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MLS political signage ban escalates as fans protest during Timbers-Sounders rivalry game

Timbers and Seattle fans stayed silent during the first half, dampening what is normally a festive derby match.

The Timbers Army waved flags with the Iron Front logo of three arrows pointing down to the left, despite MLS explicitly banning such displays. (Photo by Troy Wayrynen/USA Today)

PORTLAND, Ore. — It was the biggest match of the regular season for the Portland Timbers, and normally that would mean the team’s most fervent supporters would pull out all the stops with an elaborate tifo display and loud chants.

But Friday’s derby match against the Seattle Sounders was a bit different. The Timbers Army, in cooperation with the visiting Emerald City Supporters, stayed silent for the first 33 minutes of the match, removing the festive atmosphere that normally surrounds such rivalry matches. A large tifo display was also canceled.

It was a silent protest aimed at a new policy introduced by Major League Soccer this season that says that any signs the fans display at games cannot be political. As part of that policy, MLS has specifically banned the Iron Front logo, which the league and fans disagree about the meaning of. The logo was initially adopted in the 1930s by an anti-Nazi paramilitary group, and fans say it represents an opposition to fascism, but the league says it has been associated with organized political groups.

The 33rd minute was chosen to end the silence because the Nazi government banned the Iron Front in 1933. Once the clock reached 33:01, Timbers fans erupted into a rendition of their regular chant based on the Italian protest song “Bella Ciao” and resumed their normal festive activities, including drum-beating and flag-waving.

“When you’re on the field, sometimes you lose focus on the crowd because you feel concentrated on the game, but obviously you could hear after they started singing,” said Timbers defender Jorge Villafana after the match, which the Timbers lost, 2-1. “They have their reasons. We just have to focus on our game.”

At least a dozen fans for both the Timbers and Sounders waved the flags with the prohibited Iron Front logo after the silence was broken. After halftime, far fewer Iron Front flags appeared in the stands as Timbers Army members resumed their normal game routines.

Afterward, Timbers defender Zarek Valentin wore a T-shirt with the Iron Front logo in the locker room and expressed support for the fans and his club.

“I’ve been at this club for four years now and I know the ideals of the Army and the team very well, and they align,” Valentin said. “I understand what they are going through, and it’s tough as a player because at times we get caught in the crossfire, but the front office and the TA align in their thoughts. That’s the bottom line. I look forward to seeing a resolution as quickly as possible with the league.”

The starting lineups for both the Timbers and Sounders stood together for a pregame photo with the captain of each team holding a pennant that said “anti-fascism” and “anti-racism.”

Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said after Friday’s game that he was proud of the joint photo.

“I know that this club is against racism and against fascism,” Schmetzer said. “I know that. I believe that with everything that I do. That little bit of support that we’re trying to show to find some middle ground between the fans who are upset and angry (about the policy) — I believe that we erase some of that stuff that out there in the world. I was proud of the guys for doing that little ceremony before the game.”

The Timbers organization has defended their enforcement of MLS’s new policy, issuing a letter to fans earlier in the week that stated the club opposes fascism and racism, and fans are still permitted to wear the Iron Front logo as long as it’s not part of a large display.

The Sounders have apologized to supporters for the language the front office used in talking about the Iron Front logo ban by comparing anti-fascist groups to white supremacist groups.

After the match, some fans on social media alleged that Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Portland Timbers, expressed frustration with the protest to fans in the crowd and blamed it for the Timbers losing to the Sounders. He later issued a statement to the Oregonian’s Jamie Goldberg elaborating on his interaction with fans.

“The Timbers Army didn’t cause us to lose,” he said. “I get and appreciate their issue with the league… But I was upset about the game and I don’t believe a silent supporters section helps our home field advantage.”

Higher-ups at MLS say they instituted the new policy because most fans don’t want to see political displays at games, but MLS president Mark Abbott told Yahoo Sports that signs denouncing fascism and racism will continue to be allowed at games as long as they aren’t associated with political groups, candidates or policies.

“The prohibition on political signage is in place to support the overwhelming majority of MLS fans who come to our stadiums to enjoy a great soccer game,” Abbott said in a statement. “All of our fans and supporters are important to us and we will continue to engage with them to ensure that we deliver an incredible experience for all.”

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