Karina LeBlanc, the new general manager of the Portland Thorns, talks professional women’s soccer, motherhood and returning to the Rose City.
Karina LeBlanc is once again a Portlander. After nearly a decade away, the retired soccer player has returned to the Rose City with a new position, a young daughter and lots of career experience.
“My journey, this game has changed my life,” she says from her office at Providence Park. “It helps me be the woman that I am today.”
LeBlanc made headlines locally and nationally in November after it was announced that the 41-year-old would become the next general manager of the Thorns. But for many Thorns fans, LeBlanc needed no introduction. She was the goalkeeper for the team’s inaugural 2013-2014 season, and a fan favorite. That season, the Thorns, under the newly minted National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), went on to win the NWSL championship. LeBlanc then played in Chicago before retiring in 2015. During her 18 years as a player, she participated in five FIFA World Cups and won an Olympic bronze medal.
Instead of taking up coaching like many of her predecessors, LeBlanc turned to executive positions. Most recently, she was the head of Concacaf Women’s Football, where she grew and fostered 41 leagues across North and Central America and the Caribbean.
LeBlanc’s hiring was met with approval from both players and fans, but her tenure as general manager — she’s responsible for the technical soccer operations of the club — comes at a precarious time for the Thorns. Reports over sexual abuse allegations, and the club’s handling of them, against former coach Paul Riley surfaced last fall. She says her first priority has been simply to listen and understand. “As a player, you come in, you train, you go home, you rest, you’re focused on your body and performance,” she says. “And now I’m seeking to understand. I have a lot more curiosity here right now.”
As if she’s not busy enough, she has regular extracurriculars, including the namesake foundation she launched in 2018 to empower girls and women in sports with scholarships and grants for college and sports camps (Karinaleblanc.com). She has also worked with the FIFA Women’s Leadership Program and in 2013, she became the first woman soccer player appointed as a UNICEF Canada Ambassador.
“I was the shyest kid in the world. Nobody ever believes that, but sports changed it for me,” she says. “I was the only Black kid in my school. I didn’t fit in. I moved from the Caribbean to Canada. I was bullied and all those things. And when I went to my first soccer practice I felt, ‘oh, this is it.’”
LeBlanc often thinks about how the sport provided her with community and empowerment and how important both things are, especially now that she’s a mother to her 2-year-old daughter, Paris. And out of all her jobs, she treasures the title of mom the most. “I always think about it, like if she was sitting here, would she be proud of her mom and how I’m dealing with this situation?”
LeBlanc has been open with the health scare she encountered just one week after giving birth in 2020 (and right before COVID-induced lockdowns). She had pleural effusion, a buildup of fluid between the tissues lining the chest and lungs and was rushed to the hospital. “I remember realizing that as tough as that time was, it was preparing me to be a better mother and a better wife and a better person,” she says. “I know how special this franchise is and this club is, I know how special this community is and I wanted to do things that mattered.”
LeBlanc says she’s looking forward to getting to know Portland all over again with her husband and daughter, including the area’s amazing food scene, plus day trips to the coast and the Willamette Valley vineyards. In fact, one of her first stops upon returning to Portland was Salt & Straw, her go-to frozen treat when she lived here eight years ago. This time, her daughter joined her. “I was like, ‘you know what, we’re gonna go get mommy’s favorite, snickerdoodle,’” she says. “It was her first ever ice cream.”
Her time in Portland and as GM has been good so far, she says. “Portland is still very warm and accepting of me,” she says, adding that she still gets stopped on the street like she used to as a Thorns player. “I’m doing this for the community. I’m doing this for the women’s game,” she adds. “At the end of the day, I’m doing this for her.”
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