FC Dallas rising star Reggie Cannon’s passionate defense of taking a knee during the national anthem at Wednesday’s home game against Nashville game drew strong support from a friend in Philadelphia.

“We have a platform here to play football, but we also have a platform to influence change and to shape the next generation to be better,” said the Union’s Mark McKenzie, who like Cannon is a young Black American in MLS with a strong social conscience. “He has the full support of many players around the league [and] around the world.”

Some spectators at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, booed the kneeling players, and the Dallas Morning News reported that someone also threw a water bottle from the stands. McKenzie thanked the many fans leaguewide who condemned those acts.

“It just goes to show how much work there is to be done, and that’s not going to stop any of us from making a stand and continuing to push for equality,” McKenzie said. “Somebody said this kneeling is becoming overkill now — I think that sums it up in a nutshell. The injustices, the systemic racism, I think that’s an overkill. This is nowhere near that.”

ESPN reported that the fan who threw the water bottle was ejected. FC Dallas issued two official statements that supported the players and condemned abuse toward Cannon, but notably, neither mentioned fans at the game.

MLS is playing the anthem at games with fans in attendance but not at games behind closed doors. The anthem wasn’t played at the tournament because teams did not line up on the field as they traditionally do. Commissioner Don Garber said before the tournament that it was a health matter, and backed the players’ right to peaceful protest. He reiterated that right in a tweet Thursday evening.

When Garber met with reporters last Saturday to discuss resuming the regular season, he said the league believes “the national anthem is part of a pregame ceremony, and without fans, we don’t see a need for a pregame ceremony.” He didn’t elaborate on why the need is seen when fans attend games in the current circumstances.

As of now, only three teams are allowing fans to attend games, all in small numbers: Dallas, Real Salt Lake, and Sporting Kansas City.

Players trust MLS coronavirus protocols for traveling

In the nearly five months since Kacper Przybylko recovered from COVID-19, Union players and staff have done a fine job of holding the virus at bay. And the tournament bubble Major League Soccer built at Disney World ended up succeeding after a rocky start.

But the task of keeping everyone healthy is a lot harder now that MLS teams are traveling for games.

At least for now, Union players seem to trust the league’s health and safety protocols as they prepare to return to action Thursday at the New England Revolution. Their first home game is Aug. 25 against the New York Red Bulls.

“I think they did a pretty good job with MLS Is Back, but yeah, I think there’s always that possibility of something happening,” midfielder Brenden Aaronson said. “In our heads, we’re just focused on our next task, which is New England, and getting that win. So just taking it game by game, not worrying about all the outside forces.”

McKenzie said players should hold up their end of the bargain, especially when not on the clock.

“Ultimately, it comes down to handling our duty off the field, and that’s making sure we’re following protocol, especially in our markets,” McKenzie said. “Making sure we’re doing the little things right, so that way we keep each other safe, and our families healthy as well. … We just have to trust in the fact that our opponents are going to try to do the same to the best of their ability.”

Brenden Aaronson, left, and the Union will visit New England in their first game of the resumed regular season. The Union beat the Revolution in the MLS tournament round of 16.
Andrew Zwarych / Philadelphia Union
Brenden Aaronson, left, and the Union will visit New England in their first game of the resumed regular season. The Union beat the Revolution in the MLS tournament round of 16.

Aaronson, McKenzie block out transfer gossip

The drumbeat of interest from European clubs continues around Aaronson and McKenzie, especially after their strong performances in the tournament. While they aren’t running from it, they’re doing the best they can to block out the noise until the Union officially make deals.

“I don’t think we let that stuff get to us,” Aaronson said.

McKenzie admitted that “it’s always exciting to hear about interest from Europe,” and noted that as he was speaking, the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal between RB Leipzig and Atlético Madrid was reaching its climax.

(In fact, McKenzie was on the line when his good friend Tyler Adams scored Leipzig’s winning goal.)

“In the day and age of social media, everything is always going to get back to you — you see it pop up on your phone throughout the day,” McKenzie said. “My parents have always instilled making sure humility is something I keep in my heart at all times. … My grandma said, ‘Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid.’ "

Goalkeeper Andre Blake was on the call too, and said both young players “have been doing a great job.” He knows from experience, having had foreign suitors for a long time. His most famous transfer rumor came three years ago, when reports claimed — not all correctly — that some English teams made multimillion-dollar bids for him.

“You know when it’s legit,” he said. “You’ll hear something, whether it’s from your agent or the club. It comes with being a professional — you have to learn to block out the noise and block out rumors, and stay focused and get the job done.”

Mark McKenzie, left, celebrates with Andre Blake, center, after the Union's 3-1 win over Sporting Kansas City in the MLS tournament quarterfinals.
ANDREW ZWARYCH / Philadelphia Union
Mark McKenzie, left, celebrates with Andre Blake, center, after the Union's 3-1 win over Sporting Kansas City in the MLS tournament quarterfinals.