By ANNE M. PETERSON
The Associated Press
Philadelphia Union defender Mark McKenzie is thinking about his grandmother as he participates in his first election.
“Going back to my grandma, expressing the importance of voting and how, as a Black woman born in the late ‘30s, things have changed and just how important this responsibility is,” the 21-year-old said. “And now that I have this responsibility, I haven’t taken it lightly by any means.”
The Union is one of 16 teams in Major League Soccer that has seen 100 percent of its eligible players registered to vote. Overall, nearly 95 percent of all eligible MLS players have registered.
The league’s Black Players for Change coalition and MLS Players Association have led the effort, in conjunction with the league. MLS headquarters and team offices will close today to give employees a chance to vote or volunteer.
McKenzie is certainly not the only first-time voter among the league’s players. D.C. United forward Griffin Yow, who is just 18, cast his first vote and went on social media to encourage others to do so. Atlanta United’s George Bello and George Campbell, both 18, were also voting for the first time.
And it’s not just young players. Minnesota United striker Kei Kamara, who is from Sierra Leone but became a U.S. citizen in 2006, cast his first ballot this year at 36.
Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese became a U.S. citizen two years ago.
“Definitely, it’s a special day for me because I’m Venezuelan, as you know, and my parents are Italian,” Savarese said. “The United States has given me so much, and I respect this country and have become a citizen. Having the opportunity to vote for the first time in the United States is, for me, a huge privilege and something that I treasure.”
BBVA stadium in Houston, home of the Dynamo, will be open starting at 7 a.m. local time today for residents to cast votes, while LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium has been open for citizens to vote or drop off ballots since Oct. 30.
Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, home to both the Sounders and the NFL’s Seahawks, is an official voting center, while Minnesota’s Allianz Field has served as a ballot dropoff site. Philadelphia’s Subaru Park hosted a three-day get-out-the-vote event last month.
For many players, the push to vote is tied to the movement against racial injustice. Last month, Black Players for Change partnered with the LeBron James-led nonprofit More Than A Vote.
“The most important thing we can do as athletes in this moment to combat the systemic racism and persistent injustice that plagues our nation is to encourage all of our fans to join us by getting off of the sidelines and into the ballot box,” Portland Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse said.
McKenzie is a homegrown player who grew up in Delaware and was part of the Union’s academy system before playing at Wake Forest. He signed a homegrown contract with Philadelphia in 2018.
His star is rising on the international stage. Earlier this year, he made his first appearance with the U.S. men’s national team. His play has garnered attention from European clubs, including Celtic.
For now, however, he’s focusing on his civic duty.
“We can sometimes say that just because we’re one person it doesn’t matter, what does our vote really count?” McKenzie told a forum of young Philadelphia voters last week. “But at the end of the day it’s a domino effect: If I get out and encourage my best friend to vote and he encourages his best friend to vote, now those dominoes start to fall in the right direction. In order to see the change, we have to be the change.”