By Ridge Mahoney
The case of Marcos Mondaini sidelining Javier Morales with a vicious tackle has prompted comparisons to the Brian Mullan-Steve Zakuani incident, and though the circumstances are different there are important issues to be weighed.
So now the MLS Disciplinary Committee has yet another tough task: How to assess and punish the egregious foul inflicted on RSL midfielder Morales by Chivas USA attacker Mondaini, whose robust slide tackle had no chance of reaching the ball as it plowed through Morales’ left ankle and fractured it in two places.
Less than two weeks ago, the committee meted out a 10-game suspension – nine additional games tacked onto the mandatory one-game ban – for the brutal challenge by Mullan that shattered Zakuani’s leg. Mondaini’s foul has prompted calls for a similar suspension, but though these incidents are not comparable – other than in the extent of the injuries they inflicted – it gives the league a superb opportunity to truly crack down on serious foul play.
When FIFA issued a directive in 2002 that all slide tackles from behind should be punished by a red card, nobody believed it could be enforced. It is possible to tackle cleanly from behind but the angle of approach, the timing, and the execution must be excellent, otherwise the player with the ball will be tripped at the very least. Many so-called tackles from behind actually come in from the side and can crisply and efficiently win the ball when executed properly.
Yet the directive was intended to discourage players from attempting just the kind of tackle as Mondaini launched: from the wrong side and well behind the ball, and so clumsy and mistimed it virtually guaranteed a nasty wipe-out. His remorse won’t bring back Morales any sooner, and Mondaini is still culpable for what he did, but this isn’t a similar incident to that of Mullan and Zakuani.
Mullan can offer no defense; his clattering into Zakuani was a blatant, cynical reaction to having lost the ball – to another Sounder, not Zakuani – just seconds before. He didn’t miss the ball; the ball, several yards away, was irrelevant. He clearly took out his frustrations on an opponent and though the ball was in play, this wasn’t a case of an incident related to the run of play. Some people actually think Mullan just came in late trying to win the ball. Sorry, not a chance.
The league has imposed some hefty suspensions for incidents that could be classified as removed from actual play: Ricardo Clark’s kicking of a prostrate Carlos Ruiz (nine games) and Dario Sala’s punching of two opponents (six games) during a melee come to mind. And the Mondaini tackle isn’t a case of malicious intent masquerading as an attempt to win the ball, as sometimes occurs.
Yet if the league truly means to crack down on players guilty of poor tackling technique and terrible timing, who by their clumsiness inflict pain and perhaps serious damage, it must take a stand in cases like Mondaini. Tacking on an additional game or two when tacklers ruthlessly and recklessly roll through an opponent doesn’t seem to be a deterrent, so this seems an ideal time to hand out three or four extra games, as harsh as that seems for a seemingly legit attempt to play the ball.
When Jonathan Leathers cleaned out FCD playmaker David Ferreira, who will miss several months with a fractured ankle and ruptured ligaments, no foul was called. The league can’t do much more than it has already, other than to reiterate its instructions to officials and suspend or discipline referees who miss such incidents. But it certainly can slap harsh punishments in clear-cut situations.
The tackle that left U.S. and Bolton midfielder Stuart Holden with torn knee ligaments earned Jonny Evans of Manchester United a three-game suspension in March. That straight-on challenge, in which Evans went over the ball with a late lunge, seemed to me a worse case than Mondaini’s slide tackle, but I still think that until the punishment is severe enough to make the tackler think twice about a flying assault that could end a player’s career, MLS will not have changed the mentality of its players, and thus the sometimes dangerous dynamics of its games.