Arena, Backe and Garber must share blame for the rough stuff

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.

13 comments about "Arena, Backe and Garber must share blame for the rough stuff".
  1. Glenn Auve, November 1, 2011 at 7:19 a.m.

    The other difference between Beckham and those other players is that Beckham has turned into a bit of a hack as well. He will kick you back...and pretty hard at that. So that may also save him from getting assaulted...he's the one doing the assaulting.

  2. Walt Pericciuoli, November 1, 2011 at 10:22 a.m.

    Paul you are right on target. These kind of games are more the norm in this league and for me makes the league all most un-watchable.I desperately want to become a fan of my local team,Red Bulls)but games like this make it tough for me.

  3. beautiful game, November 1, 2011 at 10:46 a.m.

    MLS games are difficult to watch...too many turnovers, too many hackers, and not enough skill...professionals fouls are being overly tolerated and the game suffers...add to that the dismal video-TV 'cameo' coverage which has no rhythm to the movement of the team/ball and the winded irrelevant chatter by the commentators, and the game becomes stale and disjointed.

  4. cony konstin, November 1, 2011 at 11:43 a.m.

    Soccer in the US has come a long way but at this time this is where soccer is in a nutshell from youth to pro and anything in between. It is easier to destroy then to create. That is US's soccer mantra at every level. When our mantra is every time you step on the field of play you must create a work of art or don't step on the field and every coach, every player, every leader in soccer lives and dies by this mantra then you will see real change. Otherwise soccer in the US will continue to be looked upon as a hobby and a joke. US soccer needs radical change. The status quo needs to move on. US soccer is simply helter skelter. We need a new vision, a master plan, and restructuring of US soccer and I am not talking about the federation I am mean from NY to Calf and everywhere in between and around needs radical change.

  5. Carl Walther, November 1, 2011 at 12:06 p.m.

    To the writer who said that if you just wait things will get better--nonsense. Things don't change unless you make them change, something that the "Goober" is clearly unable (or unwilling) to do. MLS has turned into a rough, dirty game. Something that like minded people with a "thug mentality" prefer. FSC's juvenile announcers not only make excuses for, but actually praise dirty playing. MLS has become unwatchable. I've turned to Mexican futbol.

  6. cony konstin, November 1, 2011 at 12:18 p.m.

    Super Man I am not a Euro snob. I am a USONIAN soccer person. I was born here. I have been coaching for 37 years. Soccer in the US has been here for more than 100 years. One of the problems is that soccer in US is not respected because the big 3 control the media and everything else in between. Yes a few years ago when you opened the sports section in the US there might have been a few lines in the paper that there is a game in South Dakota between madison high and grover washington high. Today we get a few extra lines in the sports section. The sports section is still smothered with football, baseball, and basketball.
    You are 100% right we need to continue to support the MLS but we also need radical change across this nation if we want to take soccer in our nation to another level. We do need instant change is certain areas and slower change in other areas. But we still need change no matter what speed we take to do it. The MLS has it's moments of brilliance but they are just moments. We need to change these moments into 90 minutes of spectacular visions of greatness and I'll tell you where we must start. Officiating needs to become excellent. I don't care if you are an average player or a great player. If the ref sucks the game is over before it even begins. Introducing great officiating in the MLS is the first thing that I feel needs to happen and maybe changing some of the rules to curtail the hackfest that we seem to hate to watch in the MLS. I am open to other ideas. I believe that's what makes Soccer America unique that it gives the masses a place to converge and try to make a difference with opinions and sharing ideas.

  7. Gak Foodsource, November 1, 2011 at 12:54 p.m.

    Superman, I understand your argument that we should support MLS in order for it grow, but I think you have it backwards. MLS has to earn its fans - nationalistic pride won't be enough. There is a reason 70,000 people will come out of the woodworks to watch Barcelona or Man United in New Jersey. It is interesting that In many ways the problems that now beset MLS are the same ones that have plagued the youth levels for years. Organizations shouldn't be judged on championships but instead on style of play. Coaches shouldn't be fired for losing - they should be fired for advocating destructive soccer.

