MLS has been in a season-long game of chicken with its own fans, and that feud has now entangled one of the more high-profile fanbases in the league. As first reported by ESPN and then confirmed by Portland Timbers supporters group Timbers Army, a “handful” of Portland fans have been banned for three games due to flying Iron Front flags at Saturday’s home game against Real Salt Lake.
(We’ve emailed the Timbers Army for comment and will update if they respond.)
The Iron Front flags fall under the league’s new definitions of what constitutes a political sign; it has already deemed anti-fascist and anti-racism signs to fall under that category, and so a sign symbolizing an anti-Nazi organization created in Nazi Germany surely qualifies. Fans across the league have made the correct counter-claim that there is nothing political about opposing racism and fascism, but for now, as the rules are written, the Iron Front signs are definitely not allowed by MLS policies. That’s where the problems have occurred this season.
The Portland bans come on the heels of ejections across the league, and in at least one case, suspensions for a similar incident in Atlanta. However, more than any other fanbase in the league, save for perhaps their Pacific Northwest neighbors in Seattle, the Timbers supporters are widely revered across the league (and by the league itself) for their passion and outspoken behavior. MLS is now shifting its eye of Sauron towards Portland, and it’s likely that this is going to get uglier, particularly with the MLS Cup playoffs around the corner.
Portland (and Seattle) supporter groups have already shown their displeasure over MLS’s Fan Code of Conduct, which bans political signage at matches and which has been the catalyst for all of the unrest and dysfunction between a league that claims to value fan community above all else and those very same fans who feel silenced by the league in favor of a bottom line. At the Timbers-Sounders derby on August 23, die-hards from both teams engaged in a silent protest for the first 33 minutes of the match—symbolizing 1933, the year that the Iron Front was disbanded in Nazi Germany—to show their opposition to the silencing of signs deemed too political by virtue of being anti-fascist and anti-racism.
If MLS was hoping to have this go away, the absolute worst thing they could have done is suspending members of the Timbers Army. It’s possible, if not likely, that this will only lead to more coordinated protests from one of the league’s marquee fandoms, all over signs that the regular television viewer—the demographic that MLS is seemingly trying to protect from, uh, being radicalized by an Iron Front sign?—can barely see or recognize. Shooting itself in the foot is standard operating procedure for MLS, but surely even they have to recognize that the only way they win this feud is by driving away the very fans that help keep it alive and relevant.
UPDATE, 3:20 p.m.: The Timbers Army released a statement regarding the bans for the fans who displayed the Iron Front banners. You can read it in full here.