As Black players from across Major League Soccer lined the perimeter of Field 17 at ESPN's Wide World of Sports on Wednesday night in a stirring demonstration against discrimination, Portland Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala felt a considerable sense of pride.
It's the same feeling he harbored watching teammate Jeremy Ebobisse grow into one of the leaders of Black Players for Change over recent weeks.
While Mabiala, a French-born center back who plays internationally for DR Congo, felt the same sense outrage as so many other Black men and women in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May, English is not his first language. And while he says the experience of Blackness is "very similar" in France to that in the U.S., he believes it's crucial to use precise language when speaking to drive social change.
That's where Ebobisse has come in.
"He’s doing a wonderful job," Mabiala said of Ebobisse, who is on the MLS Black Players for Change board of directors, during an exclusive interview with MLSsoccer.com on Friday. "Jebo is very engaged, and I’m very happy to have a teammate like him. Because he’s really helping. It’s not that I don’t want to, but you know, to be engaged in a cause like this one, I think that you should really master the language to use the right words, so that you can be very impactful. And Jebo is the guy who speaks the best, (as well as Timbers teammate) Eryk Williamson.
"We have a lot of conversations about it. I suggest them some things. He’s like my voice. ... He’s trying to bring positivity, and he’s really trying to (understand) what everybody’s concerns are."
The Black population in MLS is an extremely diverse one, with players coming not only from the United States and Canada but also Europe, Africa and South America. Just on the Timbers alone, there are nine Black players from four different countries who are native speakers of three different languages.
For Mabiala, that made Wednesday night's display all the more powerful.
"I was very proud and happy because to have all these guys using the stage that the MLS gave us, defending the same cause and protesting the same thing," Mabiala said. "And I really pray that the message has been spread and people will keep fighting the way we want people to fight to make justice."
Dealing with feelings surrounding Floyd's death and the ensuring social activism has been just one of the emotional weights Mabiala has carried since the COVID-19 pandemic halted regular season play in early March. Another is the danger of the virus itself, and how it impacted his family back in Paris, where his mother is a hospital nurse and has witnessed the worst of the COVID-19 disease firsthand.
"She received a lot of patients who afterwards died of COVID," Mabiala said. "So she was giving me updates and she was telling me to be very, very cautious. And I was afraid for her, too, because she had to be tested many times. As soon as she was saying she was feeling bad or dizzy or whatever, she had to be tested. And every time she was telling me that, I was kind of afraid. But all of the tests that she made came out negative, so I was pretty happy about that. But it was very, very stressful back in Paris."
Meanwhile in Oregon, Mabiala said the break gave him a welcome chance to spend more time with his wife and children. After a couple of weeks, however, the 14-year professional was itching to do what he has done his entire life: train for and play soccer games.
That chance to compete again will finally arrive Monday night, when Portland opens its MLS is Back Tournament campaign against the LA Galaxy (10:30 pm ET | FS1, TUDN, TSN).
"We have mixed feelings because we are not back to normal yet," Mabiala said. "But the simple fact that you have the chance to be around the guys and compete, because the competition is the part you miss the most about the game, this is where you feel happy about the situation, even if it’s not back to normal."