for herself or wanted. She would much rather be sipping coffee and listening to Hozier, or hiking where perhaps no one had ever ventured before, or riding her bike in the same carefree way she had as a child.

But her bravery and her Irish feistiness, even more than her considerable talent, put her there. And, as it happens, it will again.

In early February, Sinead Farrelly appeared, without fanfare of any kind, on the preseason roster of NJ/NY Gotham FC as an “invitee.” Some people who noticed it on Twitter were overjoyed and said so. I texted her on February 8, to congratulate her. I learned from Steve Swanson she had spent much of January in Charlottesville, training with him, and he felt sanguine about her chances, provided she could steer free of injury.

“Thanks so much for the support,” Sinead texted back. “We will see how it goes and if I am able to do it but I’m grateful for the opportunity! We just got to Florida for 3 weeks so most of preseason will be here which is nice. If I end up making the team I will def let you know! Thanks again.”

In Florida, she was in the starting lineup for all three scrimmages and she scored a goal. The player who assisted on that goal was her former Thorns teammate and friend McCall Zerboni. She texted that it was “a good day” and that she was “hanging in there.”

As Gotham FC returned north, Yael Averbuch West, the team’s general manager, was moving in the direction of changing Sinead’s status from “non-roster invitee” to offering her a coveted spot on the roster. After nearly eight years of being away from the game, Sinead Farrelly is back — a return that, by the way she spoke truth to power, was bound to mean so much to so many. As is her nature, she will continue to seek and search and hope for a world that is both just and kind, but for now, she can plant herself again on familiar terrain.

“It’s kind of starting to settle in that this is really happening,” she texted on March 13, “and I deserve to be here.” On March 25, around midday, the club made it official. “Sinead is not only an outstanding athlete,” West said, “but one of the most admired people in our sport. She came into camp and earned a contract with her outstanding play. I know she sees this as just a first step, but everyone at Gotham FC is incredibly proud to be part of Sinead’s journey, and excited about all of the great qualities she brings to our team.”

By the time of the announcement, NJ/NY Gotham FC had already headed west, to Los Angeles, and their newest team member was with them, available to play, if the coach needed her, against Angel City FC in the first game of the season.

“I want to be a key player for Gotham FC,” she said, but stressed that she wanted to do so “while also having grace and compassion with myself as I acclimate back into the professional environment. There were times when this did not feel possible for me. But I have made it to this moment, and I’m going to keep building on it. As I continue, I hope to inspire others to follow their dreams, no matter how far out of reach they may seem.”

Postscript:

On April 1, Sinead came onto the field at Red Bull Arena in the 70th minute of the match against OL Reign and played as if she had never been away from soccer for nearly eight years. I had waited out a nearly two-hour rain delay, but it was worth it, to vicariously share in the pure emotion of that moment with others who knew of her story and her improbable return.

One week later, in Austin, Texas, she started for the Irish national team in a friendly against the United States. When asked afterward if she was hoping to play in the World Cup this summer, among the McCabes and the O’Sullivans, she said, as genuinely as only she could, that she was overwhelmed by everyone’s support, that she was happy to feel joy again — joy that she had been robbed of but was now clearly etched into her face — and that she was, as she had been for months, simply taking it one day at a time.

In the final days of June, it was announced that Sinead would be headed Down Under, to wear the Irish uniform and to represent the country of her father’s birth.

There is a phrase I have always liked — “poetic justice” — and it certainly applies to the ongoing journey of Sinead Farrelly. On November 11, 2023, Sinead’s Gotham FC won their first NWSL Championship.

JONATHAN COLEMAN is the New York Times-bestselling author of five critically acclaimed works of narrative nonfiction, including Long Way to Go: Black and White in America, (coauthor with Jerry West of) West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, and Crossing the Line: How One Incident in a Girls’ Soccer Match Rippled Across Small-Town America. He has written for the New Yorker, New York Magazine, Time, Washington Post, New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Slate, Texas Observer, and other publications. When not writing, he is an award-winning voiceover talent who still has some regrets he did not become a back-up singer.

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