KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Nani called it beautiful and emotional.
The Portuguese midfielder wasn't talking about either goal he played a part in during Orlando City's 2-1 victory over Inter Miami CF 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 the words "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 past four months — masks and movements — at the forefront of the league's return via its MLS is Back Tournament at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex.
"I felt for a couple of minutes," Nani said shortly after scoring the go-ahead goal 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 June 19 holiday celebrating the end of chattel slavery in the United States, the group started in the wake of George Floyd's death with the hope of combating systemic racism both in soccer and the players' communities. The league and the players' union endorsed the organization.
"Really this protest is about fighting for racial equality and human rights," organizer Justin Morrow of Toronto FC said. "We're standing with all of our brothers and sisters across the world — definitely across the North American sports landscape, but we see what's happening over in Europe as well, how soccer players are fighting against racism there. We're standing with all of our brothers and sisters to fight this fight."
The group has called on the league to increase diversity hiring in coaching, front office and executive positions, appoint a chief diversity officer, implement implicit bias training and expand cultural education. It has also discussed developing the game in black communities and partnering with charities, and has already secured $75,000 in charitable contributions from the MLS Players Association.
"This moment for us as a black player pool, is that we can stand up, we can make this statement that's come completely from us. It was so important that it was player led, it couldn't have worked the other way around," Morrow said. "This moment of solidarity with our brothers and sisters fighting this battle for racial equality and human rights is so important. And we want to make sure that the narrative was player led, player driven in coming strictly from us."
Several other players from Orlando City and Inter Miami CF took a knee near midfield during the demonstration, and the two in-state teams delivered their own moment of silence by taking a knee — along with the referee and the line judges — just before kickoff.
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 first match since the league shut down in mid-March after each team had played just twice in 2020.
The league's teams are sequestered at the Walt Disney World Resort 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. Miami and Nashville SC are expansion teams in what has become an MLS season noteworthy for much more than its 25th anniversary significance.
FC Dallas withdrew Monday after 10 players and a coach tested positive for COVID-19. A day later, Nashville's status was thrust into doubt with five confirmed positive tests. The Tennessee team was supposed to play the Chicago Fire in the second game of a doubleheader Wednesday, but that matchup was postponed.
The reboot had a considerably different feel than the start of the season all those months ago, with the top level of professional soccer in the United States returning without fans and with plenty of concern even amid a safety bubble.
"Today we made the noise," Orlando coach Oscar Pareja said.
But can 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?
Major League Baseball and the NBA, NFL and NHL surely have a close eye on what's happening at Disney.
The NBA should get an up-close look. The league already has part of its basketball bubble established at the sprawling ESPN venue. NBA team flags fly on every flagpole, and some areas have been sanitized and cordoned off for the league's return later this month.
MLS is using three fields near the back of the complex, including two the NFL used to practice for the past four Pro Bowls. The league mandated masks for everyone other than players. Miami's Rodolfo Pizarro, though, wore one during warmups. Balls knocked out of bounds were wiped down before being placed back into the mix.
Much of the health and safety protocol is similar to what is being used in other sports.
Of course, there's no social distancing on the field.
Miami's Andres Reyes left on a stretcher early in the second half after a scary 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 teammates 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' teammates, Juan Agudelo, ran across the field to help and ended up assisting in pulling the stretcher across the soggy grass.
Miami coach Diego Alonso said afterward that he had "no information" on Reyes' condition.
Chris Mueller scored the tying goal 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, drilling a left-footer past Pedro Gallese to cap a play that started with two teammates on top of each other in the box.