MLS touches the heights, but injuries mount too

By Paul Gardner

It was the best of weekends, it was the worst of weekends for MLS. On the bright side, the league gave us that rarity in pro sports these days, a much-hyped game that came close to living up to its billing. On the gloomy side, there was the sight of Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales -- certainly one of the best players in the league -- being stretchered off the field with a serious injury.

The two events, though they occupy opposite ends of the emotional spectrum from joy to despair, though they took place some 600 miles apart, are not unconnected. The soccer played during the Galaxy vs. Red Bulls game may not have been world class, but it had a heavy dose of all the necessary ingredients -- skill, commitment, energy, attacking action -- to make it constantly enthralling. But equally important was what the game did not feature: we saw very little crude play, almost no clumsy tackles -- in short, an absence of the sort of reckless play that has been the scourge of MLS games recently, a scourge that has sidelined four of the league’s star players.

Of course this game had its stars -- more than any other MLS matchup can muster -- but it was the supporting cast that allowed the action to flow and to maintain an agreeably high level throughout, to be good entertainment.

Of the stars -- the big-buck earners, that is, Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Rafa Marquez, Juan Pablo Angel and Thierry Henry -- I’d say that Marquez had the most effective game. But he’s now a full-time defender, and we need to look elsewhere for the spectacular stuff. Actually, the game never gave us anything downright spectacular, but there were plenty of moments of memorable skill from Donovan and Henry (including both goals). Plus one or two from Beckham -- but not nearly as many as ESPN commentators Glenn Davis and John Harkes would have us believe. [Hey, Glenn -- Beckham does not have “eyes in the back of his head,” nor did he need them to make the meaningless cross-field pass that had you in a swoon.]

Henry got things going after only three minutes with a very classy bit of finishing, and after that there was never a dull moment -- or so it seemed. No doubt there were lulls in the action, but never long enough to register.

Credit to both teams -- and both coaches -- for keeping their attacking game in top gear. The sad thing is that the scoreline was only 1-1, when 2-2 or even 3-3 would have been a truer reflection of this all-action game.

From the admirable lesser-paid ranks, I’d single out A.J. DeLaGarza and Juninho of the Galaxy, and Mehdi Ballouchy for the Red Bulls -- three players who gave us fluent soccer with class and style. I’ll add a fourth -- the Red Bulls’ Joel Lindpere, plenty of skill, but lacking in style and smoothness -- a difficult-to-classify player whose on-the-ball work often looks herky-jerky, but whose effectiveness is beyond dispute.

Add in a packed, noisy stadium -- a soccer stadium -- and you have just about everything that MLS could wish for at this stage of the league’s development.

Well, now. The Galaxy and the Red Bulls being the two biggest spenders among MLS teams -- on players and stadiums -- does that mean that money is what counts if you want to produce good soccer? Yes ... and no.

Obviously, besides money you need good judgment in player signings, and you need coaches willing to play an attacking style. Yet Real Salt Lake -- way behind the Galaxy and the Red Bulls on the spending scale -- manages to play soccer that is as good as, often better, than anything either of those teams produces. At least, it was ... and we arrive back at the Morales injury.

Quickly, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Chivas USA coach Robin Fraser -- an admirable player in his day -- has expressed his regret and said his player Marcos Mondaini -- whose tackle maimed Morales -- is a wonderful guy who did not mean any harm. I accept all of that. But of course, we’ve heard it all before, we hear it very time one of these shocking “accidents” occurs ... and it is largely irrelevant.

In the past two weeks, MLS has lost four top players to serious, even career-threatening -- injuries -- Steve Zakuani, David Ferreira, Branko Boskovic and now Javier Morales. Is it -- can it be -- just a coincidence that these are all skillful attacking players? Two of them in fact, are Designated Players.

No, of course not. These are players who see a lot of ball, who like to caress it and hold it -- they are, in a sense, vulnerable to tackles. Usually their skill will get them out of trouble -- Lionel Messi is currently the best example of that.

The trouble comes from the tackles. They do not have to be malicious -- but when they are poorly performed or mistimed, by players who are not skillful enough to do any better, or when they are reckless, they can be dangerous.

That is what we are seeing. Players who are tackling recklessly and dangerously. Nobody is saying that these players are out there to deliberately injure opponents. We can go a bit further -- this succession of rash tackles does need an explanation, and it can only be provided by looking at the way soccer is played in MLS. Too physical, too many players who are frankly not good enough to give us, consistently, the sort of game that the Galaxy and the Red Bulls presented on Saturday night.

