NEW YORK : Banners and signs declaring "PROTECT THE PLAYERS" and "NO MORE SILENCE" ringed National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) pitches on Wednesday as teams took to the field for the first time since sexual misconduct allegations rocked the competition.
The matches were the first since a report from the Athletic on Thursday outlined allegations of sexual coercion and misconduct from former North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley, prompting the league to postpone last weekend's games.
The Athletic said Riley has denied "the majority" of the allegations in its report.
Attempts by Reuters to reach Riley for comment were unsuccessful.
Play was halted six minutes into Washington Spirit's game against NJ/NY Gotham FC at Suburu Park in suburban Philadelphia on Wednesday as both squads linked arms at the centre circle.
The NWSL Players Association said the gesture was in recognition of the six years since former players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly came forward with allegations, "and all those who fought for too long to be heard".
Players stood in silence for a minute.
"During that time, we ask you to stand in that pain and discomfort with us," the statement read.
The NWSLPA also outlined demands for the league, including that "every coach, general manager, representative on the board of governors and owner" submit to an independent investigation into abusive conduct.
In Cary, North Carolina, where Riley led the Courage to a second consecutive NWSL title in 2019, the home team and visiting Racing Louisville delivered the same gesture.
Riley has been fired by the Courage and the league.
The allegations also led to the ouster of Commissioner Lisa Baird and prompted investigations by the NWSL, U.S. Soccer and FIFA.
An hour before the Portland Thorns kicked off their home match against Houston Dash the club announced general manager Gavin Wilkinson had been placed on administrative leave.
The Thorns had previously apologised for not being more transparent after receiving a complaint against then-coach Riley in 2015.
As the Thorns and Dash linked arms inside Providence Park, a fan was seen holding a sign reading: "Six years."
Wednesday's game between Spirit and Gotham, which ended 0-0, was supposed to have been an occasion to honour two-time World Cup winner Carli Lloyd, who is set to retire.
"It's been emotional week - we've had a lot to celebrate, a lot to reflect on," the NJ/NY forward said after the game.
Courage beat Louisville 3-1 in North Carolina while Thorns were beaten 3-2 by Dash with English player Rachel Daly scoring two goals, including the 79th-minute winner.
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Peter Rutherford)