There were huge playoff implications for Friday’s match between the Utah Royals and the Portland Thorns. The NWSL table, after all, was crowded with only a handful of points separating five teams at the top.
But all of that became less important when the reports of racist heckling in the stands emerged.
On social media, fans reported a fan shouting racist language at Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna French, who is black. By the time the Royals acknowledged the reports and sent extra security to the section where it occurred, the racist taunting had stopped and guards couldn’t identify the perpetrator.
Now, the Utah Royals and the NWSL are investigating and say, if identified, the fan will face consequences.
“We are aware of the allegations of racist fan language during last night’s match and are continuing our investigation of the incident,” the Royals tweeted Saturday. “Racism in any form is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in our stadiums.”
The league finally chimed in Sunday, echoing that racist behavior is unacceptable.
"We have been made aware of an incident at a game this weekend where racist comments were made toward one of our players,” the NWSL tweeted. "Racism in any form is unacceptable & NWSL does not tolerate this behavior on the field nor in the stands. Per league policy, appropriate actions will be taken with the club and individual following the outcome of the investigation into the matter.”
This incident, as disturbing and as disheartening as it is, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Sadly, racism in soccer is hardly new — especially not lately, as soccer is a reflection of the society around it.
Ugly incidents have popped up in England, France and elsewhere, while Italy has been especially afflicted. Romelu Lukaku, who helped lead Belgium to third place at the World Cup last year, has been at the center of ongoing controversy over racist fan behavior in Serie A, and he wrote recently: “We’ve been saying it for years and still no action. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s 2019. Instead of going forward we’re going backwards.”
The rise of extremist rhetoric in global politics and far-right, xenophobic platforms certainly seem to have a trickledown effect on everything in society, including sporting events. The continuing tug-of-war between MLS and its own fans over the anti-fascist Iron Front symbol can be traced back to the embrace of anti-immigrant rhetoric at the polls.
As the NWSL grows and becomes more popular, it will probably have to grapple with these sorts of unsettling issues, and it’s perhaps a bit understandable the NWSL was caught flat-footed by this incident. This is the first publicized incident of racism at an NWSL game, a still-young league that has generally embraced diversity and acceptance since it was founded in 2013.
But the NWSL hasn’t always proven itself capable of dealing with anything beyond the bare minimum of keeping the league afloat. It doesn’t have a communications director, which might explain why the NWSL issued a statement much later than the clubs involved and why the statement was insufficient, referencing a policy without any specifics of what the policy entails. Amanda Duffy, the president of the league, doesn’t seem to have much front office support.
The NWSL, which is currently operated by U.S. Soccer, is seeking more independence from the federation, and handling this incident should serve as a barometer for whether the league is ready for that. The league must be thorough in investigating the claims, and if verified to be true, the NWSL and the Utah Royals must also be swift and unrelenting in the punishment to the fan making the racist comments.
But the NWSL’s response can’t stop there. The league must work with clubs to ensure fans have an efficient way to report bad behavior in the stands and security is trained to appropriately deal with it.
The Royals do have a number fans can text to report problems, but the fans tweeting about the Franch incident clearly didn’t know it. Other clubs don’t even have procedures for fans to report problems in the stands.
Franch, which ought to be noted, has been one of the best goalkeepers in the NWSL. She shouldn’t have to go on social media and address racist claims made against her. That’s what she did this weekend, and hopefully that’s the last time any NWSL player ever has to do that again.
NWSL playoff race tightens
The Royals' 1-0 win on Friday was a massive boost for their campaign to join the postseason.
The Royals are now unbeaten in their last five games, and before that they had been winless in their previous six. That turnaround has lifted them to fourth place and the last playoff spot at a time when several teams are jostling for playoff position.
The fact that the Royals got the win off a rare Becky Sauebrunn goal was the cherry on top. A veteran center back, Sauerbrunn has only scored six goals in her club career and is still waiting to score for the U.S. women's national team.
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 7, 2019
Meanwhile, the Thorns remain at No. 1, but their advantage may be shrinking. The Thorns sit on 1.8 points per game, and the North Carolina Courage, who have played two fewer, are at 1.9. The two sides meet Wednesday for a midweek clash that may decide who wins the NWSL Shield.
North Carolina earned a closer-than-expected win against Sky Blue, but all eyes will be on Wednesday's game, where the Courage can overtake the No. 1 spot in the standings.
The other playoff contenders helped solidify their positions over the weekend. The top four teams in the league advance to the postseason, with the top two earning the right to host playoff games.
The Seattle Reign nabbed a 3-1 win over the Orlando Pride, who have been in free fall. The Reign sit in fifth place, one point back from the Royals, and their final five matches of the season are more favorable than some. They face the Thorns and the Royals, but will also again face the Pride, Sky Blue and the Washington Spirit, who have all struggled.
The Chicago Red Stars trounced the Houston Dash, 3-0, in a result that probably didn't surprise anyone. The Red Stars sit third, but just one point ahead of the Royals.
NWSL schedule (times ET)
Orlando Pride vs. Chicago Red Stars, 7 p.m.
Houston Dash vs. Utah Royals, 8:30 p.m.
Washington Spirit vs. Reign FC, 7:30 p.m.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
More from Yahoo Sports: