Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Priorities

Photo: Stephen Speer

So, the Union won on Wednesday. I’ll get to that. But there’s one or two things we need to talk about first.

Three games is not enough

A three-game suspension for admitted use of a racial slur is not enough. I understand that the sentences for infractions like these are probably hashed out between the league office and the MLSPA, perhaps even with input from Black Players for Change. And I’m glad to hear that Kai Wagner admitted his offense and has been cooperative and willing to enter programming meant to educate him and hopefully repair the harm he caused.


For too long, MLS and the wider soccer world has simply allowed racism to pervade it without a proper response. Racism is violence that harms all of us. Three games and some classes? That’s hardly a deterrent. How about an automatic five-game ban, plus significant fines, with the option for those punishments to be increased, but not reduced? I certainly don’t have all the answers but I know I’m not the only one who saw three games and thought, “That’s it?”

This is a useful opportunity for us as supporters of the Union to be clear about our values. Calling for a harsher penalty—even when the offender is one of our best players, even when being without him might mortally wound the team’s chances of success in the postseason—reminds us all that, ultimately, soccer is a game, and there are lots of things more important than succeeding at a game.

As things stand now, Wagner could theoretically play for the Union again in the MLS Cup Final. Were the team to get there, I could not support his playing. To say nothing of how unfair it would be to the players who must step up in his absence, I don’t think giving him the chance to participate in a showcase is the right message I want sent to the world about my or the Union’s values. I would rather lose two consecutive MLS Cups than win one with Wagner on the field.

It’s easy to say so now, of course. It makes me queasy to think about, honestly. Last year’s game is still painful for me.


Some things are more important.

A road back/the road out of town

All of which is to say that I do think there ought to be a road back for Wagner or other players like him, who use racial or otherwise bigoted slurs. We can’t hope to move forward as a community if our only response to harm is to exile someone for their misdeeds. There must be a pathway toward healing. As I said, I’m glad that Wagner is apparently being cooperative and taking responsibility for his actions. That’s a good first step. It would be nice to hear some form of public apology from him (Instagram doesn’t count) and some news about the restorative justice practice he is undergoing.

I will also say that I was not surprised Wagner used a slur. Disappointed, but not surprised. If someone had forced me to guess one Union player who would do so, I would have said him. I don’t think he’s a bad guy, but he has always been a little too angry, a little too willing to get into it with people—with opponents, with refs, with teammates—for my taste. I’m sure he’s a lovely man in most settings but, as someone who used to allow himself to get into it with opponents too easily, I believe the way one plays soccer reveals a lot about you. Wagner walks too close to the edge, and this time he went over it.

And he’s probably played his last game for the Union, which is a shame, every way you look at it.

Good riddance to New England

Moving on to other things, can I say how glad I am to see the back of the New England Revolution for another year? Admittedly, I resent most other teams, almost automatically, but NE has earned my disregard over the years. For one thing, they have sometimes beaten the Union in annoying, even embarrassing ways. But, worse, they whine like babies. So much whining. As Jim Curtin said in his post-match presser, why can’t they just play the game?

It was deeply, deeply satisfying to see the Union win the game, especially after the Revs had fought so long and so valiantly down a man. That it was Chris Donovan scoring the goal, rather than one of the Union’s more celebrated players, made it all the sweeter. Missing Jakob Glesnes, Julian Carranza, and Wagner meant the Union were always likely to struggle a bit. They eventually lost Jose Martinez, too. So, to beat New England at their place in regulation—something the Revs had never allowed and only their second home loss on the year—warmed my heart.

Things get harder now

Luckily for my ethics but unluckily for the Union, it seems unlikely that the Union will be faced with the MLS Cup dilemma I outlined above. Because now the Union need to beat Cincinnati in Cincinnati. And, if they get past Cincy, they probably have to go beat Orlando in Orlando. Those are arguably the two best teams in MLS right now, with Columbus pulling up just behind them. It’s a tough row to hoe.

Now, should the Union manage it, they will host MLS Cup at Subaru Park, which would be incredible. And how sweet would it be to host LAFC in that game? (It would also be a nightmare. My nerves. Goddamn.)

This team is entering a phase of transition. It’s not impossible that they win it all. Jack McGlynn has come on by leaps and bounds. Carranza, Mikael Uhre, and Daniel Gazdag are the most potent trio in MLS. And there’s always Andre Blake at the back, making the sublime seem normal. Let’s savor what joy we can get from this version of the team before it inevitably changes through the losses of Ale Bedoya, Wagner, and others.

