By Paul Gardner
Last night I tuned in to watch Landon Donovan, but what I got was something rather different. The game was the Galaxy at home to the Chicago Fire and within five minutes the Fire was leading, 2-0.
Considering that the Galaxy was unbeaten in the Home Depot this season, this was sensational stuff.
At that point, I’d seen nothing of Donovan -- in fact, virtually nothing of the Galaxy. Nothing good, that is. But I’d seen plenty of the other Donovan. Donovan Ricketts is widely over-praised (as is the case with all goalkeepers these days) and hailed as the best goalkeeper in MLS, this largely on the basis of his statistics -- 48 saves, nine shutouts, that sort of stuff. These stats, of course, mean nothing at all. If statistics are, as is sometimes maintained, a sophisticated form of lying, then goalkeeper stats are the biggest whoppers of the lot.
Yet here was Ricketts, banally beaten on the Fire’s first goal by Marco Pappa, then horrendously at fault as Collins John scored the Fire’s second. On the third, he succeeded in batting away Pappa’s shot, but parried it straight at Michael Banner, who slammed the rebound into the net.
A pretty forgettable night for Ricketts, though of course he will no doubt escape criticism. Certainly, neither of the Fox Soccer Channel commentators, Brian Dunseth and Christopher Sullivan, took him to task. Not a word.
So it goes, with this extraordinary willingness to ignore goalkeepers’ errors and heap praise on straightforward achievements. I’ll confess to being greatly irritated a day earlier when, at the end of the telecast of the Colorado vs. Dallas game, the MVP award was given to Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman -- for making three saves. Three saves -- only one of which was at all difficult.
Back to the Galaxy. I was still looking for Donovan, but this was not his day. He entered much more into the play as the game went on, but without ever getting into scoring position, or making anything approaching a deadly pass. His two goals came from penalty kicks, both of which seemed to me correctly awarded by referee Silviu Petrescu.
It was Petrescu who gave the Galaxy a lifeline when he inexplicably failed to eject Dema Kovalenko in the 65th minute.
One of the inexplicable things about Bruce Arena is his insistence on accommodating a roughhouse midfielder on the Galaxy. Last night we had nearly an hour of Chris Birchall, not pleasant to watch and of doubtful value to his team. In the 54th minute he received the yellow card that had been coming to him for quite a while. He was immediately substituted, but any thought of a more skilled, less rustic replacement was immediately squelched as Dema Kovalenko made his muscle-bound way on to the field.
It didn’t take long -- just 10 minutes -- for Kovalenko to make his mark, and as usual it was deplorable. An awful foul on Krzysztof Krol ... a late, violent, studs-up tackle making contact with Krol’s shin just below knee level. A challenge like that, where the player jumps in with both feet off the ground, is a guaranteed red card anywhere. Except when Silviu Petrescu is the referee.
For Petrescu this appalling assault was worth only a yellow. Nor did it seem to be of much consequence to the FSC guys, with Dunseth remarking in a smirking, jokey sort of way, that Kovalenko “was never a player to shy away from a challenge.”
Kovalenko, of course, saw nothing wrong with what he had done, and argued with Petrescu, no doubt protesting his innocence. But we have seen this dangerous recklessness before, repeatedly, from Kovalenko. In 1999 he broke the leg, and finished the career, of Brandon Pollard. In 2004 he broke Ronnie O’Brien’s leg. Later that year, before the MLS Cup, I asked him whether he would be changing his style of play as a result of the damage he had inflicted. His reply was defiant: “No, it won’t make any difference. I’m not changing the way I play.”
Petrescu’s pusillanimous response to such thuggery is unacceptable. He should look again at the definition of “serious foul play,” which calls for an automatic red card: “A tackle that endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play.” This was a serious failure of responsibility that really ought to get Petrescu suspended for a game or two.
A greatly puzzling, and worrying, thing is Arena’s position. He knows Kovalenko’s track record better than anyone. He must know that Kovalenko is not now as quick as he used to be. His attempts at tackling are more likely than ever to be late, so that the chance of Kovalenko inflicting another serious injury are increasing.
Last night, Krol had a narrow escape from becoming the next victim. It does not make matters any more encouraging to know that Arena appears to be grooming Birchall as Kovalenko’s successor as his team’s Designated Pit Bull.