Defenders -- and therefore tacklers -- will no doubt be offended at the accusation that they have failed to learn their craft -- but that is an accusation that must be made. Too many tackles are being made that are simply crude and lazy ... and, repeat, dangerous.

Better defenders are needed then -- but are we expected to believe that the coaches aren’t aware of this? Why do they keep putting on the field players who they must know are a serious menace to opponents? That is meant to be a serious question, though the answer, I suppose, immediately suggests itself.

A related problem is the modern tactical idea -- much beloved of coaches -- that every player on the field has defensive duties. Thus, Chivas forward Mondaini ends up, deep in his own half, trying to tackle Morales, with a disastrous result. However one may define the skill of clean tackling (a skill that is not seen too often these days), Mondaini manifestly hasn’t a clue. His tackle was utterly amateurish. Which makes it sound laughable -- but there was nothing to laugh at here, because the tackle involved an almost criminal recklessness.

MLS has a problem. Partly caused by the tight financial reins that it imposes, and partly by the permissive attitude that prevails in the league with respect to incompetent defending. The second part of that problem can be tackled quickly by the league making it clear -- to both referees and coaches -- that there is to be zero tolerance for reckless tackling.

Even from a business point of view, it makes no sense to encourage clubs to spend more money in acquiring DPs -- and to require those players to risk life and limb trying to dodge clumsy or reckless -- and certainly dangerous -- tackles.

But one would hope that the human cost -- the thought of the crippled players -- would be enough to effect a rejection of the currently dominant physical approach.

12 comments about "MLS touches the heights, but injuries mount too ".
  1. Tom Symonds, May 9, 2011 at 8:33 a.m.

    We cheer "strong", "robust", "full-blooded" challenges from our players and boo the victim for not being "tough" enough or "milking it" as he rolls and grabs his shin or ankle. And we condemn the same rash challenges when they are perpetrated by the opponents on our team. We complain about cards ruining "the flow of the game" and we boo the referee for showing our tackler a card or we cheer when he shows our opponent a card for the same tackle. We want the MLS to be lenient in punishing our "he's a good guy who wouldn't hurt anyone" tackler, but scream for "ban for life" justice against the oppenent "serial killer" tackler who does us harm. Do we want our game to be ballet or MMA? Until the league, the owners, the referees, the coaches, the players, and the fans decide the answer to that question, we will continue to put our players in this no-man's land of danger on the pitch.

  2. Walt Pericciuoli, May 9, 2011 at 8:54 a.m.

    I don't think this is only a problem in the MLS. In any given match throughout the top European leagues (yes even La Liga and SerieA) you can watch the same crude reckless tackling. I just think the art of skillful defending has been lost. Watching old clips of the Italian National side who I think were the best defenders in the world in the 60's -80's, rarely did the defenders leave their feet. Instead you saw the skill of shepherding of an attacker away from a dangerous area, anticipation and interception of passes and finally skillful tackling by flicking the ball away when as the attacker dribbled. When the "slide tackle" was made, the emphasis was on the timing of the slide. The defender timed his tackle so that he would be on the ground before flicking the ball away from the attacker. This is a skill that was taught (I remember) Now we see defenders leaving the ground with both feet aimed at the ball so that the tackle comes first before the defender goes to ground. It is only shear luck more limbs are not broken from week to week. Can we expect the referees to fix the lack of skill on the part of the modern players?

  3. Richard Stevenson, May 9, 2011 at 8:58 a.m.

    Here is an idea that might help solve the problem: players committing such egregious fouls that result in severe least those getting red cards, meaning they they appeared reckless in the run of play...those players should be suspended from play until the injured player returns to play. Obviously, no one would go for such an idea, but there would be some "justice" to it and it may caution coaches who, perhaps inadvertently (perhaps not) 'encourage' reckless play by their tactics.

  4. Pete Pidgeon, May 9, 2011 at 10:19 a.m.

    The "ART" of defending IS being lost. In a rush to make the games more exciting, we seem to be completely focused on going forward with little regard to teaching the subtleties of marking successfully. ALL players should be focused toward excellent foot skills which can be applied in all areas of the pitch. Too often you will hear, "just whack him" coming from either sideline.

    When you see a defense that confidently and smoothly wins the ball and moves it successfully forward, maintaining possession all the way up the field, it is easily as enjoyable as a good shot or cross. Coaches and trainers need to embrace that when developing "strong" defenders, instead of the clutching, grabbing and cheap shots that are too common these days.

  5. Brian Something, May 9, 2011 at 10:38 a.m.

    Yet another exciting, skillful attacking player maimed by someone who, no doubt, would be described as "not that kind of player."