This team has given us a lot. Let’s appreciate the ride while we can.


  1. Jeremy, this is a very “bits and bobs” type article, which I appreciate! My comments will be the same.
    I’ve been vocal on these forums in my agreement on point 1. The punishment is too small. And I do take your point about rehab and forgiveness. I will admit, however, watching that last game… when Kaye stomps on Gazdag for no particular reason (it wasn’t even a hard challenge!!) that I wondered if it might not be coincidence. Maybe NE came out to play dirty from the off; maybe that’s who they are. And maybe they baited Kai enough to cross that line. As you said, he gets riled up easily. That’s no excuse, of course. But I wondered.
    For Cincy, that’s a tough game. But our record this year against them isn’t bad. After Leagues Cup, we fought them to a draw at the Soob. And back in May (one of our rougher patches), we lost in their house by a single PK. We otherwise held them firm. And considering that Red Bull really should have forced a game 3 — I mean, they blew the PK advantage TWICE — our chances may not be too bad. We can hope.

    • I do think NE have a culture that encourages trash talk—they want to have an edge to their play. That’s part of the whining, too. But like others have said, there isn’t a line that can be crossed that makes racism okay. Be the bigger man, etc. Some of us are old enough to remember Zidane headbutting Matterazzi in the World Cup Final. I bet it’s one of the biggest regrets of his life, because no words from anyone are worth violence like that. It only takes away from the person who does it. Same with Kai’s words. It only lessens him.

      As for Cincy, I am not without hope. They will be without two starting CBs. If the Union play their best, even without Wagner, they can take it. It’s just going to be hard! Then layer another tough away game after that…

  2. I’m really curious what sort of penalty Miazga gets for going into the ref’s locker room. While racism is awful and in society in general is a much bigger problem, WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF THE SPORT, a player threatening and/or attacking the officials is an act that I would consider even worse. If he only gets 3 games as well (especially if that includes the one he has already earned for yellow card accumulation) then I don’t see how they could also give Wagner the penalty his offense deserves. On the other hand, if Miazga is given something like 10 games, Wagner probably deserves something in that neighborhood.

    • Yeah, this is where trying to figure out how to punish racism within the context of a sport becomes difficult. Like, are we saying Wagner’s offense is the same as a straight red in a game? I’m not sure you can make the equivalence work. Putting a mathematical value on it is hard.

      But I’m with you on Miazga—going after the refs in their private locker room, even if he wasn’t exactly pulled away by security guards, is a pretty big no-no.

  3. I’ve been spending a good deal of time reflecting on the comments and conversation here on PSP this week RE: Wagner.
    I appreciate each and every person’s opinion and POV. As a white guy– I couldn’t possibly know what it is like to live being called a racist name. Though I have been called a Cracka’ on occasion. Mostly made me chuckle.
    I am curious where the line exists… with trash talking, provocation and bigoted / racist comments.
    If someone were to call someone’s sister a Nazi or their wife a whore… is this just trash talking and acceptable — to me they are heinous— yet likely not to be levied with any significant consequence or would they be. Would the league – if it found out one player was calling another player a terrorist or a member of their family a whore or a Nazi…. would the league impose a fine? Would that have a consequence? It leaves me all very curious.
    If anyones’ been reading my comments this week I have made it clear my POV with Kai’s behavior which is unacceptable and certainly worthy of consequence… so I do not need to restate.
    But it has all left me wondering about the gray areas- because despite what some may say there is always a gray area. I will be the one to step outside the simple norms of agreeing with everyone or saying what is right without risk.
    Kai was wrong.
    Was Bobby Wood? Who knows we have no idea what he did or did not say to upset Kai. And he certainly hasn’t help up a hand saying– I provoked him in this way or that.
    You ask me Marco Materazzi had it coming. Free speech is only free — doesn’t mean it comes without consequence.
    The elephant— sashays to the side — to duck incoming flak.

    Be well all.

    • I think the thing for me isn’t whether Wood or Materazzi deserved some sort of reply, or whether what they said or did could or should have been punished—I would probably agree they did both deserve something, official or otherwise, to let them know they’d crossed a line of their own—it’s that the responses to those provocations were not appropriate ones. Violence—be it physical violence or hate speech—are never appropriate responses to provocation. Even if the provocation is itself violence or hate speech! And it’s dangerous to lessen the response we have to violence and hate speech by saying, “Well, they [the person who suffered the violence/hate speech] had it coming.”

