TUKWILA — Scroll through Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei’s Twitter timeline, and you’ll find photos of his dogs, artwork and an ongoing push to end childhood cancer.
But he’s also used the social media platform to keep an eye on another issue important to him — the conflict between Major League Soccer and its supporters groups over the Iron Front flag ban. So, Frei was glad to read Tuesday evening via his Twitter feed the ban had been lifted for the remainder of the 2019 season and that talks are ongoing about how to handle fan conduct moving forward.
Frei was one of many players who discussed the controversy when Portland Timbers and Sounders supporters groups joined for 33 minutes without organized cheering and waving of flags for a match between the clubs at Providence Park in August to protest the ban.
MLS had previously guided its teams to eject/suspend fans who displayed any Iron Front flag, which sports a symbol — three arrows pointed Southwest inside a circle — that is widely understood as anti-fascist. After an in-person meeting last week and a teleconference on Tuesday, the league reconsidered its position.
“I’m really happy that our fans stood up and fought hard for something that is very important in this country at this moment,” said Frei, who joined with teammates and Timbers players in August to pose with pennants that read, “Anti-fascist, Anti-Racist.”
“The open dialogue, obviously it needs to come to something,” Frei continued. “It can’t just be a, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll talk’ and then nothing really comes from it. The fact that people want to sit down and talk, I’m happy with that.”
The Sounders front office helped facilitate discussions between supporters and league officials after its own handling of MLS’s new Fan Code of Conduct unveiled before the 2019 season caused displeasure among the team’s supporters. Before the updated policy, Iron Front flags were displayed, infrequently, by supporters groups in Portland since 2017.
The 2019 policy states political signs or other visible representations are “prohibited based on safety.” MLS had instructed its teams to deem the Iron Front flag as political because the symbol — originated by an anti-Nazi paramilitary organization in 1930s Germany — has been appropriated by Antifa groups and could incite violence, according to the league.
During a match between the Sounders and Portland at CenturyLink Field in July, Emerald City Supporters, Gorilla FC, which identifies as Antifa, and supporters for the Timbers displayed the flag and weren’t ejected. Afterward, however, Sounders supporters were warned in a letter in which Sounders co-owner Adrian Hanauer equated the Iron Front with the Proud Boys — defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group — and Patriot Prayer.
“Messages, banners, flags or any other symbols that represent an association to a political group will not be allowed in CenturyLink Field,” the letter stated. “This includes, but is not limited to, Antifa, Iron Front, Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer.”
The Sounders front office apologized for its wording but upheld MLS’s ban, ejecting an ECS member during halftime of its Sept. 15 game for waving the Iron Front flag. Many remaining ECS members staged a walkout in protest, leaving two lower sections of the stadium’s southern end empty.
“There’s something our supporters bring to the atmosphere, the experience that maybe can’t be replaced easily,” Frei said. “When you’re looking at an economical standpoint, the league probably realizes that. … I also would argue that (fans are) the ones who built this league. I think it’s an acknowledgment by the league that that is the case and that they deserve to be part of this and that their opinions deserve to be heard.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmezter is a longtime member of ECS and was equally pleased with the progress made between the supporters groups and MLS. He was visibly frustrated about the walkout and wanted the sides to find a resolution.
MLS officials first met in Las Vegas on Sept. 19 with ECS, Gorilla FC, Portland-based groups the 107 Independent Supporters Trust/Timbers Army, and the Independent Supporters Council — which is itself comprised of leaders of various teams’ supporters groups in North America.
During the follow-up teleconference Tuesday, MLS shared it would form “a working group to review the league’s Fan Code of Conduct to ensure clarity and consistency in advance of the 2020 MLS season” in addition to lifting the ban and any suspensions/penalties previously assessed to fans for display of the Iron Front flag.
“Sounders FC strongly supports continued dialogue between Major League Soccer and our Supporter Groups regarding on refining the Fan Code of Conduct, especially with the involvement of subject matter experts,” the team said in a statement Wednesday.
ECS co-president Tom Biro said via text message Wednesday the response from supporters groups across the league has been “overwhelmingly positive” and his group is “pleased with the outcome.”
Western States Center, an organization based in Portland that, according to its website, works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy, has worked with the supporters groups on the Iron Front issue and applauded the league in a statement Wednesday.
“It’s the right call,” the statement reads. “MLS is strongest in its values when the clubs and supporters are aligned in vision. Western States Center believes the decision to consult with the Independent Supporters Council and social justice organizations to craft a new code will reduce acts of bigotry while allowing the display of anti-racist symbols like the Iron Front.”
Sounders defender Roman Torres returned to training Wednesday. He served a 10-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
“It has been frustrating to just sit and watch the games from the outside, unable to help, to motivate,” Torres told Sounder At Heart on Tuesday, the team’s off-day. “Being the leader I’ve always strived to be, it has been hard for me to be away from the field whenever my teams go through difficulties and even more when it’s on the defensive end.”
Torres is eligible for Seattle’s match at San Jose on Sunday. Schmetzer said whether Torres plays depends on how he was able to maintain fitness during the suspension.
Sounders center midfielder Nico Lodeiro is still rehabilitating a lower back injury suffered in a draw against FC Dallas at CenturyLink Field on Sept. 18. Lodeiro missed the road loss to D.C. United on Sept. 22, his first absence in the lineup since July when he joined his Uruguayan national team to compete in the Copa America.
“If we can give him enough legal painkillers, he will play,” Schmetzer said of Sunday. “He’s a big part of this team.”