By the time the second half started at CenturyLink Field, the sections behind one of the goals – the place where the most vocal, passionate fans sit – was empty. The buzzing atmosphere of the Seattle Sounders' match against the New York Red Bulls had crawled to an awkward silence as the fans staged a walkout.
It was an act of protest from the Emerald City Supporters group, who left the section after one of their leaders was ejected for waving the Iron Front flag, a symbol that was mostly unknown until Major League Soccer banned it. MLS says it's a political symbol and used by violent far-left groups, but fans say it is an apolitical anti-fascist symbol inherent to their supporters culture.
With the eye-popping demonstration from Sounders fans, the weeks-long standoff over the Iron Front found a new audience who had never heard of the symbol. The videos and photos of the walkout went viral among soccer fans and, it became clear that the more MLS has tried to stop the Iron Front symbol, the wider it has spread.
Now, MLS is trying to figure out how to fix a problem of its own making after issuing a new fan code of conduct this year that banned any political signage, including the Iron Front symbol. The league's president and deputy commissioner, Mark Abbott, met Thursday with members of the supporters groups in Seattle and Portland, where the Iron Front debate has touched off fan protests. Abbott was joined by three other MLS employees.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the meeting say the tone was largely positive, but it ended without a resolution, and the supporters left frustrated that MLS was unprepared to take action. The supporters pushed for concrete steps, and MLS said it needed time to consult with other stakeholders first. A follow-up conference call between MLS and the supporters is set for next week.
But there is mounting pressure from the Pacific Northwest for MLS to act.
Multiple sources familiar with the Seattle Sounders’ and Portland Timbers’ views on the Iron Front issue say both club front offices want MLS to look at changes to the policy that has led to the ongoing controversy, and have quietly been nudging MLS in that direction.
While publicly both clubs have supported MLS in banning the Iron Front, including the local enforcement of ejecting and banning fans who break the rule, the prevailing sentiment behind the scenes is not so cut-and-dry. The club front offices feel MLS's New York City-based executives don't fully comprehend the gravity of the issue in their local markets, and they feel frustrated that the league overstepped its bounds in applying a blanket league-wide rule.
Both the Sounders and the Timbers had executives on the committee that unanimously approved the new code of conduct, but neither club really wanted the new policy in the first place, sources say, and pushed to add more local discretion.
Up until Thursday's meeting, MLS hadn't publicly expressed a willingness to change its policy. Those within MLS had told Yahoo Sports that the recent tussles didn't mean the policy is wrong, just that its rollout may have been flawed.
In a statement issued after Thursday's meeting, Abbott said MLS has offered to review its fan code of conduct and, while that happens, the league will consider changes to the enforcement of the Iron Front ban.
“The goal is to have that process completed prior to the start of the 2020 season,” Abbott's statement said. “The league also committed to evaluating the treatment of the Iron Front flag for the remainder of the 2019 season, while conducting the broader evaluation of the fan code of conduct.”
A promise to consider changes is one thing, but what will likely be much more difficult is nailing down the specific details of any changes. The Sounders supporters groups, Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC, and the Timbers Army will likely revert to staging protests if they aren't satisfied with MLS's response.
As MLS looks at a path forward, it remains difficult to trace the point where MLS decided the Iron Front was a problem. What is clear, however, is that the ban has backfired spectacularly.
Seattle Sounders fans have been using Iron Front imagery since 2009 without issue – the official scarf of the Gorilla FC supporters group included the Iron Front logo, and it has appeared on signs throughout the years.
The Timbers Army has been displaying the Iron Front flag since at least 2017. Sources say the Timbers front office didn't notice or know what the flag was until MLS contacted the club last year and raised it as an issue. As a result of MLS's concerns, the Timbers requested the Timbers Army to stop showing the Iron Front, but the supporters declined to voluntarily stop.
But now the Iron Front symbol is more popular than ever before. Fans with signs or clothing featuring the Iron Front have cropped up in markets where it wasn't previously ingrained in the supporters culture, like in Minnesota, Cincinnati, Atlanta and others. Timbers defender Zarek Valentin wore a T-shirt with the Iron Front logo to a game this year. Some enterprising fans used a projector to display the Iron Front on the side of CenturyLink Field for a Sounders game on Wednesday.
Despite the league-wide ban, fans in Portland and Seattle have continued to display the symbol on signs at every home game since a united protest in August. In fact, the Iron Front has been more visible than it ever was prior to the ban.
Yahoo Sports reached out to MLS about the fan response it has gotten to the ban on Iron Front imagery. While a league spokesman said MLS has received “many emails” in support of the ban since it has become a debate, Yahoo Sports was sent only two specific examples, both from Portland Timbers season ticket holders after the Timbers Army protest during the rivalry game against the Sounders on Aug. 23.
MLS had not received any complaints about the Iron Front symbol before the new code of conduct was implemented prior to the 2019 season, the spokesman said.
The Timbers Army says it has been copied on plenty of emails from fans who oppose the Iron Front ban. The group told Yahoo Sports they had been copied on 102 emails opposing the ban that were also sent to the Timbers front office. Another 33 messages came through the Timbers Army website, 10 criticizing the group's stance and the rest voicing support.
Spokesmen for both the Timbers and the Sounders referred all requests regarding the Iron Front or fan feedback to MLS headquarters.
The supporters groups have expressed hope that Tuesday's follow-up meeting could lead to concrete changes to the code of conduct and the Iron Front ban. Either way, however, it looks like the Iron Front is here to stay.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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