By Paul Gardner
An interesting game -- I'm talking about this past weekend’s Red Bulls-L.A. Galaxy game. A 1-0 win for the Bulls, a win they probably didn't deserve, but a win they snatched at the very last moment of the game, pouncing on a bad mistake by the Galaxy's 39-year-old, and very experienced, Italian goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini.
Of course Cudicini should have come off his line to catch or punch Juninho’s free kick. The ball was descending into the six-yard area, and that is surely goalkeeper’s territory. Cudicini stayed put, even though he was not challenged or put under any sort of pressure by the Red Bulls, Tim Cahill leapt high -- something he’s pretty good at -- and the Bulls got their goal.
Later, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena agreed -- Cudicini should have made a play on that ball. Coaches rarely criticize their goalkeepers, but even more surprising was to find the TV commentators -- ESPN’s Adrian Healey and Taylor Twellman -- actually pointing out, on air, Cudicini’s mistake.
All of which made Cahill the hero of the game -- but not for long, the way I saw it. The Bulls had played an OK sort of game but had not greatly threatened the Galaxy goal. In fact, particularly in the first half, the Galaxy had looked livelier and quicker; even in the second half, when the Bulls did improve, the Galaxy had the better chances -- which included a great opportunity which Robbie Keane -- inexcusably -- headed wide.
Cahill wrecked his hero status after the game when he let it be known that he didn’t think much of the way that the Bulls had played: “They [the Galaxy] got too much time on the ball ...” he claimed, “I was like ‘let’s get into these guys. Let’s see if they want a little bit of a battle’ ... I wanted the intensity to be higher.”
There are no prizes on offer for working out what Cahill really means with all that pussyfooting wordage. He wanted the Bulls to be more physical, to play a rougher, tougher game on the assumption that this would upset the Galaxy.
He was, apparently, already certain that the Galaxy weren’t tough enough to take the heat, having already declared that the Galaxy “doesn’t like to get roughed up.” Just what Cahill’s proof for that allegation is, I wouldn’t know. But Cahill’s statement should not go unnoticed -- particularly in the office of Peter Walton, the man who runs PRO, that body that oversees the referees.
Here is a player openly declaring that he wants his team to “get into” opponents and who talks of opponents being roughed up. This is not just wild talk -- Cahill has always been a rumble-tumble type player (his playing days with Everton in the English Premier League provide plenty of examples). I’ve no doubt he means what he says -- he wants more fouling, more physical play, from the Bulls. He enjoys his soccer most when it’s physical, when it’s a “bit of a battle.”
He made no comment on what happened in the fifth minute of the game. That was when the Bulls’ Juninho went in hard, high-footed and with his studs flashing, on the Galaxy’s Juninho. Ugly. Galaxy-Juninho played on for a few more minutes, than had to leave the game. After just 10 minutes, the Galaxy had lost a key player, victim of exactly the sort of “get into them” play that Cahill finds so desirable.
I strongly believe that Cahill should be warned -- by MLS -- that his play will be watched for signs of thuggery. His play -- not his words. Watched by the referees, which is where Walton and his PRO setup come into the picture.
Cahill’s call for opponents to be roughed up only makes sense if he believes the Bulls can get away with systematically rough play -- i.e. he must feel confident that MLS referees will allow it.
Well, you PRO People -- is he right? In the Bulls-Galaxy game that I’m talking about, the referee was Silviu Petrescu, whom Walton adjudged to have performed well enough last season to get the plum job of officiating the MLS Cup final.
But Petrescu saw nothing wrong with the challenge that knocked Galaxy-Juninho out of the game, did not even call a foul, never mind issue a card. My own observations on Petrescu tell me he is too permissive, and that he does not like issuing cards early in a game. A modus operandi that reduces the chances of Petrescu having to issue game-damaging reds or second-yellows.
Look at it another way: no foul called for a dangerously physical foul in the fifth minute, but a foul called for a much less dangerous infringement by the Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes in the 92nd minute, leading to the free kick from which Cahill headed the winning goal.
Players -- and, more often, coaches -- are regularly fined for criticizing referees. Cahill, it seems to me, is certainly doing that with his implication that MLS referees will allow a “roughing up” level of physical play. But I suspect that PRO will find nothing wrong with a player calling for a more violent game.