The Pacific Northwest is home to some of soccer’s world-renowned players and voracious fans. Even those who choose to disengage from the cult of sports have heard the name Megan Rapinoe and her ubiquitous “No I’m not going to the fucking White House” quote in the last few weeks. What is little understood outside of the in-crowd is that soccer, both as a culture and as a business, is supported by a loyal and organized fan-base. This is very much the case across Europe and Latin America, whereas the USA is beginning to catch up as soccer fever continues to sweep across the country.
Major League Soccer, or MLS, is the organization that runs North American English-language men’s soccer with teams in the United States and Canada. They maintain the league, and therefore set the rules that both players and fans must abide by. They are a mega-corporation racking in absurd amounts of money as the popularity of the sport grows. Each team in the league has its own “supporter club” and even that is broken down into smaller and sub groups. The Seattle Sounders are supported by the Emerald City Supporters, and the Portland Timbers are likewise supported by the Timbers Army. The supporter clubs maintain their own customs, traditions and rivalries. Typically, they reserve the seats right behind the goal of their home team and these sections spend the entire 90 minutes of the game screaming, chanting, waving giant flags and both encouraging their players while deriding their opponents. The Front office, or FO for a particular team acts as the intermediary between the supporter clubs and the MLS.
For years a large Iron Front flag has hung at the soccer stadium Providence Park in Portland, OR, proudly displayed by the Timbers Army whenever their team plays at home. As is custom, the Timbers Army sits behind one of the goals and along with the normal flags and soccer paraphernalia, the widely understood symbol of anti-fascism has prominently flown. The three arrows have been visible even on national television broadcasts, until earlier this year. Since 2016 Portland has seen the invasion of far-right bigots into the downtown corridor time and time again, and it has been home to some of the most intense racist and far-right violence. The mayor and the city officials lambaste the far-right while allowing them entrance, safe passage and police protection. Inside of this growing assault on antifascism, the MLS decided to clamp down on the Iron Front flag being flown by the Timbers Army. The Front Office (FO) of the Timbers issued a formal warning to the Timbers Army for violating the MLS’ Fan Code of Conduct for displaying a political flag. There had been much back and forth between the Timbers Army and Timbers Front Office, with the former providing details on the history of the Iron Front logo and the implications of anti-fascist imagery. Inevitably the Timbers Front Office declared the Iron Front a political organization, and thus three arrows pointed down and to the left as a political symbol, as such banning it from being used on flags in Providence Park not just during MLS games but also during National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) games. The Timbers Army published the letter from Timbers FO, warning Timbers Army members to “take heed.”
Just one season prior, this conflict between supporter club and league was only beginning to simmer. At a match in Vancouver, B.C. between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Seattle Sounders, two Sounders supporters were evicted from the terraces for displaying a two-pole (typically a small-to-moderately-sized painted-cloth sign held up by two poles) that read “Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist, Always Seattle.” Security in the stadium had been instructed by MLS officials to remove the two supporters due to MLS’ Code of Conduct that prohibits political language. When approached by security, the Sounders supporters refused to hand over their sign, and were kicked out of the stadium.
When news of this broke, Emerald City Supporters stood by their members and at the next Sounders home-game, the entire ECS section was flooded with two-poles that read “Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist, Always Seattle.” The Sounders FO would go on to release an official statement in support of the ECS and the language of the two-poles, in direct opposition to MLS policy, stating that support of human rights was not political language. For the time being, both FO and supporter club were united against MLS policy. The happy union would not last long though.
One of the best rivalries in the MLS is between not only the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers, but also between their respective soccer clubs Emerald City Supporters and the Timbers Army. The stadiums do well to keep the rival clubs apart at games, and interactions before and after have led to more than one scuffle. On Sunday, July 21st, Seattle played host to Portland in only the latest iteration of the bitter rivalry. The Portland Timbers won the July 21st match 2-1, and a fight nearly broke out between the two teams on the pitch as the referee blew the final whistle. Yet more importantly, a large Iron Front flag was seen waving not only in the ECS section, but as well in the TA section on the opposite end of the stadium, blatantly rejecting the MLS’ Code of Conduct that had banned such imagery. As one ECS member stated on twitter, some things are bigger than rivalries.
Within the following week, the Sounders FO would issue a formal warning to ECS for violating MLS Code of Conduct. The warning outlined potential outcomes for supporters flying the Iron Front flag, including but not limited to expulsion from games and 3-game suspensions. In the Sounders FO statement to ECS, they likened signs stating support of the Iron Front as the same as stating support for organizations like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, mirroring infamous alt-right talking points such as “Antifa are the real fascists!” ECS expressed their dismay at the statement, and urged their members to contact Sounders FO, season ticket holders to contact their ticket representatives, and for ECS members to get in touch with each other to brainstorm and share ideas for continuing to share a commitment to anti-racism and anti-fascism. “Just like the Iron Front symbol, the Emerald City Supporters stand for the oppressed and the persecuted.”
The response was immediate as Twitter exploded with statements from season ticket holders declaring they had cancelled their automatic-renewals, ECS members declaring their total dismay and disappointment in MLS and Sounders FO.
Statements of solidarity from anti-fascist soccer clubs across the world were also shared. ECS members, Sounders fans and soccer fans abroad derided the notion that something as obvious as standing against racism, fascism and bigotry is inherently political; or that it could fall anywhere near the same designation as the talking points of white supremacists. They likened being an anti-fascist to the most basic notions of fighting for the human dignity of those around you. And they spoke to the rise in far-right violence with the understanding that Antifa and anti-fascism are a method of keeping each other and whole communities safe. They were unified in their message, that these are not “politics” but the very basic stance of decency that they choose to live by, and they will not be silenced.
Most unprecedented however are the statements of support and solidarity between Sounders and Timbers fans. At the end of the ECS statement, ECS states that they have partnered with TA leadership to fight the ban on the Iron Front flag. As the Timbers Army wrote on twitter, MLS has done the impossible and united Sounders and Timbers fans under one cause: anti-fascism and anti-racism in the terraces.
All of this is happening amidst the backdrop of a wave of violence performed by white nationalists, sometimes murderous, across the streets of the U.S. and Canada alike. To top it all off, MLS has recently signed a partnership with Chik-Fil-A, who has pushed forward anti-LGBTQI legislation, and MLS fans across the league are livid. While Trump echoes Ted Cruz’s calls to label Antifa a terrorist organization, a truly ridiculous claim, everyday people are gathering under the banner of their beloved soccer teams and using sport as a wagon to also carry messages of anti-fascism, anti-racism, futbol sin fronteras. Sports are not meaningless, and they aren’t the most important past-time either. They are simply reflections of what is happening in the world, and soccer has performed this task the world over since its inception. One ECS member defines the role of supporters as “A counter culture once inspired to express themselves in the face of a societal norm, now arriving to the aid of a society in danger of attacks to basic human rights. This is happiness at stake, and what better to defy anything that challenges to take that away than a like-minded force of nature standing shoulder-to-shoulder beside you?”
Stay tuned. This is just one transmission from some disgruntled soccer fans.