      I don’t see this as a gray area. We can argue about whether we should punish the trash talking players like Wood or Materazzi did more harshly, but we shouldn’t allow their bad behavior to soften our stance about even worse responses.

      • That’s a key point. Hate is not an acceptable response to hate. Unfortunately the world really needs more people with the moral fortitude to stand against their own instincts right now.

      • Appreciate the response. Still think this is a one sided consequence… and that is a failure by both the human(s) and the league responsible for navigating this.

      • Maybe I am undereducated here, but I don’t understand why calling someone a racial slur is “violence,” but calling them a nazi or a whore is not?

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        Re: Ingtar, I think the biggest difference between your choices are whether they’re personal or not. To call someone a generic but terrible name is a general slight, and it happens all the time in sports. To change it to a specific and genetic one is meaningfully different, and that has no place in the game.

        We may learn what Wood said and that it also warrants a suspension. That won’t change the fact that Wagner’s actions warrant one too – he can only be responsible for himself, and in this moment wasn’t.

        I do hope he gets a chance to rehabilitate himself and his legacy. I don’t know that I want it to happen in MLS Cup, should the U make it there. It would take a massive, public effort on his part to earn the benefit of the doubt so quickly.

      • Y’all seem to be missing the point that wood and Materazzi were deliberately winding up their opponents to try to mess up their focus. Responding in a way that receives suspension is falling into the trap

  4. I don’t know how many games one needs to be suspended for making prejudicial/racist remarks during a match. Three? Five? Ten? A helpful thing would be to set clear standards — here’s what is considered racially abusive and here is the punishment. No need to adjudicate “well how racist was it?” or “Who said what first?” Keep a clause in there for reduced sentences for cooperating.

    Like I said before I think the focus should be on rehabilitation. You’re not going to do much to curb racism by swinging a big stick. I would bet anything that comparably terrible things to what Kai said are routinely uttered on pitches across the league and are not reported. There should be outreach to make clear why these things don’t belong in the game and get people who fall short to cooperate in helping with that education effort. Enforcing bans doesn’t change minds. It just keeps mouths shut.

    • I can definitely appreciate that perspective. I agree that clarity about what constitutes an offense and what the punishments are would help. I imagine the players know what they can and cannot say, within the rules, but a public record would help the rest of us. I do think the risk of something like that is racism becomes normalized as something that happens and then is easily punished and we all move on. Here’s the punishment for saying the n-word once. Here’s the punishment for saying it twice. Etc.

      I also think a stiff penalty is worthwhile here, if only to show that the league takes this seriously. That has not always been obvious.

      • I think the best way to address the possibility of normalization is to be lenient with first offenses and remorseless in punishing second offenses. A third strike and permanent bans sound reasonable to me.

      • John from 127 says:

        Pete, I like your take.

        Progressive discipline for initial and subsequent offenses.

        Racist speak is violent conduct. So I see the 3 game penalty with education to be completed before the end of the suspension and ongoing as decided by league, player, etc.

        Second offense? 5-10 games? Third (are you kidding me, how dumb are you)? Years ban if not life.

        Bans should be enforced across FIFA, like the gambling bans going on in Europe.

        If you didn’t know before, shame on you, we’ll work to help you be better. And face it, we all know better.

        Subsequent offenses is a refusal to evolve and must be punished more severely. I can almost understand being stupid once, but at some point a repeat offender is beyond help and has no place in the game.

        I will admit, I have read every comment and enjoyed the different viewpoints plus the give and take. We are universal in our opposition to the behavior and differ on what the correct resolution should be. Would that our dialogue could be repeated on other topics in the wider world … but I digress.

        As for Cincy, the U have an opportunity to do great things. The team is playoff tough and the collective experience gives us an advantage. They are not the favorite playing under pressure at home. I think that gives the U an advantage – particularly if the team scores early. I will be watching with friends and a beer (or more), wearing my jersey and shouting at the TV.

        C’mon the U!

      • Yes, I will also chime in that I think the progressive/repeat offenses take makes sense to me. It allows for growth in a person while leaving open the dire prospect of what happens to them if they do not, in fact, grow.

  5. What about the family slur that allegedly came out of Wood’s mouth. Wagner reacted incorrectly, but Wood was in that game as a hack, taking out Gazdag, then pushing Wagner trying to neutralize him. He should also have been disciplined, fined, whatever.

