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For Jeremy Ebobisse, Mark McKenzie & Others, MLS Is Back Tournament About More Than Soccer

By Michael Lewis | July 17, 2020, 1:23 p.m. (ET)

Jeremy Ebobisse competes for the United States on Jan. 27, 2019 in Glendale, AZ.

 

As soon as Major League Soccer returned to play earlier this month in Orlando, the league and its players made clear that social justice was going to be a major theme.

Prior to the opening match of the MLS is Back Tournament between Orlando City and Inter Miami on July 8, Black players from across the league lined up across the field. Players, wearing shirts with sayings such as “Black and Proud” and “Silence is Violence,” outlined the field while Miami and Orlando players kneeled on the outline of the center circle.

One by one, every player raised his fist during a moment of silence, recalling the historic protest by U.S. Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968.

Their demonstration took 8 minutes, 46 seconds, symbolizing the amount of time a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd before he died on May 25.

“Our most impactful moment as of right now was the demonstration before the opening kick,” Portland Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse, a U.S. international and founding member of the MLS Black Players for Change, told TeamUSA.org. “It showed our unity as Black players, the Black Players for Change, and it evoked a lot of support from so many of our friends, teammates, coaches, staff who are learning to try to understand the depth of the pain that we carry and what we share.

“Once you understand that there’s something in us that hurts and that manifests itself in different ways, whether it’s hiding our personalities to be seen as more palatable in certain areas or just that inability to maintain the innocence of life because we know that we always have to remain vigilant,” said Ebobisse. 

Ebobisse was one of 20 players selected for the U.S. Under-23 roster that was to compete this spring for a berth in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Both the Olympics and the qualifying tournament have been postponed due to COVID-19.

The Tokyo Games will now take place in 2021, while the Concacaf Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship has yet to be rescheduled.

In the meantime, Ebobisse is one of 15 MLS players from that U.S. team, 12 of whom are taking part in the tournament (FC Dallas and Nashville SC withdrew following positive tests within their teams).

Going into the second weekend of play, social justice has remained front and center.

Players have been able to add messages to their jerseys. Ebobisse used the slogan “Say their Names,” with the names of the victims. 

Philadelphia Union defender Mark McKenzie, another member of the U23 roster, and his teammates decided to replace their names on the back of their jerseys with the names of victims of police brutality.

“The importance of doing something in sports that’s bigger than ourselves, we have a platform here where we get to influence a lot of people,” McKenzie said. “We are doing that in way that’s encouraging change as leaders on the team. We want to make sure we got it across to everybody. We stood together. We made a decision as a collective to go on and wear the names of the victims on our backs. It encompassed the gravity of the issue at hand.”

“Say their names,” has been a commonly expressed phrase at many demonstrations over the years, Ebobisse added.

“You can’t understand some things until you acknowledge its existence,” said Ebobisse. “We can’t fit every name within our team, but there are countless victims that have been killed since this country started and we chose to highlight several different names over the decades to show the manners in which they were killed, the reasons, none of which were acceptable.”

Ebobisse chose to wear the name of Fred Hampton on his shirt. Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party who was killed during a pre-dawn raid at his house by authorities in 1969. He was 21.

“He was really bringing people together and forming the type of coalition that could potentially change things, at the local level and eventually a national level,” Ebobisse said. “It’s tough to swallow when people question why there is an inherent distrust between the Black community and law enforcement when for so long law enforcement has gone out of their way to undermine the progress of civil rights and the promise of this country.”

McKenzie wore the name of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was killed by police on Nov. 22, 2014. Rice was carrying a replica toy gun in Cleveland.

“It was something that emotionally touched me with his story,” McKenzie said. “I chose Tamir because he was a young Black man similar to the Emmett Till story and I felt that it was important to make sure that his story was told.”

A founding member of Blacks Players For Change, a coalition of Black players in the league, Ebobisse knew that Orlando was just the start of a process that could take years to educate the public and change ingrained attitudes.

“I believe we all have to grow out of our own biases, myself included,” he said. “My biggest hope is that we can socialize our children differently than we were socialized. That in turn, they will start a little bit further on the path to understanding that we need an equitable society.”

 

Mark McKenzie of Philadelphia Union competes at the MLS is Back Tournament on July 14, 2020 in Reunion, Fla.

