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Part of the pipeline: Allegations of abusive culture at youth soccer club mirror problems at pro level

The feet of two soccer players, one wearing pink cleats and the other blue, move towards a soccer ball on a field.
Parker Miles Blohm
Millions of kids play soccer across the nation. However, only 6% will play the sport in college. And of those, only 1% will play professionally. The dream of playing Division 1 soccer is one of the appeals of top-tier youth clubs. One such club is Crossfire Premier in Redmond, Wash.

This story includes a racist slur and sexually explicit language. Take care while reading or listening.

Update July 24, 2023 at 5:00 PM PT:

Billy Wiskel has been temporarily disqualified from coaching, according to a July 21 email from Crossfire Premier sent to players' families and obtained by KNKX. An administrator for Crossfire Premier did not respond to an interview request.

On July 20, KNKX reportedthat U.S. Soccer confirmed the license suspensions of Wiskel and Bernie James.

Original story continues below.

A report commissioned by U.S. Soccer investigating allegations of misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) shook the soccer world when it was releasedlast fall.

The report, authored by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, detailed systemic abuse by coaches and staff. It concluded that misconduct has its roots at the youth level. Professional players interviewed for the report said the misconduct they experienced was normalized when they were kids.

There are a handful of youth soccer clubs across the nation that produce top talent. These are athletes who go on to play Division 1 in college and turn pro.

Crossfire Premier in Redmond, Wash. is one of these clubs, for both girls and boys. It boasts alumni who have represented the U.S. in the World Cup and play in the NWSL, including for the OL Reign.

An investigation by KNKX found allegations of racial and sexual harassment, player endangerment and inappropriate touching of underage players at Crossfire. KNKX spoke with over twenty former players, coaches, parents and others for this story.

The two coaches named in this story – Bernie James and Billy Wiskel – have denied any wrongdoing.

Playing for Crossfire

Elise Morris, who uses she/they pronouns, was entering their freshman year of high school in 2014 when they joined Crossfire Premier. At the time, Crossfire had one of the highest-ranked girls teams in Washington state for their age group.

“I was aiming to go D-1 and so I just needed to be at the best club and the best team,” Morris said in a Zoom interview.

When Morris joined Crossfire, they really loved the game. Loved it enough to spend six days a week at a soccer field, and countless hours traveling to practices and games.

Billy Wiskel was their coach for the two years they were at the club. Morris said Wiskel’s criticisms about their body and their play was constant and harsh. They said it made them feel so bad they considered leaving the sport.

“I developed an eating disorder during that time. I had such a negative self-image,” Morris said. “You learn who you are through your sport if you're playing at that level. And the things that Billy was teaching me was to hate myself, was to hate others.”

Several of Morris’s Crossfire teammates spoke to KNKX but requested to remain anonymous because of their close ties with the club and because they are still involved in soccer.

Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates speaks at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., May 24, 2017. “Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players,” former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote in her independent report for U.S. Soccer, which was released on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022.
Steven Senne
Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates speaks at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., May 24, 2017. “Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players,” former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote in her independent report for U.S. Soccer, which was released on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022.

The players said Wiskel made verbal attacks that were often personal – commenting on players bodies, making racial remarks, and questioning if someone deserved to be playing at such a high level.

One player is Japanese.

“He was one of the most racist guys I ever met in my life,” she said. “He would actually say something like, before a game, like did you eat panda for breakfast? I'm like, ‘Billy, what really?' Like, 'why do you say this stuff? It’s not a funny joke.’”

The racist remarks she said Wiskel made went far beyond what anyone could consider as humorous.

“He’d greet me every day, ‘Ching-chong-ching.’”

Another player called Wiskel “smart” and said he knew his stuff as a coach.

“You learn who you are through your sport if you're playing at that level. And the things that Billy was teaching me was to hate myself, was to hate others.”
Elise Morris, former Crossfire player

“He knows soccer really well. And so we were good. We were really, really good. And I think he's a very charismatic guy.”

But she also recalled the racial comments he’d make. The player’s mom is Black.

“They were just like little comments, like if I wore my hair braided he would be like, ‘Oh, like, Snoop Dogg's here,’ stuff like that,” she said.

