By Paul Gardner
I fear that the hyperactive MLS Disciplinary Committee may be heading for a fall. I would regret that, because its aims are obviously well-intentioned. But its methods and, in particular, its constant pronouncements are beginning to irritate.
The weekly press releases announcing extra punishment for this or that player cannot help but raise thoughts that there must be something wrong with the MLS referees. Why do fouls keep happening that either the referees do not see, or which they fail to punish?
Are the referees that bad, or is the DC being over-officious?
One thing the DC quite definitely IS being, is secretive. We are not allowed to know much about the DC. The names of its members are not released. Nor are the criteria by which they are selected. We do not know how they vote on any given issue.
Which is unsatisfactory. The reason for the secrecy, I have been told, is that if the members’ names were released they would come under the sort of pressure that might affect their objectivity.
I don’t think that’s much of an argument. In fact, it becomes rather unpleasant when you consider the position of the referees. These are the guys whose work the DC constantly tweaks -- the DC will no doubt deny that interpretation, but I think that’s the way it comes over -- and these referees are right in the spotlight, their names known to everyone, their performances fully public, their errors subject to media analysis.
Plenty of pressure there. It’s part of the job. And I think it should be part of the job of being a member of the Disciplinary Committee. We should know who these guys are.
Where secrecy prevails, suspicion will flourish. Why is it that David Beckham gets away with so much -- both in terms of reckless tackling and of referee abuse? And why is that, when the DC does finally get around to calling him to order, the punishment seems nugatory? Why? Is he being let off lightly simply because he’s David Beckham -- and not, to take two quite at-random names, Rafa Marquez or Brek Shea?
Could it be that the dreaded undue influence is being exerted -- sub rosa? Which would make a mockery of the idea that secrecy somehow protects the DC members from “illegal” approaches.
Another aspect of DC secrecy is that we do not know what, if any, criteria, it follows in deciding on its punishments. Let’s take a look at this week’s villain, identified as the New England Revs’ Kelyn Rowe, suspended and fined “for a reckless challenge that endangered the safety of his opponent, New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Ryan Meara.”
Rowe chased a through ball into the Red Bull penalty area -- Meara came out, got there first, dived and gathered the ball as Rowe raced in. Rowe did not check his run, or jump -- with the result that Meara slid head first into Rowe’s right leg.
No foul was called by referee Drew Fischer. But the Red Bulls’ TV commentator Shep Messing decided that Rowe had “put the knee to the head of Meara.” Which is not what happened. We were then told by Messing that Rowe should have jumped, and -- threateningly -- that there would be a “payback” for “that type of play.” Meaning contact with the goalkeeper’s head. Evidently, and fortunately, the contact was minimal -- Meara was back on his feet almost immediately.
As someone who has written frequently about the dangers of concussion in this sport, I am totally in agreement about the necessity of ensuring that goalkeepers do not get kicked in the head. Whether that extends to requiring everyone else to get out of the way when a keeper launches himself head-first at a ball that he could -- as in this instance -- equally well play by kicking it away, is another matter.
Whatever, I’ll accept the argument -- Rowe should have jumped. But goalkeeper matters should not rest there. At the beginning of this game, just 11 minutes in, Meara was involved in another incident when he came racing off his line as the Revs’ Blake Brettschneider chased a pass. This time Meara did not get there first. Brettschneider did. In fact, Meara made a mess of things, diving to his left, as Brettschneider pulled the ball in the other direction. So Meara stuck out his legs, made contact with the ball, but got a big piece of Bretschneider too.
Again, referee Fischer did not call a foul, even though what Meara did was certainly reckless (and would probably have been penalized had it been a field-player who made the tackle). Both Meara and Brettschneider stayed down -- but all of Messing’s sympathy was for Meara. “Ryan Meara is hurt!” was his first cry, then “Good aggressive goalkeeping.” Messing’s concern was unnecessary -- Meara was back on his feet, ready to play, after just over a minute. No mention at all was made of Brettschneider, the innocent participant, also shaken up on the play.
I’m not about to suggest that Messing is running the DC, but its actions in these related cases do reveal that it has the same sort of keeper-friendly concerns.
If that is the case, then it is something the DC should let us know about, should explain to us. As it should explain anything that involves decisions based on a particular philosophy of the game. In this case: apart from the obvious and totally laudable aim of preventing concussions, are goalkeepers to be granted a freedom to commit reckless fouls that would not be granted to field players?
My appeal to the DC, then, is for what is usually called transparency these days. Let us know who you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. Put another way, stand up and be counted, exactly as the referees have to be in each game.