The temperature was rising at the town hall meeting and all the heat was coming for Racing Louisville club president James O’Connor. It was Friday night, March 10th, 2023 and about 100 or so season ticket-holders had the former Republic of Ireland under-21 international in their crosshairs. The subject was Christy Holly, the Derry man who O’Connor had hired to be head coach in 2020, before firing him the following year as the biggest sexual misconduct scandal in American sport was coming to light.
Holly is a pariah now. Banned for life from coaching in the US, his behaviour towards Racing Louisville player Erin Simon had been laid bare in the opening paragraph of the 319-page report conducted by former US deputy attorney general Sally Yates in October 2022. But sitting in front of the town hall meeting, O’Connor was being asked to account for the club’s actions around the time of Holly’s firing.
How could the club have let this happen? What has changed in the meantime? How can anyone be sure the next Christy Holly won’t be able to find his way into a job coaching players at their club?
O’Connor came under scrutiny for one incident in particular. He did a TV interview after Holly was fired in which he was asked if Holly broke the law. “I don’t know whether I’d say illegal,” was his response. “I don’t know, that’s a subjective viewpoint, if you like, depending on who is asking. I’ll plead the fifth, I’ll take the attorney line on that.” Now, almost two years later, supporters wanted to know how they could take anything he said in good faith, given that was his response when the situation was at its most serious.
“It was a car crash,” he admitted during the meeting. “I am a human being and that was a mistake.” Being Irish, O’Connor claimed to be unaware that to “plead the fifth” wasn’t just a turn of phrase, that it was a legal term referring to the American constitutional right to not answer a question on the grounds you might incriminate yourself.
“If I could go back and change that interview, believe me, I absolutely would. I was dealing with something I had never dealt with before. I made a mistake and I got caught by the questions. If I say ‘yes, it is illegal’ it [would have] caused a furore – the player at the time wanted everything to go away. She was incredibly frightened.”
As it was, all parties signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of Holly’s termination. Holly walked away with a €14,000 pay-off that allowed him to avoid questions about an alleged sexual assault. Erin Simon stayed another season at Louisville before moving to England to sign for Leicester City last summer. Racing Louisville appointed an interim coach before launching an open process of finding a new one full-time, eventually hiring Swedish coach Kim Björkegren.
“Like we did the other night, you need to come out and try to be as transparent as we can,” O’Connor told The Irish Times after the town hall meeting in March. “We are trying to move forward. All these events happened in 2021.”
“On April 21, 2021, the head coach of Racing Louisville, Christy Holly, requested that a player, Erin Simon, attend a game film session with him alone. She knew what to expect. When she arrived, she recalls Holly opened his laptop and began the game film. He told her he was going to touch her ‘for every pass [she] f***ed up’. He did.
“Simon reports that he pushed his hands down her pants and up her shirt. She tried to tightly cross her legs and push him away, laughing to avoid angering him. The video ended, and she left. When her team-mate picked her up to drive home, Simon broke down crying.
“Holly is not the only coach to have abused an NWSL [National Women’s Soccer League] player, and Erin Simon is not the only NWSL player to have been abused.”
– Report of the independent investigation to the US Soccer Federation concerning allegations of abusive behaviour and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer, by Sally Q Yates, October 3rd, 2022
“On one occasion, Holly took [Erin Simon] upstairs and began showing her film and discussing soccer, but then he searched for and showed her pornography. Holly then pulled down his pants and began masturbating in front of her.
“Holly grabbed Simon’s wrist and forced her to touch his penis. Simon told Holly she was uncomfortable and did her best to get out of the house, but she did not want to anger Holly because she was scared. Simon described feeling helpless and like she could not escape.
“She recalled trying to leave Holly’s house, but as she rounded a corner to go downstairs to leave, Holly grabbed her arm. Simon felt scared and physically intimidated.”
Report of the NWSL and NWSL Players Association joint investigative team, December 14th, 2022
Who is Christy Holly?
Christy Holly first landed in New Jersey in 1995, aged 10, with the City of Derry swim team. He described the trip as “a reward for swimmers who were trapped in the conflict”. He returned to the US every summer for the next decade, eventually moving full-time in 2007.
