For as long as sporting contests are played by human beings, sports will always serve as a microcosm of society. As racism, oppression, and hate speech have no place in any civilized society, it has no place in sports, and yet we continue to see incidents of it both domestically and abroad. We (the royal “we,” that is) simply tolerate intolerant behavior far too often.
Whether this behavior is truly on the rise, if those who exhibit this behavior are being emboldened to do so lately by something, or if a refusal to put up with it any longer is simply leading to it being called out more often — or if it’s a combination of these things — is a matter for a much deeper study than this post will provide. The bottom line is that such ugly behavior is still being carried onto the pitch and it needs to stop. The vast majority of us are at least rational enough to know it needs to stop, and we want it to stop, but it isn’t stopping and those in a position to stop it or at least reduce its frequency are simply not doing so.
Major League Soccer recently had an opportunity to send a message about the use of such behavior on the pitch, but chose to send the wrong one. Last weekend’s match between the San Jose Earthquakes and New York Red Bulls went through a lengthy delay in the second half, when San Jose striker Jeremy Ebobisse, who is Black, said that a Red Bulls player — striker Dante Vanzeir, as it turned out — used a racial slur. Some pushing and shoving among the team’s players ensued, and referee Ismir Pekmic spent quite awhile gathering information.
During that time, it appeared that Red Bulls goalkeeper Carlos Coronel was informing manager Gerhard Struber what had taken place. Struber opted not to remove Vanzeir from the match. Vanzeir was shown milling about, smiling sheepishly. It’s impossible for people who weren’t on the pitch to know what information was being conveyed, so there was no proof that Struber was aware of exactly what took place, but the video didn’t paint him in the best light with the way things turned out.
The in-game investigation at Red Bull Arena by Pekmic also wasn’t immediately apparent to those in the stands, nor to fans around the league, and a photo of fourth official Chris Penso holding up a sign with more than 20 minutes of stoppage time went viral on social media. It’s simply not normal to see so much stoppage time tacked on. New York’s Tom Barlow scored in the 17th minute of injury time, and the game finished tied at 1-1.
News of why the match was stopped for so long eventually spread, and Vanzeir’s and Struber’s actions fell under intense scrutiny. Vanzeir reportedly owned up to saying something offensive, and the club announced soon after that the forward had “stepped away” from the team so as to avoid creating distractions. On Thursday, Vanzeir was suspended for six games and fined an undisclosed amount by Major League Soccer.
As a minor addendum, Vanzeir also may not play in the U.S. Open Cup, exhibition games or in MLS NEXT Pro matches during his suspension, and he must participate in training and education sessions. MLS purports to have “zero tolerance” for racist behavior on its pitch and in its stands, yet this punishment shows that the league has at least some tolerance for it.
As is usually the case, money is a central factor in this situation. MLS rosters are largely constructed around a small number of talented and expensive players the league calls “Designated Players.” Vanzeir is one of those and, as such, is a major investment by the club’s ownership. Kicking him out of the league or suspending the forward for the rest of the season would indeed send a stronger message, and one more in line with an actual policy of zero tolerance, but it would also likely have a competitive impact on both the Red Bulls and the Eastern Conference.
It would take time for New York to find and secure the services of a roster replacement. On-field results could impact attendance. Jobs could be lost both on the technical side and in other areas. I’m not unsympathetic to the club or its fans, but if this kind of behavior isn’t dealt with in a stronger manner, what is the incentive for teams to improve their vetting process when recruiting potential players? What serves as a deterrent for the next incident?
As for Red Bulls fans, many of them have recognized that there is an issue bigger than soccer at play. The supporters groups have been vocal proponents of harsher punishment for Vanzeir, even though it could hurt their team on the field. Empire SC immediately denounced the punishment as insufficient.
Vikings Army SC issued a statement that its members intend to walk out in protest at tonight’s match.
The South Ward issued a strong statement as well, calling for harsher punishment of Vanzeir and the dismissal of Struber, who was not punished by MLS. The South Ward also pointed the finger at the club for not doing more.
It is commendable to see fans put the need for social change above the success of their sports team. It’s also a shame that such actions are still necessary in this day and age.
Unlike the messaging from fans, the messaging that came out of this week from those in positions to do something was unacceptable on all counts. The league released a statement saying, “MLS has zero tolerance for abusive and offensive language and takes these allegations seriously.”
