By Paul Gardner
I have some strange statements from top soccer people to deal with. We'll start at the top. With Sepp Blatter, who has been giving us his opinions on the "triple-punishment" dilemma.
The supposed dilemma, I should say -- to make things clear that I don’t see any problem here at all. We’re talking about penalty area incidents where a defender gives away penalty kick (punishment No. 1), gets himself red-carded (No. 2), and is subsequently suspended for at least one game (No. 3).
That is what the current rules call for, and it seems perfectly logical to me. But not to “the coaches” who, we are told in a Reuters story “have long complained” that the punishment is too harsh.
You can be pretty sure that when “the coaches” complain about rules being too harsh, their objection is going to be against something that tries to put tighter limits on defensive play. In particular, rough play.
Their argument in this, as in other, cases is specious. To start with, part of this triple punishment is the award of a penalty kick. That does not automatically mean a goal. If the goalkeeper, who may well have committed the foul, is not red-carded, he then has the chance of becoming the hero by saving the PK. In which case you can forget about triple punishment -- there may be no punishment at all: No ejection, no goal and no suspension. At worst, the offender may get a yellow.
One of the specific reasons for red-carding a defender who fouls in the area is when he denies his (fouled) opponent an “obvious goal-scoring opportunity (OGSO).” That is not easy to define, and to read the criteria that referees apply to it is to understand that they are trying to avoid making the call (the fouled attacker was too far from the goal, he was heading away from the goal, the angle was too narrow, there was another defender lurking who might just have got to the ball, the attacker was not in full control of the ball, and so on).
Possibly the only unarguable OGSO occurs when an attacker is confronted with an open goal ... but as players have been known to miss those gifts, we may have to narrow the definition down to extinction.
Blatter seems not to have a problem with the rule, but calls on referees to be more selective in giving out red cards. Fewer red cards, he means, therefore fewer “triple” punishments. More relief for the defenders. Which is something that soccer, already overloaded with attitudes that condone, even encourage, rough play does not need.
I think the rule should be left exactly as it is and that referees -- far from reducing red-card calls -- should possibly increase them by being less miserly in their definition of an OGSO. If coaches -- and defenders -- don’t like it, then they could do something that would actually be a positive contribution to the sport: Cut out the rough tackling.
And so to Toronto, where MLS regulations seem to be causing problems for Toronto FC as they try to build a team that will actually win something. This has to do with Designated Players, DPs. Toronto now has four of them, when MLS regulations say you can only have three.
Evidently someone at TFC either doesn’t know the MLS rules, or can’t count. Neither option seems likely. Earlier this year, TFC signed up a new GM in Tim Bezbatchenko. He arrived from the MLS offices and was boosted as someone whose particular strength was .... knowing all the ins and outs of the various MLS regulations.
Yet here is TFC having recently signed three DPs (Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and Gilberto) when it was well aware that they already had a DP on their books, the young Argentine midfielder Matias Laba. Who was certainly one of their better players last season. But who would now have to be re-signed as a non-DP at an appreciably lower salary or, more likely, off loaded.
But Coach Ryan Nelsen really, really wants to keep Laba: “I love Matty, and he is such a good player.” An odd statement from a coach who has gone along with a situation that makes it almost inevitable that Laba has no future at Toronto. But the strangest comments come from Bezbatchenko, who told MLSsoccer.com that the MLS Designated Player rules are forcing TFC’s hand.
Agreed, MLS regulations do not, are not designed to, make it easy for its clubs to retain a lot of players on high salaries. Rather the opposite, in fact. Is that news to anyone? How can Bezbatchenko be in two minds about that? He is the expert, he knew the rules when he got into this.
We’ve witnessed exactly this tearing of hair and wringing of hands before -- in 2012 when Seattle, already carrying three DPs, decided to bring in a fourth, and were “forced” to unload Alvaro Fernandez (who they really, really, wanted to keep) to Chicago. Fernandez, a Uruguayan World Cup player, is now out of MLS, back to playing in Uruguay. It is quite possible that Laba, too, will leave MLS. Can it really be good thing for the league to lose players whom their coaches really, really want to keep? To blame MLS for these screw-ups shows, I think, a remarkably impudent lack of candor from the clubs.