MLS players force cancellation of five games to protest Jacob Blake shooting

    Before the opening game of the MLS Is Back tournament in Florida last month, more than 100 of the league’s Black players surrounded the pitch, raised their right fists and knelt on one knee in a choreographed show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

    It was a powerful statement. And it was one that put Commissioner Don Garber in a difficult position Wednesday when the Milwaukee Bucks decided to boycott their game with the Orlando Magic in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, in Kenosha, Wis. Within hours the NBA had halted the rest of its playoff schedule, six Major League Baseball teams decided not to play their games and three WNBA games were called off.

    MLS, meanwhile, issued a two-paragraph statement that condemned racism but made no mention of games being canceled. So the league’s players took matters in their own hands, banding together and forcing five of Wednesday’s six matches to be postponed.

    A half hour after players left the field in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., effectively canceling Inter Miami’s game with Atlanta United, MLS released a second statement in which it took credit for calling off the games.

    Among the games postponed was LAFC’s first regular-season road game at Real Salt Lake and the Galaxy’s first home game in more than five months against the Seattle Sounders.

    “We realized we had a real opportunity to join [the NBA] in this fight and show true solidarity among all the sports in the United States,” LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye said in a television interview. “We had a conversation amongst the players in the league and we wanted to make sure that everyone was onboard and understood the importance of doing something like this.”

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    Kaye said the LAFC players had decided not to play before arriving at the stadium for Wednesday’s road game with Real Salt Lake. Kaye then met with RSL’s Nedum Onuoha and Zac MacMath to work out the particulars.

    “We’re not playing because it’s just unacceptable,” said Kaye, a Canadian. “I want people to realize they need to get out of their comfort zones and understand that people are struggling within their country.

    “This country that everyone says is free and the land of the brave, it’s not what I see. Too many people are in fear [for] their life every day going outside because of their color. Nothing has changed. We, as players, have great platforms to make sure that we can bring attention to these things.”

    Players and staff gather on the field before the scheduled game between Real Salt Lake and LAFC on Wednesday in Sandy, Utah.  (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

    One game — Nashville at Orlando City — began as scheduled at 4:30 p.m. PDT although players from both sides had been discussing the possibility of a boycott up until kickoff.

    Down the Florida Turnpike in Ft. Lauderdale, both teams warmed up and Inter Miami was on the field in uniform before captain Luis Robles conferred with Atlanta United captain Brad Guzan. After a short phone call, the match was called off.

    “We want to let all of the fans know that we made a collective decision between both locker rooms to not play tonight to stand up and fight for social change,” Atlanta’s Jeff Larentowicz said.

    The Sounders never made it to Dignity Health Sports Park for their game with the Galaxy, flying down from Seattle early in the day and then remaining at their hotel as players from both teams debated whether they should play.

    MLS suspended its regular season because of COVID-19 in March and only returned to play in its home markets last week. The league has ambitious plan to finish a 23-game schedule in early November followed by an 18-team playoff tournament. Wednesday’s postponements will only add to what already is a crowded schedule.

    No makeup dates for Wednesday’s game have been announced. The next MLS game is scheduled for Friday with Toronto FC playing at Montreal.

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