  8. Gak Foodsource, November 1, 2011 at 1:06 p.m.

    Superman - I find it interesting that every time the conversation turns to ideas on improving the game, your response is for us to maintain perspective and recognize how much progress has been made. It is as if you are satisfied with the status quo. We are all excited at the fact that Americans watched the World Cup in offices across the country. But should we look at the young kids today playing soccer who lack the fundamental skills to compete and give them a history lesson on how far we have come - or should we figure out a way to improve the structure so that they get those necessary skills? You and Sunil Gulati can pat each other on the back for all of the progress that has been made, but hurry up and get it over with because there are changes that need to be made.

  9. cony konstin, November 1, 2011 at 1:52 p.m.

    I am going to throw this out there. Can US Soccer Mandate that every club in Youth Soccer must teach the USONIAN WAY. NO they can not. Why because youth soccer has five different organizations that say that each one them created the GAME. In Holland the Dutch Federation Mandates the Dutch WAY to everyone. Mexican Federation mandates as well. We need a Federation that dictates, mandates, and basically calls all the shots for all of soccer in the US. This is the second thing that must happen to change soccer in the US. One head of the entire body that tells the body what not to do and what to do. This pandora box of helter skelter all over the map and my dog is bigger than your dog, recreational psycho parent driven, marketing ponzi scheme of running soccer in the US needs to stop. The ball is round my friends it is not square. It is a simple game for everyone to experience. It is the beautiful game that belongs to the masses. You want to see magical futbol than let's stop for one moment and ask ourselves what are the things that we must do to create that magical moment that we all want to see. Guess what? It is going to take a process. So it is time to establish a new process to get us there. One Federation that mandates the entire nation where, when, who, how and so forth and so forth. That is what we need if we want a new process. REVOLUTION!!!!!!

  10. cony konstin, November 1, 2011 at 5:03 p.m.

    Superman I never said one person. But I am saying one organization running the whole show is what US Soccer needs. We are all over the map. Soccer needs to be reorganized and lead solely by the Federation. If you are telling me that the Federation is one person I will have to disagree with you on that one. The Federation is made up of several people. The president can not do everything on his own but he can lead the whole nation in making sure that the Federation's mandates will taken seriously or there will be a problem. And no country on earth has the insane parents that are involve in soccer like we do. First of all we are one of the only countries in world that has pay to play, and so call professional training for little kids. Most of the world plays in the streets and doesn't have a bunch of pyshco parents yelling at them in some alley way.

  11. cony konstin, November 1, 2011 at 8:40 p.m.

    I did not say that no other countries have insane parents. What I am saying is the majority of them are in the good ole USA. We will probably never have freestyle soccer in the streets but that's were Futsal comes in. Futsal could be our version of street balling. That is why US Soccer should be putting a project together to develop 30,000 futsal courts all over the USA and especially in our inner cities. And yes we do need to have some sort of mandate for U8s. It is a total disservice what those kids are getting. Our kids between the ages of 5 thru 10 are getting useless training. It is like sending these kids to school for 5 years and all they get is some teacher flinging pencils off their heads all day long. They are not learning squat in soccer. Like I said before I have been in the trenches for 37 years we need radical change.

  12. Walt Pericciuoli, November 2, 2011 at 10:08 a.m.

    Just give me games I can watch and a team I can root for. I know MLS is not La Liga, Seri A or the EPL. I could live with the MLS if there wasn't so much fouling. US youth soccer and even school ball does not tolerate so much rough and dirty play.Why at the pro level? The TV commentators need to stop analyzing every touch of the ball and not make excuses for dirty play.

  13. Frank Cardone, November 6, 2011 at 2 p.m.

    MLS, starting with its commissioner, must do all in its power to minimize dirty play. Thus far I am disappointed by Don Garber's actions in this critical area. He has been on the job long enough to stesss creative play and relieve us of players who can only foul their creative opponents. Wasn't the flurry of serious injuries to key players that Paul Gardner mentions enough? I have supported MLS for all of its 16 years, but it is essential that the Garber and other league officils stop patting themselves on the back about their "progress" and do all they can to improve the standard of play. In my opinion they cannot start too soon.

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