“Growing up in Ireland, trust me, I saw some interesting stuff,” he told the Leadership Louisville podcast with Aaron Miller in August 2020. “It was a very violent, hateful place at the time. You saw people get very badly hurt.”
From Culmore Point in Derry, Holly was born into a GAA family with ties to St Galls in Belfast, where his father Brian played, and the Eoghan Rua club in Coleraine. His brother Niall Holly and cousins Barry and Sean Leo McGoldrick were Derry senior footballers.
In 2007, after getting a degree in Sports Psychology from John Moores University in Liverpool, he moved to the US, working for Global Premier Soccer (GPS), a company founded by Derry brothers Joe and Peter Bradley. GPS ran youth soccer camps and Holly coached girls in them. The camps have since closed down – a US Department of Justice investigation into GPS for visa fraud forced its demise in 2020.
Sky Blue FC
In the mid-2010s, GPS supplied coaches to a New Jersey club in the NWSL called Sky Blue. Holly would later tell the Boston Globe that he was “the mutual connection” between GPS and Sky Blue, which is where his career in professional football gathered momentum.
“The women’s clubs over here lose money,” says Stephen Griffin, the former CEO of GPS parent company Legacy Global Sports. “So it is easy for a guy to slot in and say, ‘I’ll be an assistant coach, I’ll volunteer.’ One thing led to another, there was a turnover of coaches and he ended up becoming Sky Blue head coach.”
When Holly was coming through the ranks at Sky Blue, he had a reputation for being well liked by everyone. He began as a volunteer coach in the underage ranks in 2013 and worked his way into the orbit of the senior and reserve teams within a couple of years, becoming head coach in January 2016.
The fact that he never had a coaching licence was no barrier to his advancement – neither during his time with Sky Blue nor later with US Soccer or Racing Louisville. Partly this was down to the often ad hoc nature of the sport at the time; partly it was because the force of his personality carried him a long way.
[ Derry man Christy Holly among four coaches to receive lifetime ban from NWSL ]
“Holly was friends with lots of the team,” says one player from the Sky Blue squad around that time. “He was fairly normal. When he got the head coach role, we thought it was going to be great. We liked him. Nobody had any red flags. Everyone liked him.
“We were a bit confused because all we knew him as was a volunteer assistant coach. Like, how does somebody go from that to being a head coach? But because we all liked him, because he had charisma, it was fine. We thought he was going to be good.”
For Holly, it was a huge achievement. The NWSL was accepted by all as the best league of its kind in the world at the time. It was the first iteration of a pro soccer league in the US to survive past three seasons and, at just 31, Holly was the youngest head coach of any of the 10 teams.
Sky Blue had serious talent in the squad as well – 10 of the 22 players had featured in the previous summer’s World Cup. They had the best goalscorer in the league in Australian striker Sam Kerr, as well as serial Olympic and World Cup winners in Kelley O’Hara and Christie Pearce Rampone. Megastars.
But it soon became clear that Holly wasn’t up to the job. Sky Blue could only manage three wins in their first 11 games in the 2016 league and, behind the scenes, he struggled to convince the players that he could improve the situation.
“The problem was, he sucked as a coach,” says a Sky Blue player contacted by The Irish Times. “I’ve had the worst of the worst and the best of the best coaches in my career and he was very close to the worst. He couldn’t solve problems. It was always our fault.
“He would spend video sessions just narrating what was happening on the screen. You can get away with that at college level but do that with professional players and they work out very quickly that you don’t have any solutions. On the training field, his sessions were repetitive. If we asked questions, he yelled at us and told us to figure it out.”
Ultimately, though, there was another factor at play in Holly’s demise at Sky Blue: he began an affair with one of his players, Christie Pearce Rampone. The defender was one of the best-known players in the game and had just finished a glittering international career during which she’d earned 311 caps for the US national team and captained them to enormous success. She was married with two kids.
“He is not in that position very long and he ends up having an affair with Christie Pearce Rampone,” says Stephen Griffin. “Now he is inside the organisation. He is the coach and his mistress is one of the most famous American players of all time. He now has cover, he has credibility. He is with her.”
While relationships between coaches and players were generally frowned upon because of the power imbalance, Holly and Pearce Rampone didn’t break any league rules by starting a relationship. But it did cause growing tension within the Sky Blue dressing room, creating a clear rift between the pair and the rest of the squad.
