PORTLAND, OR — Whenever the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers face off it’s always the biggest MLS game of the weekend. You can buy the hype about certain teams in California. You can be swayed by the shiny thing Down South, but none of those teams or rivalries have what the Sounders and Timbers have.
In just about every sense, Friday’s match delivered on the hype. There were big goals, tense moments and a raucous atmosphere. In the end, the Sounders retained the Cascadia Cup with a 2-1 win.
But what will make this match memorable is what didn’t happen in the stands for the first 33 minutes when both groups of supporters staged a silent protest. Although there were sporadic cheers from the crowd — and the Sounders section clearly enjoyed Cristian Roldan’s 22nd minute strike — there were no coordinated cheers or tifo from either side until the clock struck 33:00, at which point the stadium erupted in song and flags suddenly filled both supporters sections — including some with the Iron Front logo.
The players — who posed with ownership-supplied banners containing an anti-fascist and anti-racist message — definitely noticed. Going into the match, Stefan Frei was given a heads up by ECS leadership of the protests and what they would entail. Frei talked exclusively with Sounder at Heart in the locker room following the match.
“I was happy about it,” Frei said when asked about ECS and Timbers Army’s protest. “They realized that the atmosphere they create here in our stadium, the league uses this and it’s a valuable part of the experience. When you’re unhappy and you’re protesting, you’ve got to use that power. I don’t think that violence is the answer. I don’t like when people become violent. So, what’s the next step? It’s actively protesting, and most of that time it includes symbols and logos because you’re trying to get a point across.”
At the heart of the protest was MLS’s decision to crack down on “political signage” in the fan code of conduct that was implemented at the start of the year, and specifically a ban on the Iron Front symbol. ECS, Gorilla FC, and Timbers Army released a joint press release ahead of the match to explain what they were doing.
Frei insisted the players were so focused on the match that the lack of cheering early on had no impact on the play. He did, however, hope it had an impact on people watching it.
“For me, looking at this country ... it’s a pretty young country compared to other countries,” Frei continued. “There’s some things that we’re not so proud of and some things that we are proud of. I’ve always thought that a true characteristic of a patriot in the U.S. was to be Anti-Fascism. Screw Communism. Screw Nazis. That’s what it was like to be an American.”
A lot of times when difficult subjects arise, it’s easy to skirt around the edges of the hardest parts. Frei didn’t do that. In fact, he did quite the opposite in sharing his feelings about not just the protest, but what inspired it.
”Nowadays, you have Nazis and white supremacists who wrap themselves in the U.S. flag. That’s an issue for me. Now we’re starting to ban the symbol that opposes that? That’s another issue for me.
“I fully support what our fans are doing tonight. Kudos to both sets of fans. These are two fan bases that hate each other. For them to come together, it shows that they really care about this and they should be listened to. We should come to a solution for everybody.”
Ever the realist, Frei understands that the protests weren’t the end of anything, but rather the start of a conversation that he hopes can lead to change in the culture.
He understands that everyone may not share his opinion, but after becoming a citizen two years ago, he said he felt a duty to use his platform to effect positive change.
“It’s a fine line,” he said. “You always get the line, ‘shut up and play your soccer.’ But if you’re a baker, do I say shut up and bake your bread? Everybody’s got an opinion. If you’re going to ask me my opinion, this is my opinion.
“This is a question, ‘What’s an American?’ I wrestled with this when I became an American citizen. For the longest time when I became eligible, I thought this country didn’t feel the same way that I felt. About inclusion, openness, acceptance, and helping those people that are oppressed. It seemed like there were a lot of people in this country who felt the other way. Then I realized when talking with family members that this was a good opportunity for me to lead by example of what a good American is. I can use my platform, as small as it is, to lead by action. I try to do things in the community. Be open. Accepting of all people regardless of religious beliefs, sexual orientations, or color. It’s a live-and-let-live thing that I’ve tried to live my entire life.”
“Sometimes, it’s difficult for players to come out [in support of an issue]. This is our job. People come to watch us. We don’t want to go out and say, ‘Hey, look at me. I’ve got something to say.’ But I think if someone wants to hear your opinion, you should voice your opinion.”
Supporting those fans who feel their opinions are being marginalized was one such small way he could contribute, Frei said.
“I put them at ease right away,” Frei said. “It’s not even a question. I want to support them. What can I do? I said my piece here. Will this lead to anything? I don’t know. Actions speak louder than words. I’m going to try to do everything I can do with my interactions with other people. I lead by example.”