Don Garber

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MLS’s new ‘no political display’ policy causes controversy

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Major League Soccer’s new policy that bans political displays at matches is stirring controversy in the Pacific Northwest, where supporters’ culture is often intertwined with politics and social issues.

The Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers have banned signs and flags with the “Iron Front” symbol, which they say has become appropriated by some in the loosely structured antifa movement, at times in the context of violence.

The symbol of three arrows pointing downward and to the left dates back to an anti-Nazi paramilitary organization formed in Germany in the 1930s. Supporters’ groups maintain the symbol represents opposition to fascism and persecution – a human rights issue, not a political stance.

“With the recent rise in targeted attacks against so many groups – LBTGQ+, immigrants, women, religious groups, and more – and the presence of fascists in our stadiums, this symbol represents our firm stance of combating hatred in soccer, our communities, and our world,” the board of directors for Portland’s 107 Independent Supporters Trust said in a statement. The group represents fans of both the Timbers and the NWSL’s Thorns.

The league’s new fan code of conduct, implemented this season, prohibits “using (including on any sign or other visible representation) political, threatening, abusive, insulting, offensive language and/or gestures, which includes racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist or otherwise inappropriate language or behavior.”

MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said the league worked with all its teams to devise the policy.

“I think it was the belief of the league and the clubs that fans are at our games to enjoy the game and that there is a place for third-party political organizations or groups to express their views, but that place isn’t within our stadiums,” Abbott told The Associated Press.

Major League Soccer is the only professional league among the top five in the United States with a code of conduct that expressly bans political signage. Policies for the NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB mostly deal with fan conduct, like abusive behavior or language, and intoxication. The NBA prohibits “obscene or indecent messages” on signs.

MLS is also the only league to specifically target racist, homophobic, xenophobic and sexist language or behavior, which was lauded by supporters’ groups.

But some questioned the inclusion of political displays as too vague.

“We, as an organization, feel strongly on ensuring that displays of human rights are not mistaken for political statements. Political engagement is sometimes necessary in securing human rights for all, but that does not make the message of human rights inherently political,” the Independent Supporters Council of North America said in a statement following the release of the policy.

Earlier this season, a fan waving a Trump 2020 flag was removed from Providence Park.

Sounders supporters took issue when the Iron Front symbol was included with mentions of far-right groups Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys in a letter from team management that explained the ban.

“Messages, banners, flags or any other symbols that represent an association to a political group will not be allowed in CenturyLink Field. This includes, but is not limited to, Antifa, Iron Front, Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer,” the letter from team management said.

The Sounders later apologized for equating the groups. Taylor Graham, Sounders vice president of business operations and marketing, spoke to reporters following practice last week, saying: “We first and foremost want to put our hand up and say, `That’s not fair, and we apologize for those words,’ putting them in that context.”

But the link to antifa has spurred some to take action. Last weekend a group of a dozen activists confronted fans taking part in the traditional March to the Match. The group also tried to get into a pregame party at a nearby bar but was turned away by bouncers.

There was one scuffle but no arrests were made.

The incident came on the same weekend as the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. In Philadelphia, Union captain Alejandro Bedoya rushed to the sideline after a goal and shouted into an on-field microphone: “Hey Congress, do something now! End gun violence! Let’s go!”

While Bedoya’s statement was clearly political, MLS did not take any disciplinary action. Bedoya was voted the league’s Player of the Week even though he was not included on the ballot.

“The Major League Soccer family joins everyone in grieving for the loss of lives in Texas and Ohio, and we understand that our players and staff have strong and passionate views on this issue,” the league said in a statement.

Abbott said he believes the new policy makes clear that the MLS does not equate different political or ideological groups. He also pointed to the league’s Soccer for All initiative.

“We unequivocally condemn groups that engage in hateful actions and speech. Through our commitment to Soccer for All, it is very clear where the league stands on supporting diversity and inclusion,” he said. “We also recognize the importance of these values to our fans, but we don’t believe our venues are the appropriate place for signage that promotes any kind of third-party political organization or group, regardless of whether we agree with the tenets of that organization.”

MLS give update on expansion situation

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Major League Soccer has issued an update on expansion, and it appears that the Charlotte bid is making a strong case for itself.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber revealed that the league is in “advanced talks” with both St. Louis and Sacramento who many see as the favorites to be awarded teams 28 and 29. Garber also revealed those two teams hope to begin play in MLS in 2022.

At the last MLS board of governors meeting in Los Angeles in April the league was given permission to talk with the groups from Sacramento and St. Louis about a deal, while the board will meet again in December. In the next 30 days they plan to visit both Charlotte and Sacramento after visiting St. Louis two weeks ago.

“We are in very advanced discussions in St. Louis, and we really appreciated the details that they provided,” Garber said in Orlando, speaking from the MLS All-Star Game. “We look forward to continuing those discussions in the weeks and months ahead.”

With no timeframe given for when teams 28-30 will be announced, there is no rush here. But it appears the STL bid led by an ownership group fronted by Enterprise Holdings Foundation president Carolyn Kindle Betz which includes St. Louis FC owners, is way ahead in this race.

It also seems like Charlotte and Sacramento are now level-pegging, which is a little surprising given the fact that billionaire Ron Burkle is now the majority owner fuelling Sacramento Republic’s expansion bid. Garber did say talks with Burkle were “positive” and there is an expectation that both MLS and Sacramento are working through things at a sensible pace.

When asked specifically about STL and Sacramento, Garber revealed that talks are down the line with both but he also revealed that Charlotte’s bid, led by Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, is making headway.

