MLS isn't there yet, but it's hovering perilously close, and rulings being handed down by the league's Disciplinary Committee are complicating the problem. Somebody on the committee must be particularly squeamish at the sight of human blood, as whenever it appears, there's a price to be paid.
In the San Jose-Houston match last weekend, Quakes right back Chris Leitch kneed Brian Ching in the face as Ching, who'd been knocked down challenging for the ball, sat up just as Leitch played the ball with his left foot. As he did so, his left knee struck Ching in the face. Referee Alex Prus, just a few yards away, whistled for a foul but did not caution Leitch, who subsequently shoved another Dynamo played upon hearing the whistle. Ching, his face bloodied, left the field briefly before returning to finish the game.
In the same game, left back Eric Denton elbowed Dynamo forward Kei Kamara in the face without any punishment, either during the match or in a postmatch review. Can the fact that Leitch drew blood and Denton didn't possibly be the reason that the former got a one-game suspension and $250 fine after the fact, and nothing was done about Denton?
Let's go back a week earlier, to the elbow Jorge Rojas swung into the face of Brian Mullan as the Dynamo midfielder challenged Rojas for the ball. Intentional, plain and simple, and dangerous. The league did tack on an extra game to Rojas's red-card suspension, which is consistent with past decisions. But would have the penalty been more severe had Mullan's injuries been more visible? While Mullan was flattened by the blow and needed a few minutes to recover, he did not come up bleeding.
This might seem a reasonable decision, except for the foul of deliberately attempting to injure an opponent, which by the rules is supposedly an automatic red card, didn't result in equal punishment. Rojas got the red card and an additional game, Denton got off unpunished.
If the disciplinary committee can review an incident like that of Leitch, and in effect slap him with a red-card suspension and fine after the fact, why does not Denton merit the same evaluation? And Denton has no possible excuse for his action, while one can argue that Leitch's aggression with an opponent in a vulnerable position was reckless, he did clearly play the ball and the contact between knee and face might have been incidental as well as accidental.
We've all seen players lying on the ground trying to play the ball, or in some cases, trip an opponent trying to reach it. The point is that a player on the ground is not out of the play nor does play need to be halted by the referee unless he believes a player is in imminent danger. Remember, too, that in the case of a player stooping very low, say below waist-level, to head the ball in proximity to other players is endangering himself. Though in this case the ball was lying near Ching's waist and not his feet, he didn't have time to get out of the way or wrap himself up for protection.
Suppose instead of Ching going down near the sideline, the incident had occurred in the goalmouth with the goalkeeper being kicked in the head as players battled for a loose ball. Regardless of intent, a foul would be called, assuming the keeper wasn't kicked by a player on his own team. But would such an incident even merit a post-match review if the keeper came away woozy but unbloodied and stayed in the match?
In an eight-year career, Leitch has been cautioned just 19 times and never sent off, which are remarkable stats for a defender who has played nearly 150 games. His reputation is one of a tough but fair defender. Reputations shouldn't affect the decisions of whether and how severely to punish players, but if the disciplinary committee judged Leitch's actions to be reckless enough to merit a suspension regardless of intent, how can it ignore Denton's apparently deliberate act?
These situations, perhaps even more than controversial decisions such as the one made Thursday night by referee Terry Vaughn in stoppage time of the frenzied Chivas USA-Chicago game, are why MLS officials and their administrators getting more stick than ever before. Vaughn does deserve credit for properly cautioning captain Jesse Marsch, and rather than ignoring subsequent transgressions, sending him off a dozen minutes later for another bad tackle.
The hotly disputed decision will always be with us, yet inconsistencies and perceived confusion have players and coaches and executives just shrugging their shoulders, rolling their eyes, and ignoring the issue as best they can.