    As long as our model is England (think Aaron Ramsey, Eduardo) where "work rate" and "getting stuck in" are the only qualities valued, rather than countries where skillful players can flourish because the laws of the game are actually applied, this sort of garbage will continue to hinder the development of American soccer.

  6. Brian Something, May 9, 2011 at 10:40 a.m.

    I have no doubt that imbecile commentators initially mocked Morales for "theatrics." Conventional wisdom (sic) informs us that diving is a far worse crime than maiming.

  7. Mike Gaire, May 9, 2011 at 11:39 a.m.

    The never ending Beckham bashing continues! For God's sake give it up, Paul, we saw the game too, and every time you do this you hammer another nail in the coffin that is your declining credibility!!!

  8. John Hofmann, May 9, 2011 at 3 p.m.

    It seems a critical factor is that defenders no longer learn a high enough level of defensive skills. How do you force them into applying themselves to increase these skills? The best idea so far seems to be that someone causing injury to another player would have to sit out play until the injury player can return to playing. That would seem to have two immediate results -- defenders would be more careful in tackling, for self-preservation, and it would get through to at least some of them that the way to being a more effective defender would be to improve their defensive techniques. And, if it turns out that it causes less reckeless defending in the near term, maybe that would rachet up offense. And that seems to be something that would possibly enhance the appeal to more Americans to watch our top league.

  9. Albert Harris, May 9, 2011 at 3:05 p.m.

    I suspect Paul will stop his Beckham bashing about the same time the so-called expert commentators stop fawning over Golden Balls every move. Nobody else in the league gets such a free pass, certainly not Henry who is the only other one in his salary bracket. My kingdom for a play by play announcer who just calls the game without sucking up to big reputation.

  10. beautiful game, May 9, 2011 at 10:46 p.m.

    NYRB v Galaxy contest showed more quality than is usually seen from most MLS teams. Indeed, Harkes continues his winded suffocation of the contest as is his usual agenda of too much talk and less about what is really happening on the pitch as he watches it on the TV monitor.

  11. Steven Jeremenko, May 10, 2011 at 9 a.m.

    Paul, I strongly believe there are conspirators involved here. Is it no coincidence that in the season that Garber cries out for more attack minded play instead we get a full on assassin-like assault on all that is artistically capable in the league of producing such? I don't think so. Sure, there is the politically correct rhetoric spewed by administrators, coaches, players, commentators and even fans that there was no intention to cripple or cause such Grievous Bodily Harm but come on, anyone who's played the game knows that's a load of crap. In my playing days, way back in the 80's, being a player who relied on his skill, technical ability, and mental cunning, yes there were other skillful players of my generation beside Ramos but we were cast aside - literally, toot-toot, I remember being the target of such hooligans who had had enough of my "fancy tricks" and intelligent wizardry that their only mission was to "TAKE ME OUT"! They actually were stupid enough to say it to my face on the field - I'm not making this up. Fortunately, I escape serious injury by being mentally several steps ahead of these assassins and I was able to avoid their assault by jumping, twisting, contorting my body out of the way, a preventative tactical trick my father taught me at an early age. This crude on the field behavior however got to me and it came to a head for me during my 4 year Division 1 college career as I saw the game I once loved to play being over run by dim-wits who used crude tactics, rule bending and dare I say cheating along with astonishing compliance from the referees to influence games negligent of skill and intelligence. I stopped playing as a result of it and I regret it deeply because I let them - the conspirators - win and slowly ruin the game. So as I see it, this conspiracy has been on going for years. The soccer artists are gone and when occasionally they brilliantly appear like the sun through a cloud cover sky they get wacked almost as if some governing body gave the orders. Pete Pidgeon above had the balls to use the word ART in the same breath as competitive sport and I applaud him for that. That's risky. But that is what to me always made soccer special and different from a lot of other competitive sports, the craftiness and ingenuity that "was" involved, the creativity, the artistry. The art of defending, the art of attacking has been cast aside,forgotten and replaced by dumb-dumbs who let's face it, aren't capable. The art of soccer has been lost. It has been lost and must be found for the sake of the game not only in the United States but all over the world.

  12. Carl Walther, May 10, 2011 at 11:06 a.m.

    You are what you do, not what you (or someone else) says. I'm tired of coaches explaining away thuggish behavior. It simply illustrates their own philosophy of competition and life. Local news is full of friends and relatives saying, after a friend is arrested for assault - "he is a wonderful guy who did not mean any harm."

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