 

McKenzie has been heartened by the reactions and support by his white teammates on the Union.

“It just adds even more chemistry, adds even more of a connection and a brotherhood of a team, knowing that when we put on our jersey, we're fighting for each other,” McKenzie said. “Having the feeling of knowing the guys around are willing to listen and learn, it’s something that hits home personally for many of the Black players on the team. Feeling that and knowing that they have your back and they're going to use that platform as well is something I can't describe in words.”

Both players were happy to be playing again after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down every major sports league on the planet in March. Life is different as the 24 remaining MLS teams are in a bubble at Disney World. Getting accustomed to the unique environment was difficult, but players adapted.

“At the beginning of the tournament it was a little bit of a challenge getting acquainted to the various protocols and feeling comfortable with the fact that … you have to trust different teams and different individuals and different representatives as well to follow and make sure those protocols were adequate enough to maintain our health,” Ebobisse said. “So at the beginning there was a lot of internal discussion, but ultimately we settled into a good rhythm of understanding what it would take to take care of our own team, making sure we’re not putting each other at risk and letting things spiral out of control. Now, we’re in a good place. Anything can happen. but we're trying our best to control what we can control.”

That would be what transpires on the field. Portland secured a 2-1 victory over the LA Galaxy in its first game on July 13 as Ebobisse scored his first goal of the season. The Timbers meet the Houston Dynamo on Saturday night.

“We came here to hopefully lift up another trophy,”said Ebobisse. “That was the first step in that long path, dating back to when COVID postponed our season, into those individual trainings, into those small group training and full team training. It’s been a work in progress to get to that first game. All the emotions, the positive and negative were expressed in that game in the best way possible. We did a very good job once we’re on the field, being dialed in to do the job what we're there to accomplish.”

Due to the oppressive heat and humidity of central Florida in July, game times are quite unusual and sometimes the extreme. The Union's tournament opener was at 9 a.m., so it was very early to rise.

“I mean, the last time I played a 9 a.m. game I was probably in my youth club days,” McKenzie said. “I like to get up early enough so I can get into a rhythm, so it was getting up at six and taking my typical pregame shower, getting our gear.”

Because the locker rooms were small and did not have showers, McKenzie said it was vital for players to be organized.

“Making sure you have everything lined up to prepare to go out there so once you get on that bus you’re locked into getting three points and win,” he said. “It was definitely difficult, but we try not to make excuses, making sure everyone handled their situation, making sure everyone got the proper sleep was getting proper nutrition, getting proper treatment. So that way for the 9 a.m. game we go out and prepare and have everything we need to get the win."

 Which the Union did, a 1-0 victory over New York City FC on July 9. Philadelphia won its second game 2-1 over Miami on Tuesday and wraps up group play against Orlando on Monday. The top 16 teams move on to a knockout round, with a championship game set for Aug. 11.

As the professional sports world works to come back in the era of COVID-19, both players continue to play the waiting game for Olympic qualifying. The Concacaf Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship was originally scheduled for March 20-April 1 in Guadalajara, Mexico. Concacaf has not made a decision as to when it will hold the tournament. However, the U23 age restriction for the men’s Olympic tournament has been updated to U24 for the postponed Games, meaning anyone eligible for 2020 will still be eligible for 2021.

Given everything that has occurred, Ebobisse, who turns 24 in February, was willing to be patient.

“It’s always a childhood dream to make it to the highest level possible and I think we all as a collective youth national team program looked forward to this Olympics, but it wasn’t meant to be for very clear reasons and we support the decision to prioritize our health as athletes,” he said. “But also as the world’s health over the need to feel that everything's normal. So, there’s no hard feeling there as ambitious athletes.”

“If I have the opportunity to participate in the Olympics, whether it’s next year or whenever it might be, that’s something that I won’t take lightly, but at the same time, every spot is earned and I wasn’t even guaranteed a spot on this Olympic team in the summer. It’s an athletic process of putting yourself in the best shape, the best form in order to have a chance of making that spot and once you're there, making an impact. It’ll be in the back of my mind as we continue to play games and as we continue to find out more information. That definitely will continue to be a goal."

 As will Ebobisse and McKenzie ensuring Black Players For Change will continue to make an impact.

Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for Newsday, has written about the sport for four decades and has written six books about soccer. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.