By Paul Gardner
I suppose congratulations of some sort are in order for the Galaxy's Adam Cristman for managing to play 25 minutes against the Red Bulls on Saturday without anyone noticing that he was on the field -- and for then climaxing his invisibility with a moment of spectacular stupidity that everyone sure as hell did notice.
Of course, that moment had nothing to do with actually playing soccer. As the game ended (predictably, yet another ground-out 1-0 win for the dreary Galaxy) Cristman saw Rafa Marquez throw the ball at Landon Donovan. Also an utterly stupid move, maybe even more so than Cristman’s, for Marquez is a much more experienced player.
Having traveled some 10 yards, the ball hit Donovan on the foot and rolled softly back toward Marquez. Donovan did not react, in any way. End of incident? Not with the feisty Cristman around, evidently keen on making at least some sort of impression on this game. Cristman, says the MLS website, “confronted” Marquez.
Sloppy use of language here -- Cristman actually shoved Marquez in the chest (or maybe it was the face), quite violently. From that moment, things turned physical when, had Cristman kept his hands down, there would in all likelihood have been no melee, no players falling to the ground -- no ugly scene. And -- Cristman might like to reflect -- no red card for his teammate Juninho. Marquez would -- or, should -- have got a red anyway -- throwing the ball at an opponent is viewed as striking him, a red card offense.
At the moment, we wait to hear from MLS, whose disciplinary committee will no doubt have studied the tapes. The Red Bulls’ Teemu Tainio looks like a good candidate for a suspension, as he appeared at one point to be trying to throttle Juninho. That Cristman should be heavily fined and suspended seems inescapable to me, as he was the one who added the flame to a dangerously combustible situation.
But he will be defended, of course he will. During one of the post-game panel discussions, one of those experts -- maybe it was more than one -- was almost jumping up and down with delight at the whole thing, reveling in Cristman’s behavior and that of everyone else involved in the melee (if that’s what it was -- don’t all these soccer melees smack more of the theater stage than the boxing ring?) because it showed how passionate everyone was, how committed, and -- the ultimate praise -- that Cristman was “looking after” his teammate.
I don’t recall which expert was making those comments, it doesn’t really matter -- they’re just another example of the widespread failing of the TV guys to speak first and think later. If they ever do bother to think at all.
So, bravo trusty Cristman, then. Pity about that red card to Juninho, though, which puts him out of the second leg. He will be missed. Cristman, should he be suspended, will assuredly not.
Donovan, who acted with commendable calm throughout the flare-up, has had his say about the incident and about the Red Bulls in general -- a team intent on taking cheap shots. In MLS, said Donovan, “I’ve never played against a cheaper team.”
Well now, it’s only about six weeks ago that Bulls’ coach Hans Backe told us that, with the playoffs approaching, his team needed to “play a bit dirty.”
Even allowing for the inevitable exaggeration in Donovan’s accusation, it’s impossible not to connect his statement with Backe’s. Were the Red Bulls as bad as Donovan says? The game stats say no; the Galaxy out-fouled the Bulls by 10 to 9. But one must consider the referee, Alex Prus, the most complacent of the MLS referees. I suspect the foul total would have been as much as 50 percent higher with another referee.
Cheap shots? Yes -- Thierry Henry’s foul on David Beckham (Henry was yellow-carded for it) was pretty bad. Late in the game there was another incident involving the same two players, in which Henry appeared to kick Beckham as he lay on the ground -- no foul was called.
But any team that regularly puts on the field a player like Chris Birchall -- which the Galaxy does -- can hardly adopt a high moral attitude when it comes to fouling. Within minutes of coming on the field, Birchall had landed a hefty kick on Joel Lindpere
Both Bruce Arena and Backe are at fault here. It is their teams that need a touch of discipline. And Commissioner Don Garber is also at fault, because he has failed to speak up, strongly, against rough play, and to make it clear that the major part of the blame lies not with lenient refereeing, but with crude players and permissive coaches.
The shape of the MLS season -- and, even more so, of these playoffs -- was greatly affected early in the season with that crop of serious injuries that laid low several of the league’s most skilled players. Dallas lost their key player, David Ferreira; he has not yet returned and Dallas, a much poorer team without him, was eliminated by the Red Bulls. Real Salt Lake lost Javier Morales for most of the season, but his recent return has sparked a massive return to form for the team, as evidenced by its 3-0 playoff win over Seattle. A bitter loss for Seattle which is suffering because of injury to its star player, Mauro Rosales. Again the absence, through injury, of a star player has severely damaged a team’s hopes.
This onslaught on star players has, so far, spared the league’s Golden Boy, David Beckham. But that should not surprise. Ferreira, Morales and Rosales are similar players -- playmakers who like to dwell on the ball, and to dribble. Vulnerable to tackles, if you like.
Beckham plays a different type of game, with less time spent on the ball. Mercifully, he has escaped the attention of the leg-breakers. But to be thankful for Beckham’s safety should not obscure the fact that Garber is wrong not to speak out. By not condemning the rough play, and the coaches and players involved, he is helping to fashion a league that is inhospitable to skillful playmakers like Ferreira, Morales and Rosales.
From MLS, with its two showcase teams and their marquee players involved, it is time for something more forceful than the customary wrist slaps.