Holly’s behaviour became increasingly erratic. Players complained of verbal and emotional abuse. Pearce Rampone, who by now was in her early 40s and clearly on the wane, nonetheless played every minute in the 2016 season and was still a fixture in 2017.
Eventually the atmosphere in the dressing room became so toxic and disruptive that it led to Holly being fired in August 2017, midway through his second season as head coach. Sky Blue made no mention of the turmoil as Holly was let go, instead saying that they “wish him nothing but the greatest of successes in whatever he chooses to do going forward”.
Christie Pearce Rampone retired two days later.
How did Holly get a job at US Soccer?
In July 2019, the US women’s soccer team won their fourth World Cup. Christy Holly was an opposition analyst for the US squad during the tournament in France and holds a World Cup winner’s medal as a result. That same year, according to the two investigations, his alleged sexual misconduct towards Erin Simon began.
Simon first encountered Holly in 2016 when she was 22. She had just graduated from Syracuse University when he offered her a contract at Sky Blue. She was released in 2018 – after Holly and Pearce Rampone had left the club – joining West Ham United in the English Women’s Super League. In the NWSL investigation, Simon credited the move “in large part to Holly’s help and connections”.
As she made her way through the early part of her career, Simon saw Holly and Pearce Rampone as mentor figures. She spent time with them away from the game and called to them when she came home to New Jersey for the summer of 2019. On one particular visit, she claims Holly grabbed her breasts when Pearce Rampone was present but had her back turned.
[ Lisa Fallon: Report on abuse in US women’s soccer points to the need for root and branch reform ]
Twelve months after leaving Sky Blue, Holly began a “limited per diem” arrangement with the US Soccer Federation (USSF). The Yates report states that he was paid “less than $10,000″ in 2018 and 2019 for work which included opposition scouting for the senior squad, talent identification and assistant coaching at under-17 and under-23 training camps.
It has never been made clear how Holly came by this job. In an interview with the BBC not long after the World Cup final in Lyon, he spoke about travelling to 10 different countries in the previous six months. “I managed a lot of the national team’s players at [Sky Blue] so I had a good relationship with head coach Jill Ellis.”
Ellis managed the US team from 2014 to 2019 and Holly has described her as a mentor in interviews. The NWSL report states that while Ellis “ultimately made the decision” to hire him, “she did not undertake any due diligence, background checks, or reference checks”.
It also branded his recruitment as “relationship-based” while Ellis recalled that BJ Snow, who oversaw the US scouting network, recommended Holly. But Snow did not assist either investigation and efforts by The Irish Times to interview him proved unsuccessful. Last year he launched a youth soccer camp with his wife, Lindsay Tarpley, the 125-cap US international and two-time Olympic gold medallist, out of the Portage club in Michigan.
In August 2019 Holly informed Simon that she had been called up to the US under-23s. She was “nervous” about his presence as an assistant coach, claiming that he “repeatedly” invited her to his room during the camp. Though she declined, Simon could not shake the feeling that she owed him. Later that year, when she got an offer out of the blue to join Houston Dash, Holly told her that he “may have talked to some people behind the scenes”.
Racing Louisville FC
When Holly signed Simon for a second time, to Racing Louisville in November 2020, she texted him to say all advances must cease “now you’re my boss”. Holly texted back: “I’ve got until January 1st.” That was the date she would join Louisville, when he would officially become her coach again.
According to Simon, his advances only escalated. On one occasion Holly and Pearce Rampone were in Simon’s parents’ house for dinner and while Pearce Rampone was getting a tour, Simon said that he grabbed her buttocks. She moved away and told him he was insane.
Before the season started, Holly invited Simon over to Pearce Rampone’s home for video analysis sessions, saying his partner would also be present. She was not. Simon said that Holly touched her, pulled up pornography on screen, pulled down his pants and masturbated in front of her. She claims Holly grabbed her wrist and forced her to touch his penis. She said nothing because she feared for her safety and believed he could ruin her career.
And yet, when Racing Louisville appointed Holly, James O’Connor described the Derry man as a “well-rounded individual”. Racing’s then-president Brad Estes said: “His character and values will fit perfectly within our organisation.”
