Sunday’s Cascadia derby will have a familiar backdrop.
Exactly one year ago, the Sounders FC and Portland Timbers kicked off before a nearly silent Providence Park due to a unified protest by supporter’s groups of Major League Soccer’s ban against displaying the Iron Front flag. On Sunday, the stadium in Portland will be without fans — aside from Portland’s Timber Joey, who slices logs for Timbers goals — for health reasons regarding the novel coronavirus pandemic. This time, the demonstration will be by the clubs in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Last year, the starting lineups for the Timbers and Sounders — hated rivals — posed together prior to the match with each captain holding pennants that read, in part, “Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist.” On Sunday, the sides are expected to unify behind ending social injustice and police brutality in the U.S.
“We’re just trying to do our part as players to use our voices and our platforms to help continue this movement and push for justice,” Sounders forward Jordan Morris said in a recent phone interview. “It’s so important to continue the conversation until there’s real change because it’s obviously so, so necessary.”
The match Sunday, which will air at 7 p.m. on Fox Sports 1, is both clubs’ second return to play since the league shut down in March to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Since then, civil unrest has broken out across the world after the May killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minnesota police officer.
MLS players added protests to their matches during the league’s first return with a tournament in Florida, which Portland won earlier this month. Teams wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts. And prior to matches, there were moments of silence when most players kneeled with a raised fist, signifying the way Floyd was killed — a knee pressed to his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — and power to the people.
It’s an evolved display by a league whose leaders viewed the Iron Front symbol — three arrows pointed southwest within a circle that’s broadly accepted as anti-fascist — as political and thus prohibited under the Fan Code of Conduct.
A majority of the 25,218 in attendance for last year’s derby sat in silence for 33 minutes in protest. MLS lifted the ban weeks later.
The league worked with supporter’s groups to alter the Code of Conduct and is now supporting the missions of its Black players and employees. MLS even issued a chastising statement to negative responses on social media after Nashville SC and FC Dallas players kneeled during the national anthem in protest of injustices earlier this month.
“We’re working on a wide variety of different programs and I’m encouraged by the communication and the activities that we’re working on together,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said during a recent video conference call with media in regards to supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
Combined with the pandemic, the derby marking the return to regular-season play for Portland and Seattle does weigh on the players. Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said his teammates are aware of demonstrators in the city of Portland being in the midst of their 86th day of nightly protests.
Since returning from Florida in July, Roldan has led efforts within the Sounders organization to make sure those who are eligible to vote are registered and do so. He also said he’s in discussions with Garth Lagerwey, the club’s president of soccer and general manager, about supporting local Black businesses. One way could be having Black restaurant owners cater the food players are provided for breakfast and lunch during training days at Starfire Sports in Tukwila.
“Small differences that we make in our daily lives can make a huge impact on these small, local Black businesses,” Roldan said during a video conference call with media members Friday. “That’s something I feel strongly about. … Us as players have so many things to almost understand and absorb at this present time. All of the protest that have been going on around the world are something that we realize is extremely important and we need to continue to keep the message going.”
The players are looking forward to carrying the message through matches. In this return, the Sounders boast their healthiest roster of the season, although down one first-choice starter in defender Xavier Arreaga. The center back suffered an injury during training last week and will be replaced in the lineup by Shane O’Neill.
Seattle will have Joao Paulo, a Designated Player signed in January who missed the MLS is Back tournament due to a right quad strain. Defender Yeimar Gomez Andrade also returns to the lineup after suffering a left hamstring injury in Florida.
But Portland has the momentum as the tournament winner. The Timbers defeated Orlando City SC on Aug. 11 for the title, a cash prize of $1.1 million and an automatic CONCACAF Champions League berth.
Seattle was bumped out by a defeat, 4-1, against Los Angeles FC in the Round of 16. However, only group-stage matches from the tournament count toward the 2020 MLS season, positioning Seattle (2-1-2) two points behind Portland (3-1-1) in Western Conference standings.
MLS’s first phase of the return will feature six games each for 24 of the league’s clubs and eight for Nashville and Dallas, which were withdrawn from the tournament due to multiple positive COVID-19 test results. If still able to play in home markets amid the pandemic, additional matches will be announced culminating with a postseason and MLS Cup on Dec. 12.
“There’s a little bit of momentum,” Portland forward Jeremy Ebobisse told Timbers.com. “Every time you win something, we feel like you want to get more. But I also recognize that a lot of the teams that were expecting to do a little bit better in MLS is Back didn’t do quite as well as they would have liked. This is going to be a moment for them to show that was a fluke.”
And the Sounders are still the reigning champions of MLS Cup and winners of the Cascadia Cup, a regional title clinched with that 2-1 victory at Providence Park a year ago. In fact, as odd as the environment was, the match was a spark for Seattle.
The Sounders went unbeaten in five of the following seven matches to clinch second place in the West and home-field advantage in the playoffs — a key bonus last year because of the atmosphere at CenturyLink Field. But that aspect, as of now, won’t be part of this season.
“It’s certainly easier to play Portland when there’s no fans there,” Roldan said. “The fans add so much to the game. They add the energy, they add the quality. When you are lacking motivation to continue, to track back, they add that bit of spark. … You see all over sports in general. The teams that aren’t expected to win are winning. That might be just because of the conditions, the fans and the concentration that you need.”