By Ridge Mahoney
If anyone thought that MLS players would tone down their tackles in the wake of Colorado’s Brian Mullan's horror foul on Steve Zakuani, a subsequent serious injury to D.C. United’s Branko Boskovic would seem a strong argument against.
Alan Koger was cautioned for a tackle from behind that has sidelined Boskovic, a Designated Player signed last year by United who has turned out to be a great disappointment, with a torn ACL and hairline fracture of his left knee. The foul occurred last week during a 3-2 New England U.S. Open Cup victory when Koger slid to reach a loose ball that Boskovic was about to get to first.
Koger’s tackle and that of Vancouver’s Jonathan Leathers that left FC Dallas playmaker and 2010 league MVP David Ferreira with a broken ankle are unfortunate byproducts of a fast-moving, sometimes clumsy style of play inherent in MLS. The challenge that injured Ferreira wasn’t ruled a foul much less a cautionable offense. It should be pointed out that both Koger and Leathers were perhaps guilty of poor technique and timing, not malicious intent, but the injuries they inflicted have major consequences.
Those situations are nothing like the ruthless, reckless charge by which Mullan bowled over Zakuani with no attempt to play the ball. Yet Mullan’s offense, as heinous as it was, isn’t necessarily all that different – except in its degree of violence – from cynical challenges that stop counterattacks at midfield or chop down a player skillfully tormenting the opposition. Some of the most acclaimed players in the league are experts at killing an attack by the other team before it gains momentum.
The Mullan incident reminded me of former United diva Hristo Stoitchkov’s brutal body check in a preseason game that flattened and severely injured Freddie Lerena of American University. Once he realized the extent of Lerena’s injuries, Stoitchkov turned remorseful; Mullan needed a couple of days to express his regret in a prepared statement released by his representative agency, James Grant Sports.
In the immediate aftermath, Mullan mentioned he done the same thing a hundred times before; critics jumped on that remark, yet in the cold-hearted context of stopping an opponent at the expense of getting back the ball after losing it, he’s probably right. Stoitchkov had just lost the ball and reacted sharply to being shown up against a college team, Mullan lashed out at Zakuani after being stripped of the ball by another Sounders’ player. And in every game attacks are thwarted by tactical fouls, few of which, fortunately, result in serious injuries.
At any level of competitive play, seldom can referees escape blame. Call a game too tight, whistle up for every hard challenge, and they are strangling the players. Let some borderline stuff go, and they are accused of losing control when a scuffle breaks out or a rough tackle lays out an opponent who needs to be stretchered off.
Few situations are as volatile as those when a player loses the ball by what he believes to be a foul, particularly if he’s also been knocked down or tripped. But if the referee doesn’t see a foul and lets play continue, he might have a second or two at best to judge whether a retaliatory foul is imminent. There’s not very much the officials can do to protect the players if they are hell-bent on revenge.
Many teams use the U.S. Open Cup to give their backups and less experienced younger players some competitive experience, yet it’s also a competition some teams want to win. Playing with and against a smattering of starters gives players like Koger a chance to show their stuff, and provides coaches with valuable information regarding his development and how they might handle themselves in a league game. But like any competitive environment, there’s the risk of injury.
MLS does not grant salary-cap relief to teams carrying injured players. Teams have to make do with expanded rosters and other methods such as allocation money and reduced salary-cap hits for DPs signed in midseason. Seattle coach Sigi Schmid is looking at several options in the wake of Zakuani’s injury, which will most likely keep him out until at least September and could sideline him for the entire season, and O’Brian White’s absence due to surgery to remove a blood clot.
“We’ve got to look at it and see what we can do in terms of the cap,” says Schmid, who went through a worse run of injuries while coaching the Crew a few years ago. “Having players injured doesn’t give you cap relief, no matter how the injury occurred or how valuable the player is. In Columbus, at one point we had 30 percent of our cap was on the disabled list, and you couldn’t do anything to replace those guys.”
In preseason MLS had informed teams that brutal tackles and cynical fouls would be punished more stringently. It has expanded rosters and the salary cap and loosened rules on DPs to give teams greater flexibility when high-priced players are injured or just don’t come through. The league suspended Mullan an additional nine games for his actions.
FC Dallas suffered another setback last weekend when dynamic defender Jair Benitez twisted his knee in a goalmouth collision with keeper Kevin Hartman as they and Landon Donovan competed for a ball chipped into the goalmouth.
In situations of bad play and bad temper, the league must step in, but it can do little about the bad luck that has marred an otherwise promising start to the 2011 season.