Nani called it beautiful and emotional. He wasn’t talking about either goal he played a part in during Orlando City’s 2-1 victory over Inter Miami on Wednesday night.
Nearly 200 players took the field for an 8-minute, 46-second moment of silence to protest racial injustice before Major League Soccer’s return to action. Players wore black T-shirts, black gloves and black facemasks emblazoned with Black Lives Matter. The shirts had varying slogans that included Black And Proud, Silence Is Violence and Black All The Time.
The players walked toward midfield, raised their right arms one at a time and held the pose so long that some could be seen stretching fatigued muscles afterward.
It was a poignant moment that put two of the nation’s most prominent changes over the last four months - masks and movements - at the forefront of the sport’s return.
“I felt for a couple of minutes,” Nani said shortly after scoring in the seventh minute of stoppage time. “We all want to change the world. We want a better world - no differences, no discrimination. ... Everyone in the world should stop for a couple of minutes and think about our children and teach them how to be a better person and create a better world.”
The group setting the tone was formerly called the Black Players Coalition of MLS but changed its name this week to Black Players for Change. Originally announced on Juneteenth, the group started in the wake of George Floyd’s death with the hope of combating systemic racism both in football and the players’ communities. The league and the players’ union endorsed the organisation.
Several other players from Orlando City and Inter Miami took a knee near midfield during the demonstration.
The two in-state teams delivered their own moment of silence by taking a knee along with the referee and their assistants just before the opening kick.
The national anthem was not played before or after the demonstration. MLS previously said it would not be played because no fans were in attendance.
Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes. Prosecutors said that a police officer had his knee on the neck of Floyd for 7 minutes, 46 seconds - not the 8:46 that has become a symbol of police brutality.
MLS players had weeks to decide what to do prior to the MLS is Back tournament at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World in Florida.
The league’s teams are sequestered in resorts for the duration of the World Cup-style tournament, which began with a Group A match that was the first meeting between two Sunshine State teams, with former St Mirren and Celtic winger Lewis Morgan in the Inter Miami side.
FC Dallas withdrew on Monday after 10 players and a coach tested positive for Covid-19. A day later, Nashville SC’s status was thrust into doubt with five confirmed positive tests.
Nashville were supposed to play Chicago in the second game of a doubleheader on Wednesday but it was postponed.
Like other leagues across the world, MLS shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic on 12 March, after the league’s teams had each played two regular-season games.
The reboot had a considerably different feel - without fans and with plenty of concern even amid a safety bubble.
“Today we made the noise,” Orlando coach Oscar Pareja said.
But 25 teams that include nearly 700 players plus coaches, trainers and other support staff do everything right for a month? And what’s the threshold for more positive tests?
The NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball surely have a close eye on what’s happening outside Orlando.
The NBA should get an up-close look. The league already has part of its bubble established at the sprawling ESPN venue. NBA team flags fly on every flagpole, and some areas have been sanitised and cordoned off for basketball’s return later this month.
MLS is using three pitches near the back of the complex, two of the ones the NFL used for Pro Bowl practices over the last four years. The league mandated masks for everyone other than players. Miami star Rodolfo Pizarro, though, wore one during warm-up. Footballs knocked out of bounds were wiped down before being placed back into the mix.
Many of the protocols are similar to those being used in other sports but, of course, there is no social distancing on the field.
Miami’s Andres Reyes left on a stretcher early in the second half after a collision with Orlando’s Dom Dwyer. Replays appeared to show Dwyer hitting Reyes in the throat as they went for a 50-50 ball.
Reyes had trouble breathing as team-mates and the referee called for help. Adding to the growing concern on the field, the emergency crew got hung up trying to gain access to him.
Security personnel struggled to open a gate, delaying the medical team’s response. It was slow enough that one of Reyes’ team-mates, Juan Agudelo, ran across the field to help and ended up assisting in pulling the stretcher across the soggy grass.
Chris Mueller scored the equaliser for Orlando, getting a sliding toe on a perfect cross from Nani to the back post in the 70th minute.
“We deserved to win that game,” Pareja said. “It was a reward for the players, what they did on the field.”
Agudelo scored the first goal of MLS’ return, drilling a left-foot shot past Pedro Gallese.