In an interview with KNKX, another teammate recalled Wiskel pressuring players into performing a sexually suggestive dance move. She said the team of teenage girls was at a hotel for an away tournament out of state. They’d gathered in a conference room to get ice cream when Wiskel told the two players to “twerk.” She said she heard him joke that they wouldn’t get any ice cream if they didn’t. She said Wiskel called over a male hotel employee and said, “Hey, watch this.”

An investigation into allegations against Wiskel by an oversight agency called the U.S. Center for SafeSport was closed last spring. Reached by phone, Wiskel said he was “cleared” and specifically denied ever making racial comments to his players. He then ended the phone call. Separately, an attorney for Wiskel and Crossfire declined to elaborate.

A well-known coach

Wiskel coached under the supervision of the Director of Coaching at Crossfire, Bernie James. Doug Andreassen was president of the Washington Youth Soccer Association. He said that was approximately from 2007 to 2011. The association governs the league that some Crossfire Premier teams play in.

Andreassen said James is well-known in the Seattle-area soccer scene. James played for Bellevue High School and had a successful professional career, including a stint with the Seattle Sounders in the ’90s.

“James has been around for some time in the youth soccer community,” Andreassen said. “He's got a lot of state championships underneath his belt as well as regional championships and national championships, too.”

“If he said ‘You're going to kick the ball this way and run a defense this way,’ that's the way you ran defense 'cause Bernie James said it.”
Doug Andreassen, former Washington Youth Soccer Association president

James’ winning record at Crossfire spans decades. In 2008, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy identified him as one of the top youth coaches in the country, naming him Coach of the Year for the boys under-16/under-17 age group in the western conference. Most recently, James led a Crossfire team to one of the most competitive championships in youth soccer, winning the 2022 Elite Clubs National League trophy.

Andreassen said young players and parents with ambitions want their children to play for James and Crossfire.

“If he said ‘You're going to kick the ball this way and run a defense this way,’ that's the way you ran defense 'cause Bernie James said it,” he said.

Andreassen said he heard concerns from parents about James and how he talked to players during practices and games. “Sometimes those words were termed to be abusive words,” he said. “And I witnessed some of those.”

Andreassen said he admonished James for using that language, but he couldn’t do more. That’s because no one ever filed a formal complaint with the Washington Youth Soccer Association during his tenure.

“They'd be willing to talk to me, but they wouldn't, they wouldn't take it any further. And so at that point, you had to drop it,” Andreassen said.

Andreassen said parents feared retaliation. “[That] all of a sudden their child would lose playing time if they were playing at Crossfire. And playing time is a big deal to an athlete at that premier level.”

A woman with long blonde hair wearing a beanie, black pants and a black coat stands in front of a soccer goal speaking as blurred players run across the field.
Parker Miles Blohm
Justi Baumgardt was a standout at Federal Way High School and went on to play at the University of Portland where she had a successful career. Baumgardt was inducted into the college’s Hall of Fame in 2005. She began her coaching career after she retired from playing professionally in 2003.

The workplace culture

This was all too familiar to Justi Baumgardt. She coached at Crossfire from 2008 until 2022. And she had two sons who played for the club. James was her boss.

Baumgardt said the way James ran things allowed for coaches like Wiskel to go unchecked. And she said there was a culture of sexism and harassment at Crossfire that started with James. She recalled one incident that happened in the office when James interrupted the coaches to ask a sexually explicit question.

“He looked at everyone and said, ‘Which finger do you bang a chick with?’ And everybody just kind of sat there and nobody really participated,” Baumgardt said. “And then he would get mad and force them to participate and to answer, even though nobody wanted to.”

Outside of the office, Baumgardt said James would introduce her as the “hottest female coach” at the club.

“I remember a time specifically that he made a remark and I just kind of rolled my eyes and he looked at me. He's like, ‘You have a problem? Contact H.R.’ and then he followed up by saying, ‘Oh, wait, I am H.R.,” Baumgardt said.

Baumgardt would eventually file a legal complaint against the Crossfire Foundation and Lake Washington Youth Soccer Association alleging workplace sexual harassment and employment discrimination. In the complaint, she said James would frequently ask his employees sexually explicit questions, talk about the bodies of other female coaches and once asked her to turn around in front of a male coworker so he could “look at her ass.”