As mentioned above, six games looks a lot more like tolerance at a level much higher than zero. If the league truly wants to stamp out such behavior, it needs to do more than mandate some training and force a player to sit out for a few games. Similarly, if the league fails to act strongly enough, there is no reason why its member clubs can’t hold its employees accountable at a higher standard than MLS does.
Vanzeir’s statement Monday said: “I will do everything I can to be part of the change that needs to happen in this sport and our world. I also want to apologize to my teammates, coaches, the organization and our fans. I made a mistake and will take all the necessary steps to grow. While I did not intend to cause any harm or offense with my language, I know that I did and for that I am deeply sorry.”
This seems disingenuous when you consider that hate speech, by its very nature, is intended to cause harm or offense. There is no purpose for using it outside of inflicting harm/offense toward someone. None. While Vanzeir is Belgian and therefore a language barrier may exist to some extent, MLS mandates training for all players that should clearly indicate what is and is not permissible and this includes languages other than English.
Racist behavior, or sexism, or discrimination against others for sexuality, age, physical impairment, or any other reason may never be fully eradicated, but societal intolerance of it can be achieved. That requires widespread buy-in, regardless of monetary or time considerations.
The Vanzeir incident could happen anywhere and it has happened in many places, including other MLS cities. It could affect any club. As such, I reached out to Orlando City to inquire about what the league’s exact mandates are in terms of training players/staff on offensive language and what the club is doing. The club referred me to the league offices rather than get into specifics about what MLS and/or the NWSL require, however, an OCSC spokesman did respond with some insight as to what takes place at Orlando City SC, stating the club’s standards exceed what is required by the league(s).
“Each season, our club holds anti-harassment training and, as part of that, all players and all club staff (front office and technical) are given training on prohibited speech — across a number of languages — by our in-house and outside counsel. For us, this is something we are really proud of as it goes beyond what is required by either league, and we feel we are setting the standard for across MLS and NWSL. Overall, we’ve increased our investment in a number of trainings across the club, which again, all go beyond what is required by the leagues, but something we feel is very important in developing the best culture and expectations for our players and our staff members.”
I had also hoped to gain some insight as to whether there is some vetting process when the club is considering signing players, because that is important. After all, the club’s athletes and personnel will spend a great deal of time inside Exploria Stadium, a venue that includes 49 colored seats in a rainbow pattern. Those seats are in remembrance of the victims of the 2016 terrorist attack at the Pulse nightclub leveled at the LGBTQ community — a tragedy with effects that still ripple through our city.
In the history of sport, there have always been clubs that put more (or less) emphasis on the character of their players than others. The way soccer operates worldwide, and often on conflicting schedules, makes it difficult to perform due diligence to ascertain players’ attitudes, beliefs, and values. While I’m sure that some vetting takes place, it’s difficult to know the extent of that without more transparency.
It’s going to take the global soccer village to eliminate — or at least greatly reduce — these kinds of incidents. It’s certainly going to require leagues and clubs to deal with them more harshly. Beyond that, it’s going to take the entire global community to eliminate such behavior in society.
Progress has been made in many places but there’s still a long way to go. Even the lengthiest journey can be a worthwhile one.
Orlando City’s Top Three 2023 Moments vs. Columbus
Relive the top three moments from the most exciting matchup of 2023
There is no debate about it, the two matches between Orlando City and the Columbus Crew during the Major League Soccer regular season provided the most entertainment out of any MLS series throughout the entire year. The teams combined for 11 total goals over two matches and both matchups were decided at the death. Prior to the kickoff tonight in the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals, lets take a walk down memory lane and relive the top three moments from those first two matches. If you are an Orlando City fan, then these moments are without a doubt ingrained in your memory, and if you are a Crew fan, well, either avert your eyes or really question the choices that led you to this blog in the first place.
Columbus Meet Duncan…Duncan, Columbus
Orlando City faced the Crew for the first time this season back on May 13 at a time when the season looked far, far different than how it ended up. Back then, Orlando City was still growing into its identity and the first two and a half months of the season showed just that with a rollercoaster of results. Prior to taking the pitch in Columbus, Orlando had dropped its two previous matches, including getting bounced out of the U.S. Open Cup. One part of the Lions’ identity that was already starting to take shape was their ability to perform on the road. The Lions went into halftime trailing 2-0 against the Crew. However, thanks to a quick strike out of the break from Ercan Kara, City was able to battle back, stealing a point on the road late, thanks to rookie striker Duncan McGuire.
