By Paul Gardner
After two weeks without watching any MLS games, I returned to the fray to watch Vancouver-Real Salt Lake. I fell asleep. Let’s put that down to jet lag ... though I do believe that, had there been any great excitement in the game, I would have stayed awake.
Certainly, it was good to see Javier Morales back in action. Not at his best as yet, but full of good ideas and good passes -- but what on earth has happened to RSL in his absence?
An occasional shot of Jason Kreis apparently imprisoned in an isolation booth, made me believe he was suspended. Apparently not -- food poisoning, it seems. I doubt that his presence on the bench would have changed anything -- this was a thoroughly disappointing display, almost to the point of ineptitude, by RSL.
Maybe it got better while I dozed -- but as Vancouver scored twice in that time, I doubt it. Vancouver, not exactly impressive, but a better team than RSL on this night surely deserved their win. Camilo is a real find -- the sort of player that MLS urgently needs, a goal-scorer, a trickster, a crowd-pleaser. And, sad to say -- thinking of Morales, David Ferreira, Steve Zakuani and Mauro Rosales -- a candidate to get himself seriously injured.
That problem -- of the crudity of much of the tackling in MLS -- has not been solved. Indeed, since Commissioner Don Garber’s praiseworthy start-of-the-season appeal to the referees to give such players better protection, nothing has been heard from MLS on the subject.
That is deplorable. The fact has to be faced that, without players of the type I’m describing -- the creative, artistic playmakers -- the style, to say nothing of the caliber, of the soccer in MLS slumps badly.
As I was reminded on Saturday by a vapid performance by the normally lively Seattle Sounders during their 0-2 loss to Philadelphia. A big part of the Sounders’ loss of form can be put down to injuries. The Sounders have been the biggest victims of MLS thuggery -- losing Zakuani early in the season to a criminally awful “tackle” from Colorado’s Brian Mullan and then, just three weeks ago, being deprived of the services of the hugely impressive Rosales for several weeks by an utterly unnecessary midfield tackle, inept and negligent, from D.C.United’s Daniel Woolard. (It needs to be said that D.C. has itself suffered from the violence, losing two players: Branko Boskovic at the beginning of the season and -- just a week before the Woolard incident -- its star player, Chris Pontius, suffered a broken leg after a collision with Chivas USA’s David Junior Lopes).
Mullan, of course, has served his far-too-lenient 10-game suspension and has been playing regularly again since mid-July. Since then he has picked up three yellow cards, including one for a “reckless tackle.”
This carnage is not to be simply shrugged off, or dismissed as “part of the game." Coaches need to be much harder on their own players who indulge in thuggery. Looking back to that dreadful foul of Mullan’s, it is almost incredible to recall that the Colorado coach Gary Smith was quick to defend it, and to hide behind that tired old defense that the critics of Mullan “don’t understand the game.”
And of course the referees need to be quicker with the cards. In the same game that Mullan received his yellow for a reckless tackle, referee Jorge Gonzalez red-carded Philadelphia’s Sheanon Williams. For violent play? For a leg-breaking tackle? No -- Williams got a yellow for bitching to Gonzalez, and then, when he kept going, got a prompt second yellow and was ejected.
Firmness on the part of Gonzalez, for sure -- no doubt Williams used naughty words. But the priorities here are quite wrong. To be that harsh, that quickly, in punishing a verbal tirade makes sense only if violent play meets with the same -- indeed, more severe -- punishment.
But it does not. MLS referees, faced with the reluctance, or downright refusal, of MLS coaches to discipline their own players (it’s only a few weeks ago that Hans Backe was calling on his Red Bulls to play “a little dirty”), have simply not reacted forcefully enough.
After the injury to Rosales, Seattle coach Sigi Schmid had this to say: “We have a talented player in this league, a player who’s a good player, who fans want to come and watch play, then we let thugs hit him and we don’t protect him enough.”
That was said, heatedly no doubt, right after the game. But it is essentially true. I might argue with a detail: having seen very little of Woolard in action, I have no idea whether he is a thug, or not. His tackle came at midfield, in a non-threatening situation, with Seattle leading 3-0 in the 89th minute ... why make the tackle? Woolard got nowhere near the ball (it was difficult to see why he imagined he had any chance of getting to it), but made solid contact with the knee of Rosales’s standing leg. It looked like the effort of an inexperienced player -- yet Woolard, at age 27, has considerable experience, though most of it is not at the highest level.
All of that is bad enough -- but it gets worse, because this episode reveals just how deep the determination to excuse violent play goes.
There was the performance of referee Kevin Stott -- probably the league’s most experienced official. Rosales had been fouled before in this game, perhaps not enough times to indicate that the fouling was systematic, but enough to raise the suspicion. Yet when Woolard made his crude tackle, Stott called the foul but did not go to his pocket. No card.
Then there’s the attitude of the commentators -- in this case Tony Limarzi and Thomas Rongen. When the foul occurred the two were busily engaged in one of those irrelevant, giggly duets that are so lamentably frequent in soccer telecasts. Rongen was droning on about MLS expansion. On screen, we could see the foul, then we could see Rosales writhing in evident pain -- and then we even had time to watch a very good replay of the incident. And still Rongen droned on. It took 25 seconds -- which is a long time -- for Rongen to notice that Rosales had been fouled. At which point, Rongen switched from drivel about MLS expansion, to drivel excusing the foul ... nothing to get excited about, of course, just “awkward, non-intended.” Ho Hum.
When people like Stott and Rongen -- both highly experienced in different areas of the sport -- are clearly seen to be not taking rough play seriously, they are making it more likely that the serious injuries will continue.
So the players will suffer. And so will MLS. Which makes it inexplicable to me that Garber has not spoken out. And an awkward question needs to be asked -- one which will no doubt rile Garber and his MLS colleagues -- but I shall ask it anyway. What sort of reaction can we expect if the next player to go down seriously injured by violent play happens to be David Beckham? Or Thierry Henry?