“We are in advanced talks with both of them. They are not exclusive talks. Exclusive means we’re not talking to anybody else,” Garber said. “It doesn’t mean anybody’s leapfrogging anybody else. We are in discussions with Charlotte, but we are also in discussions with Sacramento and St. Louis.”

Where has this Charlotte bid come from?

Tepper has spoken before about his aim to have an MLS team play at the Bank of America Stadium downtown, and Carolina Panthers president Tom Glick was former president of New York City FC. It is clear Charlotte is in talks, but not having a soccer-specific stadium may be hurting its plan a little.

“We are primarily in the business of having teams that play in soccer specific stadiums,” Garber said. “His plan does not include one. So it’s not something that we’re running with very quickly until we’re very, very, very comfortable that that could be a different path for us. And we’re intrigued by that path because of the success we’ve been having in Atlanta and in Seattle and [the Chicago Fire’s impending] move down to Soldier Field. … It’s an aspect of his bid that puts it sort of in a different path.”

Whatever happens, MLS will not be short of options when it comes to this round of expansion, or even beyond that as 32 still seems like the “magic number” for the league.

Reports suggest that the bid teams from Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Phoenix Rising FC, San Diego and Raleigh were all in Orlando for meetings with MLS around the ASG, which suggests that potential expansion cities San Antonio, Detroit and Tampa Bay are now out of the picture.

Garber isn’t trying to rush into awarding the next expansion franchises and that is a very good idea for everyone involved.

“These are lifetime decisions for a board to make and for an investor to make,” Garber said. “There’s a process that we go through that is really really time consuming. These are massive commitments at this point. When you get involved in an MLS team now with the [$200 million] expansion fee and the stadium, it’s a minimum of $500 million dollars. And finalizing those deals take time. Both of those teams [St. Louis and Sacramento] are looking at coming in 2022, so we’ve got plenty of time for them to get their projects finalized.”

Panthers owner David Tepper to meet with MLS about expansion

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Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper and team president Tom Glick will travel to New York next week and meet with Major League Soccer officials in an effort to convince them to bring an expansion team to Charlotte, North Carolina.

Tepper has been working to bring an MLS team to Charlotte since purchasing the Panthers last summer.

Glick believes “the region deserves it. We think the region will support it, and we are confident of that.”

[ MORE: What’s next for the USMNT? ]

He says the goal is to land an MLS team as soon as possible.

MLS will announce two expansion teams by July 31.

Glick spoke Tuesday at a news conference to announce Charlotte will host an International Champions Cup game for the next five years. Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium hosted two CONCACAF Gold Cup matches last month attracting more than 59,000 fans.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Sacramento, St. Louis emerge as MLS expansion favorites

Sacramento Republic
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Soccer fans in Sacramento and St. Louis will be getting pretty excited right about now.

Both cities are in the frame to get an expansion side in Major League Soccer, according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

[ MORE: Cincinnati excel in MLS home opener

Garber has said both Sacramento and STL have “the strongest bids by far” and ahead of the Board of Governor’s meeting in LA next month the expansion picture will be discussed heavily.

The commish also committed himself to making an announcement before the end of 2019 on the next expansion franchise, and “very likely much sooner than that.”

In an interview with the Sacramento Bee, Garber said that Sacramento and St. Louis are way ahead of the other expansion hopefuls but wouldn’t confirm which city is in the lead to get the 28th MLS franchise.

“Both are strong bids, both are great markets, both of them have worked very hard at the political leadership level and very much so at the ownership level, and certainly in each market fans have shown an enormous level of support,” Garber said.

Garber went on to speak of the admiration he has for the new wealthy investors that Sacramento Republic FC have lined up, Ron Burkle and Matt Alvarez, with the former the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL. Brought in by club chairman Kevin Nagle, Burkle and Alvarez have agreed to purchase Sacramento Republic FC if the MLS bid is successful.

For many years, Sacramento were the frontrunners in the MLS expansion race given their impressive crowds in the USL and having a $300 million soccer-specific stadium lined up to be built on the Railyards site in downtown. But from an ownership point of view they were just missing some big investors, as Cincinnati, Nashville and Austin jumped ahead of them. Now, they have the owners they need.

As for St. Louis, their chances of getting a franchise have increased substantially after their MLS bid also received new backing from the prominent Taylor family, who own the Enterprise rental car company. They have revived a bid for a downtown stadium which would be primarily funded privately, and STL’s soccer heritage is clear for everyone to see. St. Louis FC are also having decent success in the USL and their part-owner, Jim Kavanaugh, is involved in their bid as the USL team would become the reserve side if an MLS side arrives in STL.

Adding teams in both Sacramento and St. Louis would also link up plenty of MLS cities nearby, something MLS is keen to do as creating local rivalries has been crucial to the recent success of the league.

With MLS previously planning to only expand to 28 teams, it is also quite clear that it will readjust that number and somewhere close to 30-32 would now be a good number of teams for the expanding league.

Teams 28 and 29 look like being Sacramento and St. Louis, with the likes of Phoenix, Detroit and Las Vegas scrapping it out for the next few spots.

Don Garber to stay MLS commissioner through 2023

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The man who’s overseen Major League Soccer’s dramatic growth in revenue will stay in the job a while longer.

Don Garber has signed a deal to continue as MLS commissioner through 2023.

[ MORE: Icardi stripped of captaincy ]

The 61-year-old Garber has been on the job since 1999, when there were only a dozen teams in the league.

Despite his successes, Garber gets more headlines for his missteps like the sloppy handling of the Columbus Crew situation. There is little doubt, however, that he’s done well for the owners of his league, which has progressed on-and-off-the-field under his watch.

Garber was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2018. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014, and is now cancer free.