It was McGuire’s fourth goal of the season at that time and ultimately became just another stepping stone on the path to the best road record in MLS. Casual fans may have believed that that moment was the pinnacle of excitement between these two squads. A little over four months later, however, the OCSC vs. Crew matchup took excitement to a whole different level.
Facu Changes the Momentum
Designated Player Facundo Torres initially was left off of the starting 11 for the rematch at home at Exploria Stadium on Sept. 16. after missing time for international duty and returning with a leg contusion. When he did finally see the pitch, substituting on for Felipe in the 57th minute, his team was staring at a 2-1 deficit, which became an almost insurmountable 3-1 deficit just over 10 minutes later when Cucho Hernandez scored in the 68th minute. Despite Orlando going down by two goals, it was clear to see that the injection of Torres onto the pitch had changed something in the way the team was playing. Torres was seemingly everywhere on the field and played at a pace which seemed to surprise the Black & Gold. Torres was able to pull one back for Orlando in the 73rd minute, setting up a mad dash to the final whistle.
Considering Torres was fighting through a knock and had been away from the team representing Uruguay, his effort alone over the final 35-plus minutes of the match was almost enough to warrant a place on this list — even if he hadn’t scored a goal and then also contributed even more…but we can’t spoil those moments yet.
Where Were You When…?
There are a handful of Orlando City moments over the past few years that truly stick in my head as memorable, like Daryl Dike scoring at the death against D.C. United, Alexandre Pato drawing the crossbar one match before Decision Day — and the subsequent goal being disallowed — and the sheer excitement of winning the U.S. Open Cup. The final 10 minutes of Orlando vs. Columbus instantly became one of those “where were you when it happened” type of memories for me and so many others that I have talked to throughout the season. After Torres won a foul and a free kick from about 25 yards out, Martin Ojeda delivered the set piece into a dangerous area. Second-half substitute Ramiro Enrique was in the perfect position to slot home the ball in the 86th minute to level the match at 3-3.
After seeing how things ended earlier in the season at Columbus, and knowing that my blood pressure can only go so high, that was surely the most exiting moment left in the tank, right? Orlando had fought back against all odds to steal another point and walk out with a draw — case closed. The only problem with that scenario is that no one told the Lions that they were supposed to settle for a draw.
Instead, in the seventh minute of stoppage time, Orlando once again won a free kick approximately 25 yards out, and once again Ojeda stepped up to put the ball into play. His delivery missed a soaring Rodrigo Schlegel before falling in front of Torres, who headed the ball low and back across the box where it found Enrique. The Argentine smoothly blasted it into the back of the net, sending all of Exploria Stadium into rapture.
How will these two teams top all this excitement as they kick off the next round of the playoffs? Truthfully, I have no idea. My heart rate and blood pressure could certainly be on board with a boring victory for the Lions, but something in my gut tells me we may be in line for fireworks a third time over.
What was your favorite memory the first two times these two squads threw down? Let us know in the comments below, and as always, vamos Orlando!
Defense Key to Orlando City Reaching Conference Final
Against the high-scoring Crew, the Lions will need another standout defensive effort.
Orlando City is set to open the Major League Soccer conference semifinals one week from today against the Columbus Crew. Earlier in the year, the two teams treated us to one of the most electric matches from the MLS regular season, as Orlando City overcame a two-goal deficit to win at the death.
This go-around, the match is win or go home, and Orlando City certainly cannot advance if it concedes as much to Columbus as it did during the last regular-season meeting.
Dating back to when the regular season resumed after the Leagues Cup, Orlando City has more or less established its defensive identity with a back line of Rafael Santos, Robin Jansson, Rodrigo Schlegel, and Dagur Dan Thorhallsson. This group has gelled over the final third of the season and is responsible for numerous results which helped to propel the squad up the table leading up to Decision Day. Their largest task now lies ahead of them — shutting down the most potent and fluid offense in MLS this year.
Over the two regular-season matchups, Orlando conceded five goals to the Crew. The only other team in the Eastern Conference to tally as many goals over the course of the regular season against OCSC was the New England Revolution, which also netted five goals this year against the Lions. Luckily for Orlando City, the Lions were able to secure four points out of six, even with gifting the team from the Buckeye State five goals.
