By Ridge Mahoney
The aftermath of Brian Mullan’s brutal tackle that left Steve Zakuani with a fractured tibia and fibula has turned the cyberworld into a soccer version of Texas Hold-‘Em:
Pick a number of matches for Mullan to be suspended, and then raise or call. Or check, to see if somebody else ups the stake. Right now, most of the money is on at least three but no more than five, and I think it has to go higher.
In Mullan’s favor are certain factors: He didn’t lead with the elbow to deliver a vicious blow to the head, which earned Andy Herron a four-game suspension for his hit on Jay Heaps. Nor did he kick an opponent who’d just kneed him in the back, as Ricardo Clark did to Carlos Ruiz and earned a nine-game vacation. Mullan, unlike former Dallas goalie Dario Sala, didn’t try to punch out a pair of opponents, for which he received a six-gamer. In each case, the intent of the offending player was clear, and so it is in the case of Mullan.
As another measurement of comparison, D.C. United forward Charlie Davies incurred a five-match suspension two years ago for elbowing an opponent while playing for Swedish club Hammarby.
Most of the time, a reckless and mistimed tackle will earn a player an extra game or two in addition to his banishment for the game in question. Inflicting serious injury can jack up the punishment, as can evidence of retaliation, and on both counts, Mullan has no real defense. Zakuani will be lucky to recover in time for the playoffs and seconds before his foul, Mullan had gestured to referee Silvio Petrescu upon being stripped of the ball by what he thought was a foul by Tyson Wahl. So indiscriminate was his anger that he crunched Zakuani instead.
While use of the elbow is often a clearer sign of intent than a purported attempt to win the ball, Mullan’s tackle obviously was meant to inflict damage on Zakuani. What often happens when a player loses the ball is he bounces up in anger and frustration, and swipes out the legs of an opponent or barges him off the ball. He’ll be cautioned or maybe sent off with a straight red.
This wasn’t an example of a player on a losing team lashing out in frustration in the final minutes, for which reporters and commentators are all too quick to mention as a mitigating factor. Nor was this a young, inexperienced player unaccustomed to mixing it up with pros.
In the third minute with the game barely underway, Mullan – a veteran of 11 MLS seasons and five championship teams -- crashed into an opponent’s legs. Amongst pros, deliberate and hard fouls are tolerated in certain circumstances, and during his career Mullan has delivered and received dozens of hard hits in the robust, aggressive manner that has shaped his career.
But the way he attacked Zakuani, and that is the correct verb in this case, broke the code. To make his point he could have simply run into Zakuani or grabbed him and been cautioned, rather than fly in with both feet. Mullan’s wild, over-reaction is impossible to justify.
At this early stage in the season a longer suspension won’t harm the Rapids as much as if the incident had occurred during the playoff push. That’s another reason to mete out a suspension of between six and eight games, to set an example of Commissioner Don Garber’s proclamation to cut down on callous, dangerous fouls, especially on the league’s most exciting and dynamic players.