The final straw for members of a fledging Seattle indoor soccer team came when a lawsuit accused their owner of sexually assaulting two female employees.
That’s when 22 players quit the Seattle Impact FC after only one regular season game. They followed the squad’s “Ladies with Impact” dance team, which had also resigned to protest the alleged assault of two of their own by Dion Earl. A former college soccer star, Earl, 42, has a history of sexual- and behavioral-misconduct allegations against him spanning nearly two decades since his days as a high-school coach.
Earl, who’d already fired his coaching staff and angered office workers with his management style, dismisses the lawsuit’s accusations. He described the suit filed last month by six former employees as a tactic by “dirt poor’’ women out to make money.
But Elizabeth Buslon, 22, a former dancer now suing Earl, said in a tearful interview that her life hasn’t been the same since he invited her to his Kent home on Sept. 17 to discuss team business. She said Earl shoved her facedown on an ottoman and removed some of her clothing while pressing against her from behind.
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“It’s a professional struggle I never thought I’d have to face,’’ Buslon said, adding she’s undergone counseling and takes medication for stress. “It’s just affected every aspect of my life.’’
Earl has not been charged criminally in the case, though the King County Sheriff’s Department continues to investigate. But his continued presence as owner, head coach and a player for the Kent-based Impact raises questions about whether the Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) – a newly formed professional circuit boasting the nation’s top indoor talent – conducted proper background checks on prospective team owners.
The Seattle Times found that the owner of a team in Texas, Thomas Guerriero, had been sued for sexual harassment in 2010 by a 20-year-old female intern at his New York financial consulting firm. The woman accused him of sending her lewd emails, texts, Post-it notes and a video, and Guerriero paid her more than $50,000 to settle out of court.
Earl’s own troubled background dates to the 1990s.
In 1998, he lost his job coaching soccer at Interlake High School in Bellevue after a 17-year-old cheerleader told officials he’d asked her out on a date — a case cited in a 2003 Times investigative series titled Coaches Who Prey.
Then between 1998 and 2011, five women obtained protection orders against him. The earliest involved an ex-girlfriend of three years, a gymnast he met while attending Seattle Pacific University, who complained that Earl had sent threatening emails to her and her family when she refused to get back together with him. In other cases, one woman accused Earl of stalking her and breaking into her home while she and her children slept, and another said he inundated her with “vulgar and abusive” texts.
In a 1999 case, Earl was convicted of non-felony assault during an argument with his sister. The conviction was dismissed after he underwent court-ordered domestic-violence counseling, paid a fine and served 50 hours of community service.
And in late 2009, The Times found, Kirkland police investigated Earl on suspicion of second-degree rape. A female massage-parlor employee had accused Earl of raping her during an appointment, forcing her to go along by claiming he was a police officer who’d arrest her for solicitation.
Earl, whose girlfriend (now his wife) was pregnant at the time, told police in a written statement that he and the woman had sexual intercourse, but at her suggestion. Police determined there was insufficient evidence that the sex was non-consensual, and no charges were brought.
But the police report says Earl admitted frequenting massage parlors and having other experiences of women trying to “upsell” him sexual favors. He told police he returned to the parlor the day after the alleged assault, gave a massage to the female owner and even brought bagels for the other women working at the massage parlor.
The female complainant told police Earl was known throughout the massage-parlor industry and had been blacklisted by some places because of aggressive behavior.
Earl defended his character, saying all the allegations coming out now are part of a campaign to destroy his team so others can acquire local franchise rights.
“All of these people who pretended to be my friends, all of them turned around and tried to backstab me and throw me under the bus and ruin my name,’’ he said. “They all tried to … get me thrown out of the league based on a bunch of garbage in the past that is totally taken out of context.’’
The lawsuit by Buslon, along with a second Impact dancer, a squad director and three ex-office employees, claims Earl was “obsessed” and unusually hands-on in forming a dance team, searching Facebook for attractive women then insisting he sit in on their tryouts.
Later, it says, he sent late-night messages to dancers requesting massages or visits to his home.
The lawsuit — filed Nov. 6 in King County Superior Court — names both the MASL and commissioner Kevin Milliken as defendants, stating they “enabled Earl to use his position to attract young women who would be used as sexual prey.’’
Indoor soccer has existed for decades in this country, but often as a loose collection of regionally based leagues. The 23-team MASL formed last May in a merger of two smaller leagues with the goal of a nationwide circuit of top talent, including two franchises based in Mexico.
Games are played in indoor arenas, on hockey-sized surfaces surrounded by boards and covered with artificial turf instead of ice. Players are paid $50 to $300 per game, plus bonuses, and attendance can vary from just a few hundred fans per game to several thousand. Franchises commonly feature dance teams for entertainment and promotion.
There were high hopes the Impact could duplicate the local success of the outdoor Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer. But Impact players who quit say Earl’s behavior – from firing his coaches before the season opener to the allegations against him by the dancers – made that impossible.
“I coach youth soccer; that’s what I do for a living besides this,’’ said former Impact forward Eli Gordley, 26, a Seattle native and six-year veteran of several indoor and outdoor pro leagues. “With the stuff that’s going on and the way he carries himself, I just didn’t want to be a part of it any more. What do I tell my kids, playing for a guy like that? I decided to just walk away.’’
So did defender Evan Denmark, 25, a Renton native who said players who quit were mostly local and felt family and community pressure to disassociate from the team’s troubles.
“To be associated with that is almost condoning it,’’ Denmark said.
The Impact, which plays at the ShoWare Center in Kent, had played for weeks with just seven full-time players plus whoever Earl could find. Earl recently added five full-time players, but the team lost two weekend games in California to fall to 3-4 this season. In two home games since the large group of players walked out, the Impact drew crowds of just 204 and 867, down from 1,348 for their season opener.