While it is always a better idea to score more goals than your opponents, the playoffs are a different beast entirely, and Orlando City does not have a great track record of scoring multiple goals in its playoff matches of years past. In fact, Orlando has yet to score more than one goal in an MLS postseason match. Therefore, the best way for the Lions to advance to the conference final will be by leaning on their defensive unit. Jansson and Schlegel must specifically be steadfast in the back against the likes of Diego Rossi and Cucho Hernandez, and while Orlando has feasted lately by allowing its wingbacks to advance forward and contribute in the attack, Thorhallsson and Santos will need to be able to transition quickly in order to cover their bases.
Luckily for the boys in the back, they will also benefit from what can only be described as one of the best defensive midfield duos in MLS from this past year in Wilder Cartagena and Cesar Araujo, who can function as a giant Band-Aid over multiple wounds.
Which defensive-minded player do you think will be the key to shutting down the Crew attack? Let us know in the comments below and as always, vamos Orlando!
Rodrigo Schlegel Has Earned the Right to Continue Starting
Even with Antonio Carlos healthy again, Rodrigo Schlegel’s performances have earned him the right to stay in the starting lineup.
There was an understandable amount of angst and hand-wringing after Antonio Carlos suffered another leg injury back in August, especially after it was determined that he’d be spending extended time on the sidelines. It was the second leg injury of the 2023 campaign for one half of Orlando City’s starting center back pairing, and it came at a time when the Lions needed to keep picking up wins in order to maintain its place in a crowded Eastern Conference.
Lions fans know that Rodrigo Schlegel, the next man up, is one of the better backup center back options in the league, so by no means was the sky falling. That being said, Rodrigo has had a penchant for getting pulled out of position at times, and Carlos and Robin Jansson are one of the best center back duos in Major League Soccer. Schlegel has stepped up in a big way though, and he’s deserved to continue starting despite Carlos being healthy again.
That’s not to say that he hasn’t had some shaky games, and the 1-1 draw against Charlotte FC and 2-0 loss to NYCFC weren’t the best performances he’s ever had in a purple shirt. For the most part though, he’s looked more assured and has played better as he’s racked up more game time. There’s something to be said for building up match sharpness, and for my money that’s been the case with Schlegel.
He also stepped up his performances down the stretch of the regular season and has continued that into OCSC’s postseason matches. During the 3-0 win over Montreal he had a tackle, a block, four clearances, drew a foul, completed a dribble and passed with 87% accuracy. He turned in a similarly strong performance in the second regular-season match against Nashville SC, as he racked up three blocks, three clearances, a tackle, and interception while passing with 88% accuracy.
Those games were just a teaser of what he’s capable of though, as he dropped a worldie of a performance in the Lions’ away playoff game against Nashville. Rodrigo tallied a tackle, an interception, a whopping 11 clearances, drew two fouls, and connected on a long ball. His 41% passing accuracy was pretty ugly, but it came in a game where Orlando took the lead early and spent large stretches of the rest of it simply repelling danger from the box. He also made an absolute nuisance of himself to the opposition, constantly getting under the skin of the guys wearing yellow, and doing little things to keep them off balance and out of rhythm.
The question of who Oscar Pareja would start once Carlos was fit again was an interesting and not entirely straightforward one. There are good arguments to be made for both options, and I wasn’t sure which way he would go. On the one hand, Carlos and Jansson have several seasons worth of chemistry built up, and when they’re on and clicking there aren’t many MLS center back pairings I’d take over them. Logic says that you want your best XI on the field when you get into the pressure cooker of the playoffs, and that would mean starting Carlos.
The other side of the coin says that if something ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Orlando has given up less than a goal per game with Rodri stepping in to start since the return from Leagues Cup, and the Lions have pitched back-to-back shutouts when its mattered most. He hasn’t given Pareja any reasons to bench him, he’s match fit and not lacking any match sharpness, and those things matter in games where the pressure is ratcheted up to 11.
At the end of the day, I think keeping him in the starting XI is the right decision. He’s been playing well, the defense and team as a whole have been playing well, and the stats back that up. Sometimes it’s best to just not mess with a good thing. Here’s hoping that good thing continues for three more games. Vamos Orlando!
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