In the legal complaint, Baumgardt also stated that she had reported a male coach to James and a Crossfire administrator for inappropriately touching an underage female player and that no action was taken against the coach. The coach was not named in the complaint, but in an interview with KNKX, she said the coach was Billy Wiskel.

Baumgardt said once, when she was setting up the fields for the annual Crossfire Challenge tournament, she was in a golf cart with Wiskel, James, and a teenage player.

“Billy was sitting next to the player and he kept just poking her sides and tickling her,” Baumgardt said. “And she’s like, ‘Stop.’ And he kept doing it and he’s laughing…”

KNKX contacted administrators, officials, and representatives for Crossfire and the Lake Washington Youth Soccer Association about Baumgardt’s allegations. Crossfire’s administrator deferred to the club’s attorney who did not provide comment for this story. The Lake Washington Youth Soccer Association’s president said in an email the allegations were false.

Baumgardt was no stranger to the world of competitive soccer. As a player, Baumgardt earned call-ups to the U.S. Women’s National Team, playing with the likes of Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy. She was drafted in 2000 to the first women’s professional league in the country. After retiring, she turned to coaching.

Baumgardt said the sexual harassment was bad but she initially didn’t want to speak up or leave the club. She was coaching some of the best players in the state. And she didn’t want her sons to face retaliation.

That changed when her eldest son Caden Yamada was playing for James at the end of 2021 and suffered a concussion.

The concussion

On December 5, 2021, Crossfire Premier played the Spokane Sounders at Marymoor Park in Redmond.

It was one of the last regular season games. Crossfire was up 3-0 with about 15 minutes left in the match, when Yamada entered the match as a defender.

Yamada was chasing down the ball when an opposing player dragged him down by the shoulder.

“My head kind of goes backward and slams on the turf and pops up and I remember falling,” Yamada said. “It was like a moment in time skipped. … And I kind of knew I'd blacked out.”

Video recorded by a teammate’s parent shows then 17-year-old Yamada rolling over, holding his head in his hands.

Washington state law requires that youth athletes suspected of sustaining a head injury leave the field until a healthcare professional evaluates them.

Yamada said there was never a signal from James, for him to come off the field.

“I remember him yelling at me to not hold my head unless I was actually hurt and to not roll on the ground,” he said.

Yamada said he continued to play. His mother found out about this afterward; she did not witness the injury because she was watching her other son’s game at a field nearby.

Yamada went to the doctor who said he had a concussion. Baumgardt said he missed a week of school.

A report to SafeSport and a legal complaint

As a mother, Baumgardt said hearing about how James handled Yamada’s head injury and how he didn’t take him off the field to be properly evaluated, was the tipping point. The holidays passed and Baumgardt weighed her options on whether to report James and to whom.

On February 2, 2022, she made a report about James’ alleged mishandling of her son’s concussion to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is tasked with protecting youth and adult athletes across a variety of sports nationwide.

U.S. Soccer governs all organized forms of soccer across the country. This includes U.S. Youth Soccer, U.S. Club Soccer, and all of the state associations. Baumgardt’s report reached several of those, each one deferring to another for responsibility. None of these oversight entities provided details to KNKX about the case.

A flow chart shows the hierarchy of U.S. soccer organizations and how Crossfire Premier falls under both U.S. Youth Soccer and U.S. Club Soccer.
Grace Madigan
Graphic via
The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) governs all organized soccer in the U.S., including the professional teams. The U.S. Center for SafeSport is an independent entity that has jurisdiction to resolve abuse and misconduct reports in soccer and other Olympic sports.

“It’s really confusing,” Baumgardt said. “I filed the report with SafeSport and then SafeSport got back to me and said that it wasn't in their jurisdiction and they sent it on to U.S. Soccer…”

Baumgardt shared emails of her correspondence with U.S. Soccer, which said that they sent her report to the Washington Youth Soccer Association, which sent it back. Her report stalled with U.S. Soccer until Baumgardt found out James had cut Yamada from a college showcase tournament roster. Yamada had been on the original roster before she filed her report.