  6. One personal response that I’ve had over the last week and a half has been to refer to Wagner by his last name in my posts rather than by his first name as I had in the past. Just my way of distancing myself from treating him with familiarity.

  7. As a global sport football has had a terrible problem with racism. Bananas thrown at black players the nationalistic nature of competition fan harming and killing., The MLS has a zero tolerance rule in force its very establishment of this will make the league noble. We need respect and fair play without it we are not civil. This is very difficult subject because it attempts to legislate morality and it is true in our daily behavior. Jeremy you have addressed the issue in a serious way which it deserves. This will not be the last case however.

  8. Jeremy, I respectfully disagree with you on so many points. I think the MLS should have fully disclosed what Wagner said or gestured. They should also have fully disclosed what Wood said to Wagner that prompted his response. Transparency is lacking in this judgement. If you are going to judge a persons character as you and the MLS have, and then sentence them so to speak , you cant disregard the evidence of other parties behavior. Its like going to court and only allowing the prosecution to present evidence to the jury . Even when someone is found guilty by his peers in a court of law the judge has the right to reduce a penalty if the defense can make an argument that would mitigate the punishment. You said you were not surprised he used a slur. Your argument was he is angry, argumentative, gets into it with opponents and is edgy. I would characterize Martinez the same way. And before i you say it Martinez has not made any racial slurs. At least none that we know of. However , both players play with passion and sometimes passion gets the worst of people and brings out their prejudices. Sometimes they manifest in the form of physical violence, sometimes in the form of inappropriate hurtful words or gestures. We are all human and have human weaknesses and darker sides at times in our lives We are living in a society that wants to ban people for life or end careers even when they show remorse . In Wagners case this is his first infraction that was brought to the attention of the MLS. I am certain that Wagner is being told not to make any more statements at this time by either the team or the players association. My final point is for the MLS to be consistent through the season establish clear rules and and punishments. Do not wait until the end of the season to make a grand gesture of moral righteousness. If Wagner was guilty of these infractions earlier in the year as you and others have either said or implied they should have punished him then. To wait until the end of the season to enforce it is prejudicial to the player and the team. I rest my case.

    • While I don’t disagree with anything you said.. humans have weaknesses and need a path to forgiveness… I hold heroes to a higher standard. If you are going to represent the city, the region, and my KIDS, you need to be better. Stronger punishment is appropriate.

    • I completely disagree with your first point. Why should the MLS publicly inform people how to make anti-Asian slurs in German? There is no need to be more specific than the tenor of what was said and that has been done.

    • I immediately assumed it was Martinez when the first news came out

  9. I think 3 games is sufficient. I won’t defend the offense or justify it. Were Kai still under contract, I’d still welcome him back. He crossed a line and I believe he’ll be a better person. If I had a Wagner jersey, I wouldn’t be ashamed to wear it in the future. Guy gave his heart and soul to this team. I respect that and I hope the best for him. God willing, we see him at home one last time.

  10. I understand why they will not share what Wagner said: repeating it is repeated injury. But I don’t understand why they won’t share what Wood said. We should be able to judge for ourselves. If it’s so inappropriate that they can’t share it, if it causes the same repeated harm, then by my read there should be punishment for that too.

    • Over the last week I have considered whether something could be said to me about my own wife or kids that could provoke a response I would ultimately regret. I have to admit there is. A certain person saying particular things about people I care about could bring me to blows. There are pains there that if he got near them would cause me to lash out. I think it is possible we all have those dark spaces. So I don’t hate Kai. I regret that he did that and am disappointed. The same way I would be in myself if it happened.

      • Well said.
        Jordan Peterson discusses at length the fact.. We all have dark places. The minute someone does not stipulate to their own darkness… is the minute that person becomes very dangerous.
        Almost like an unconscious incompetence being the most dangerous kind of ignorance.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        Marcus Aurelius said this about Wagner’s moment:

        “ Begin each day by telling yourself: today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”

        Such is a fact of life, particularly of life lived in a unique role. Wagner should have been prepared for this inevitability. It’s not inhuman that he wasn’t, but it is his responsibility.

  11. Discussions that are intelligent and thought provoking while speaking about a Philadelphia sports team. Where are the bombastic accusations and vile counter responses that Philly is typecast with? Thank you for this fantastic site with its passionate and articulate fans.

