The tug-of-war between Major League Soccer and its fans over what constitutes political speech has escalated.
Several members of the Timbers Army, the supporters group that gives Portland Timbers games a pulsating atmosphere renowned around MLS, have been banned from attending games at Providence Park for several matches. The group confirmed the bans on Twitter after a report from ESPN first reported the news, citing anonymous sources. ESPN reported the bans would be for three matches.
The suspended fans flew flags with the Iron Front logo when the Timbers hosted Real Salt Lake over the weekend. The symbol, which was adopted in the 1930s by an anti-Nazi paramilitary group, has become the source of friction in the new MLS fan code of conduct, which bans political signs. Supporters around MLS say the logo represents an opposition to fascism, while MLS says it has been adopted by and represents political groups.
The new ban on political signage was introduced at the start of this season but the issue reached a tipping point on Aug. 23, when the Timbers Army and its rival supporters group, Emerald City Supporters, joined in a silent protest during a derby game between the Timbers and the Seattle Sounders that was nationally televised on ESPN.
Both supporters groups stayed silent until the 33rd minute, which eliminated much of the buzz and excitement that typically surrounds Cascadia rivalry matches. After the 33rd minute, fans for both the Timbers and the Sounders waved flags with the banned Iron Front logo. During that game, Timbers fans were not ejected from the match for violating MLS’s rules.
— Caitlin Murray (@caitlinmurr) August 24, 2019
Last weekend, Timbers Army supporters did not engage in the silent protest, but they did again wave Iron Front flags in the 33rd minute. Again, fans did not report being ejected during the match, but now it appears some of them have been issued bans after-the-fact.
The Timbers Army is one of the most prominent supporters groups in MLS. With nearly 6,000 dues-paying members, the group is known for its elaborate tifo displays and the rowdy soundtrack of chants it provides during games. The group has also at times butted heads with the Timbers front office, but going into Saturday’s match against Real Salt Lake, the group said the front offices from the club and the league were cooperating with discussions.
“They heard our silence, loud and clear. And they’re listening,” the Timbers Army tweeted two days before the Real Salt Lake game. “We’re going to continue the conversation with the front office and the league.”
Both MLS and the Portland Timbers front offices have said they oppose fascism and will allow signs that say phrases like “anti-fascist.” But signs involving the Iron Front logo won’t be allowed because of its association with antifa, which they say is a political organization but the Timbers Army says is just a word for anyone who opposes fascism.
“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,” MLS president Mark Abbott told Yahoo Sports. “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.”