In an email to U.S. Soccer, Baumgardt reported her suspicion of retaliation. In a phone call to U.S. Soccer, she also reported that Bernie James had sexually harassed her and other female coaches. In another email to U.S. Soccer, Baumgardt reported Billy Wiskel, referencing the inappropriate touching and language he’d use in front of players. All of this information was included in a U.S. Soccer report to SafeSport dated March 2, 2022.

“I did get a reply back eventually from SafeSport saying that they were going to move forward,” Baumgardt said.

For the next year, she would wait for SafeSport to finish investigating.

Baumgardt, who by now had left Crossfire, was trying any way she could to hold the club accountable. She filed the legal complaint in King County Superior Court on May 9, 2022. It was settled in the fall. She signed an agreement that does not allow her to disclose the amount of the settlement.

Baumgardt said SafeSport notified her the last week of April this year that they had closed their investigation. She said they told her they had given James a “warning,” but that there was “insufficient evidence” to support sanctions.

When reached by KNKX, the SafeSport investigator assigned to this case said he could not comment due to confidentiality reasons. A spokesperson for SafeSport confirmed it's their policy to not comment on investigations to “protect the integrity of its investigative process.”

In its annual reportreleased June 30, SafeSport says 2,039 allegations of emotional or physical misconduct were made to the center in 2022, nationwide across all sports. The report highlights that as a 300% increase in such allegations since 2020.

The annual report includes a breakdown of the ways SafeSport resolves cases. Most commonly, cases are administratively closed. Usually, the report says, that happens early on in the process, often when someone who reports alleged misconduct decides not to participate in an investigation, or otherwise when there’s not enough evidence to proceed.

“I was a part of that culture for 13 years and I chose to stay...Being away from it for the past year, you realize kind of really how bad it really was.”
Justi Baumgardt, parent and former Crossfire coach

In many cases, SafeSport declines jurisdiction. According to the report, “when appropriate” SafeSport refers those cases involving emotional and physical misconduct to the relevant national governing body (such as U.S. Soccer) to investigate.

A violation is found in about 13% of the cases SafeSport resolves. The report says very rarely, in 157 cases since 2017, SafeSport completes an investigation with “no violation,” finding that there isn’t enough evidence to show misconduct or impose sanctions under SafeSport Code.

KNKX reached out to Bernie James for comment. He responded with a prepared statement:

“On April 27, 2023, the US Center for SafeSport concluded their open investigation related to allegations made against me after a year of investigation. The allegations, the allegations [sic] against me and my conduct were unfounded and dismissed. I would like to thank everyone for their participation and honesty in the investigative process. I will continue coaching at Crossfire and will continue to unlock our players’ potential through effective and supportive coaching.”

After the initial publication of this story, a SafeSport spokesperson contacted KNKX and said that claims by individuals that the allegations outlined have been “cleared” and “dismissed” are false.

“These types of cases can be re-opened at any time if a Claimant feels ready to proceed, new information comes to light, or new Claimants come forward,” Hilary Nemchik, senior director of communications at SafeSport, said in an email.

When the Yates report finding misconduct at the pro level was released in October, Baumgardt said it validated her decision to speak up about Crossfire.

“I was a part of that culture for 13 years and I chose to stay,” Baumgardt said. “Being away from it for the past year, you realize kind of really how bad it really was.”

Shortly after SafeSport concluded its investigation, Baumgardt decided to retire from coaching club soccer.

Bernie James and Billy Wiskel continue to coach at Crossfire.

Grace Madigan can be reached at

Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Tony Schick contributed to this story.

Corrected: July 12, 2023 at 10:11 AM PDT
Updated to reflect Sally Yates' served as U.S. Deputy Attorney General. Yates' very briefly served as Acting U.S. Attorney General but was never confirmed.
Updated: July 10, 2023 at 4:54 PM PDT
Clarified details in the SafeSport annual report about the number of allegations made to the center. Added new comment from SafeSport spokesperson.
Grace Madigan is KNKX's former Arts & Culture reporter. Her stories focused on how people express themselves and connect to their communities through art, music, media, food, and sport.
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