Only two of 12 players now listed on the Impact’s website are from the Seattle area. Earl, who played with the Seattle SeaDogs indoor team in the mid-1990s, is one of them.
Beyond the allegations, the lawsuit, filed by the firm HKM Employment Attorneys LLP of Seattle, depicts Earl having a sexually charged nature that included frequenting strip clubs and initially wanting his Impact dancers to wear skimpy outfits from Stripper Boutique.
His first wife filed for divorce in 2008, claiming Earl frequented strip clubs and had extramarital affairs while she was pregnant. Earl said he and his current wife, Laurel, who have three young children together, both enjoy going to strip clubs.
“I’m 42, and I’m proud to say this,’’ Earl said. “I’ve never popped one pill. I’ve never done one drug. I’ve never even been drunk at 42 years old. The only thing you can say about me is, ‘Dion likes to go to go to strip clubs once in a while.’ Or, ‘Dion and his wife like to go to strip clubs every once in a while.’ ’’
Earl’s penchant for strip clubs was an obvious red flag that the MASL and commissioner Milliken should have paid attention to, according to the Impact dancers’ lawsuit.
Milliken said he wouldn’t discipline Earl without criminal charges and that the league pays third parties for background checks. He isn’t sure how Earl’s past had been overlooked.
“That’s actually a question that we’re trying to figure out ourselves,’’ Milliken said.
But Paul Lapointe, a Massachusetts-based former indoor soccer-team owner and commissioner from a different league, said he decided against joining the MASL because the league lacked sufficient background checks.
Lapointe said the MASL seemed more concerned about collecting $5,000 deposits owners were making on their required $25,000 league entry fees.
“They didn’t care who they were letting into the league as long as they got a check from them,’’ he said.
Lapointe said failed teams and shady ownership have long plagued indoor soccer.
He grew worried that the MASL — formed in a merger of the Milliken-run Professional Arena Soccer League and the Major Indoor Soccer League — was awarding expansion franchises to owners whose backgrounds were completely unknown.
The final straw came April 29, when the MASL announced Guerriero as owner of the expansion Oxford City FC team in Beaumont, Texas.
Guerriero had once sought to do business with Lapointe, but Lapointe declined after discovering the New York sexual-harassment lawsuit against him. When the MASL approved Guerriero, a stunned Lapointe emailed Milliken that the league risked sacrificing its image for “a spit of cash.”
Milliken said he looked into the Guerriero lawsuit, but he wouldn’t divulge what the league found.
He stressed finding no criminal history on Earl — despite Earl himself once complaining to a court that the protection orders against him were “affecting me from gaining employment in the NCAA and with several other employers.’’
One of those orders had been obtained by Earl’s then-fiancée, Kimberly Davila.
Davila said in an interview that she’d been a dancer at Rick’s — a longtime Seattle strip club — in the 1990s and met Earl when he was a customer. He gave her a $2,100 engagement ring, but things soured after they moved in together.
“He was just abusive in every way possible,’’ she said. “He is not a good person.’’
Davila said that after she obtained the protection order, Earl harassed her for months to rescind it because he was running soccer and tennis camps for children, and parents were pulling kids out.
“He wanted me to tell them it was all a misunderstanding,’’ she said.
Earl says a current Impact player, leading scorer Gordy Gurson, can help absolve him from wrongdoing in the two sexual assaults alleged by the current lawsuit.
Besides the accusations he sexually assaulted Buslon at his home, Earl is accused in the lawsuit of similar aggression with another former Impact dancer on Sept. 4, in a private “VIP’’ room at a Seattle strip club. He’d taken her there to hand out fliers promoting the team.
Earl denies assaulting the woman. He said that rookie forward Gurson, 22, had taken her into the VIP room while Earl remained downstairs and that Gurson also was at Earl’s house when Buslon was there.
Gurson agreed in an interview that he was the one in the VIP room and saw nothing happen between the woman and Earl that night. But he couldn’t say what happened to Buslon at Earl’s house because he was upstairs.
The Times obtained copies of text messages and a recorded phone conversation between Gurson and Earl from the days after the alleged assault on Buslon.
They show Earl telling Gurson to send him a text stating he came downstairs and saw Buslon hug Earl goodbye then leave calmly. Gurson initially did that, but then later texted Earl back saying he’d stayed upstairs and wasn’t going to lie.
When Earl denied asking him to lie, Gurson texted: “You flat out told me on the phone that if I didn’t text you, then you would bench me.’’
Earl says the exchange depicts him initially misunderstanding what Gurson saw and asking him to relay it via text. He said he’d threatened to bench Gurson only because he’d flown home to Chicago without permission three days after the incident.
Gurson gave copies of the texts and the phone conversation — recorded by a friend — to since-departed Impact office employees he often confided in. But he says he never expected they’d be made public.
Gurson — on his first pro soccer contract — has since been promoted to Impact vice president in charge of business operations. He says he and Earl resolved any differences portrayed in the texts.
Nevertheless, Earl says the strain of holding a first-year franchise together has been compounded by the personal accusations against him. He wants to remain a player-coach but hopes to sell 51 percent of the Impact to a Chicago investor while keeping a minority stake.
Those wanting indoor soccer to thrive here say Earl’s continued presence makes that unlikely. The players who quit have written the league saying they won’t return until Earl is removed from the team.
“It’s a pretty bad situation,’’ said Micah Wenzel, 27, an Impact co-captain who quit. “For 22 of us guys to walk away from our dream, it’s a pretty bad deal. Hopefully, there’s a resolution here before too long, but for right now we’re just sitting here waiting and hoping something better comes of it.”