O’Connor was promoted in 2022, replacing Estes as club president. The 43-year-old Dubliner had a solid playing career in England, mostly in the Championship. He made 454 appearances in 12 seasons for Stoke, West Brom, Burnley and Sheffield Wednesday before finishing his career at Orlando City. He coached for five seasons in Orlando and Louisville before moving into an executive role at Soccer Holdings, Racing’s parent company.
“We had a profile in mind for head coach,” O’Connor told The Irish Times of the decision to hire Holly. “We wanted league experience and someone who had an understanding of the best young players coming through the American system. There was his experience of working with the youth national teams and his experience of scouting international opponents. So, when we looked at him, there was a number of factors, like the degree in psychology, that we felt confident in giving him the opportunity.”
Within the NWSL report, Sky Blue claimed to have given O’Connor a clear warning about Holly’s conduct. US national coach Vlatko Andonovski even recommended “due diligence” be carried out by Louisville before the hire was completed as “there is obviously a reason why he got fired from Sky Blue”. O’Connor was also aware of Holly’s relationship with Christie Pearce Rampone.
One Sky Blue co-owner asked club executive Mary Smoot “to convey that Holly did not eave due to job performance reasons”. Smoot recalled telling O’Connor and Estes that “the players did not have a positive experience” with Holly.
She noted that neither man asked any follow-up questions. “To me, it sounded like they [had] made their minds up. It wasn’t a long conversation. They didn’t ask me if I would hire him.” Soon after, O’Connor informed the media that the Sky Blue ownership had given Holly a “glowing recommendation”. Smoot categorically denies this.
Before the alleged sexual assault of Simon, three Louisville players complained to O’Connor about the head coach’s methods, with at least one player feeling betrayed when management brought Holly into the discussions as it “created a fear of retaliation”. O’Connor’s stance on this now is that four months into a newly formed team, addressing complaints about Holly’s management style was “best served by bringing everybody together”.
“There was one particular player that was not pleased with how Christy had been speaking to her,” said O’Connor. “That was addressed privately with Christy. The player felt there was a discrepancy in how he would shout at her, or shout at younger players versus older players. You would speak to the older players, and they just felt the younger players needed to be a little bit tougher.”
The NWSL disagreed, subsequently fining Racing Louisville $200,000 for the handling of his recruitment, time at the club and circumstances around his dismissal.
Over the course of the past eight months, The Irish Times has repeatedly asked Holly and Pearce Rampone to comment on the accusations made against him. They have not responded.
After being fired by Racing Louisville, Holly returned to New Jersey, where he currently lives with Pearce Rampone and her two daughters. He worked at a restaurant in Spring Lake until the Yates report came out last October. Currently, he is believed to be employed in construction.
In May 2022, Christie Pearce Rampone was inducted into the US National Soccer Hall of Fame, in recognition of a phenomenal international career, serving as captain on 113 occasions. She has never made any public comment on the end of her time at Sky Blue or on the allegations surrounding Holly, who has referred to her as his fiancee in media interviews.
Chris Rampone is Christie Pearce Rampone’s ex-husband. “The most important thing is my kids,” he told The Irish Times. “It is an ongoing nightmare.
“We got divorced towards the end of her career. The marriage was really rough. As captain of the [US] team for nine years, we were travelling all over the world, 200 nights a year, with the kids. So it wasn’t easy on us. We needed some distance at the end.
“Christy Holly moved into the house immediately and with the children they saw him as a family friend. I don’t know what kind of man would do that. You would give it some time and let the children breathe a little bit. The girls are relying on their mother to make good decisions. She has him in the house. I cannot imagine a worse situation.”
Erin Simon’s most recent appearance for Leicester City was against Manchester City in February. “This has not been an easy journey by any means,” she posted on Instagram last October when the Yates report came out. “However, the outpouring of love and support I have received from so many people has given me more strength, hope, and motivation to continue moving forward towards making a change. Let us be the voices who turn this sport back to a safe place we all deserve.”
In January, Holly was one of four coaches to receive a lifetime ban from coaching in the NWSL. Since then, US Soccer has placed him on a “risk management list.” Any attempt by him to coach soccer at any level in the US will be reported to the US Center for SafeSport.
– Additional reporting by Malachy Clerkin