  12. Offtopic (??), but Columbus held serve. They go to Orlando, winner of that hosts the East title game.

  13. As a boy in the 50s, I grew up with baseball before batting helmets with its bean ball wars.
    As all Philly sports fans know, in the 60s after concrete Charlie and the Dutchman did their things, in 1960, the Green Bay Packers dominated the NFL.
    A Green Bay Hall of Fame wrote a book titled Instant Replay sometime later. The essential message I remember from the book was that in order to play really well against a particular opponent, this person had to develop a temporary hatred of him.
    Years later in conversation with James Chambers, the former Bethlehem Steel FC defensive center midfielder and current Colorado Springs Switchbacks assistant coach, he characterized the essence of becoming a professional as realizing that the opponents were trying to take food off your family’s table.
    Others on the Union play with the same emotional intensity of Kai Wagner, and, as far as we know, have not crossed the racism line. It can be done.
    But it is a tough line to interpret. It has probably never been taboo in some circles in portions of the United States. And recently the taboo has been breached a lot more than it used to be.
    Language is constantly evolving. I wince at violations of what I consider to be proper English grammatical usage, and they are now part of mainstream culture.
    If an intent to harm can be perceived by the receiving party, try not to do it.

  14. A further, late, thought.
    In my experience as a history teacher, the best way for me to learn a subject was to have to teach it to students.
    In the unlikely event that Kai Wagner were to return to Philadelphia, perhaps he should have to earn whatever the credentials are to teach the program he is currently undergoing, and then teach the subject to the Union, Union II, Union Development Squad, the U17s, the U16s, the U15s, and the U14s. And the younger ranks if Academy Head of School Nooha Ahmed Lee thinks it appropriate.
    Doing that for three or four years would seat the lessons in him firmly.

  15. John P O'Donnell says:

    Sadly, Wagner should have just taken a cheap shot (violence) and been given a red card and he would only miss one game. Time after time this year we’ve seen this situation play out. The diversity of the league is good but maybe it’s also bad as you see the players who keep crossing the line are foreign players. A clause in their contract for this behavior is needed now as this year the league policy has been a big “L”.

  16. The Original Peanut Gallery says:

    So we agree racism is bad. We agree it doesn’t have a place in sport, idealistically the world. So what is racism?

    Is it someone responding with a racist remark in the heat of an argument? Is it someone who says racist things their whole life (though takes no overtly racist action), yet in times of need show kindness and a helping hand to their fellow neighbor or countryman without thought to race color or creed? (This one I would say describes a good portion of my parents generation who have been spoon fed daily the fear of the brown man). Is it the person who speaks equality yet passes over qualified candidates of color for those of equal or less skill with lighter skin? Is a racist the one preaching hate online and posting death threats to those of color yet works daily in a school or diverse work environment? We all know skin heads and KKK members are racists, but what about those in the shady areas?

    It’s all good to say you want a zero tolerance policy but here you want to make a guy who, so far, with all evidence, said one racist remark in the heat of an argument, a racist, essentially. Zero policy means all are equated the same. All racist. Have we asked why Kai, used a German slur to Bobby Wood? My take was that is was a pointed insult at Bobby directly in order to do the most damage while trying to avoid offending his teammates. Do you believe Kai was unaware Bobby played in the German first tier? If we go to Kai’s house and his kids start dropping slurs by accident, his wife makes some off comments about people of color being lazy, ok now we got something to call someone a racist. You find Nazi flags in his basement den, done, sold, you got me.

    So what is “racism”? At what point does someone become racist or a racist? Isn’t drawing a line under “all or anything” making the worse bigger and pushing those on the spectrum towards the edge before even giving hope to be better?

    Actions have always spoken louder than words though I can agree repetitively spewing out hateful drivel is certainly a reprehensible action that is across the line and needs redress.

    Where’s the line?

    • + 1

    • Where’s the line? My question exactly.
      Well said.

    • The Original Peanut Gallery says:

      The one thing I wasn’t expecting on this was silence. Granted I’ve come late to the party and most people, probably, have moved on. If this isn’t the case and if the reason is in any form about being nervous about discussing the subject, I wonder if I could ask for your response in an affirmative “yes” underneath my comment?

      • The Original Peanut Gallery says:

        TBF the only response I saw when I wrote the above was Gruncle Bob’s. Maybe I was hasty.

  17. Goddammit, why was my post deleted? Once more, then…East semifinals date/times set; Philly-Cincy 8PM on 11/25. Early game is Columbus/Orlando (5:30). Used the official MLS Soccer site for my URL link.

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