There was a smattering of boos and one fan was removed from the stadium for throwing a water bottle when players from FC Dallas and Nashville SC collectively took a knee during the national anthem before their Major League Soccer game on Wednesday in Frisco, Texas.
Dallas defender Reggie Cannon said he was disgusted by the boos at Toyota Stadium when players and officials kneeled to call attention to racial injustice. He said teammate Ryan Hollingshead turned to him afterward and said he was sorry.
"You can't even have support from your own fans in your own stadium," Cannon said. "It's baffling to me.
"As a team we try to give the best possible product on the field, and these last six months have been absolute hell for us. Absolute hell."
Dallas and Nashville had not played a game since the season was suspended on March 12 because of the coronavirus. While other teams played in the MLS is Back tournament in Florida over the past month, Dallas and Nashville were forced to withdraw before the start because of positive COVID-19 tests among players from both teams.
The teams met as MLS restarts the regular season in local markets. Some games will include fans if local jurisdictions allow it. Just over 5,000 were allowed to attend the match at Toyota Stadium, although the crowd that showed up appeared smaller.
Nashville won the game 1-0. The two teams meet again on Sunday.
George Floyd's death spurred a number of MLS players to form the group Black Players for Change, which seeks to eliminate systemic racism in soccer and society.
At the opening game of the MLS tournament in Florida, members of the group collectively stood in silence, fists raised, for more than eight minutes. Players and coaches wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts throughout the event.
Eight minutes, 46 seconds is the length of time prosecutors say Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was pinned to the ground under a white Minneapolis police officer's knee before he died. (Minnesota prosecutors now say the length of time was 7 minutes, 46 seconds.)
The anthem was not played before games at the tournament. Cannon said the players had asked that it not be played before this game because they didn't feel it was right "for the anthem to be played in this moment."
A source with knowledge of the situation said that FC Dallas had asked the league for permission to not play the anthem but MLS insisted otherwise. The league has stated publicly that if fans are in the stands, the standard pregame procession, including the national anthem and new MLS anthem, will take place.
When contacted by ESPN on Thursday, an FC Dallas spokesperson said the club wouldn't be providing an additional statement but then sent out a release later in the afternoon saying the club supports "players and fans in their right to express themselves in a peaceful manner."
"The National Anthem was played before last night's match while the players were on the field which Major League Soccer requires when fans are in attendance. While we understand the decision to stand or kneel for the National Anthem is a polarizing issue, we hope that FC Dallas can be a leader in helping our community accept diverse viewpoints in a respectful way as we all work together in the ongoing fight for racial equality," the statement read.
Cannon said those booing did not understand the reasons behind the players' actions.
"We had someone chanting U.S.A., but they don't understand what kneeling means," he said. "They don't understand why we're kneeling.
"They can't see the reason. They think we're the ignorant ones. It's incredibly frustrating. I'm sorry to have this tone, but you have to call it for what it is."
Cannon said he expected to see some negative pushback over the unified response.
"It hurts me because I love our fans, I love this club, and I want to see the support that the league has given us, that everyone has given us, from our fans," he said.
Later on Thursday, MLS commissioner Don Garber, who reiterated the league's support for the players, said in a statement: "Some of the comments made on social media following the match were appalling.
"We want to be very clear that MLS will not tolerate any abuse or threats to any individual player or team who decides to exercise their right to peaceful protest during the playing of the playing of the national anthem or any other pre-game ceremony."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.