Commentary

Seattle's love affair with the Open Cup turns sour

By Paul Gardner

The controversy surrounding Clint Dempsey and his trashing of referee Daniel Radford's notebook is quite ridiculous. Ridiculous because there should be no controversy. We know, we saw (and now we've seen it repeatedly) what Dempsey did. We know what U.S. Federation regulations say about that sort of thing -- it is clearly considered, as it should be, an assault on the referee, and the mandated punishment is a six-game suspension.

Given that the game in question was a U.S. Open Cup game -- and not an MLS game -- it would seem logical that the Federation would apply its own rules. No, we’re told that it is MLS that holds the power, some would say obligation, to punish Dempsey. The logic of that situation is not quite so clear, but so be it. Let MLS hand out the suspension. Which it has done. But somewhere along the way, three of those game suspensions went missing. Dempsey gets only a three-game suspension.

So the quite unnecessary controversy is born -- it begins with MLS blatantly evading what the regulations specify.

A whole bunch a related issues at once spring up. But what all this means in terms of Dempsey’s position as captain of the U.S. national team is not my concern here (I would assume it will have no effect whatever -- what else would one expect from Jurgen Klinsmann, the man who gave us the egregious Jermaine Jones as captain, even while he was suspended by the Bundesliga for violent play?). Nor am I concerned with the possibility that a six-game suspension might mean that Klinsmann doesn’t even call up Dempsey for the Gold Cup.

Another complicating factor that I shall bypass is the curious decision (presumably by the Federation) to appoint, in Daniel Radford, an inexperienced official who has never refereed an MLS game -- and what was this, Seattle vs. Portland, if not an MLS game, albeit under the Open Cup banner?

Rather, it is some more general events leading up to Dempsey’s notebook destruction that interest me. We can start with the eminently sensible remarks from the Seattle owner Adrian Hanauer: “We’re an extremely proud organization. Right below our logo, there are three words that say passion, courage and community. We believe that we embody those three words and that everything we do is a positive reflection on them. Tuesday evening, the passion piece maybe went a little bit overboard and was maybe directed in the wrong ways. That goes for players, coaches, staff, fans ...”

Hanauer is so right to zero in on that wretched word, passion. MLS fans are frequently described as “passionate” -- MLS commish Don Garber repeatedly does so. The fact that sponsors and advertisers are so fond of the word should tell us that there’s something wrong with it, that it has a merely synthetic meaning in this context.

Put baldly, to urge passion is to ask for problems. It is not an emotion that, unleashed, can be easily controlled. Which means trouble, because there is as much negative as there is positive about passion. We have good passion, and we have ugly passion. The old warning: Be careful what you wish for.

This is not meant to excuse Dempsey’s action. He is an experienced professional who should know how to control his actions. But what about the fans? What about that atmosphere of blind one-sided support, almost of hatred, that was seen in the Tukwila’s Starfire stadium last Tuesday? What about the trash that was thrown on to the field? What about the police escort for referee Radford as he left the field? Hanauer’s comment that “Tuesday evening, the passion piece maybe went a little bit overboard ...” is putting it mildly, but at least it addresses a key point.

Urging passion (remember: people -- fans, that is -- are being encouraged to be passionate about the way that a round ball is kicked) is always likely to go overboard. Surely, over the past decades we’ve seen enough “passionate” -- and very destructive, some of it fatally so -- behavior from soccer fans? Hanauer again says the right thing: “I thought it was important to acknowledge that it wasn’t our proudest moment as the Sounders organization and we’re going to do better.”

Reducing the passion element would be a good start. It is surely possible to have devoted fans without them being heatedly, dangerously passionate, no?

There is another angle here, one specific to these events. Hanauer makes the point: “The Open Cup is a tournament we take very seriously.” That is something that the Sounders -- and MLS -- should ponder. They will surely have noticed that cup competitions everywhere else in the world -- even in England, the birthplace of such tournaments -- have become problematic. They are now seen as a serious distraction from domestic and international league play.

Top teams are often reluctant to field their strongest line ups. This season’s Cup final in England, the most bally-hooed single-game event of the season, featured Arsenal, a top team that took the tournament seriously because it has failed to win anything else for 16 years, and Aston Villa -- which finished 17th in the Premier League, narrowly avoiding relegation. The inevitable result was a boring, one-sided final, and a win for Arsenal.

On Tuesday night Seattle, taking the game “very seriously” did use its top players, and it has paid a heavy price: Dempsey suspended, Obafemi Martins out for 3 to 6 weeks with a groin injury, and -- having lost to Portland -- elimination from the competition. Four days after that tale of woe, the Sounders lost, at home, to San Jose.

Winning a trophy is always going to be a good experience for a club and its fans, but when it involves -- as the Open Cup does -- jeopardizing that club’s chances of winning the more important MLS or Concacaf titles, the question to be answered is: Is it worth it?

The answer may lie in the Sounders’ record of four Open Cup trophies but no MLS Cup triumphs.

16 comments about "Seattle's love affair with the Open Cup turns sour".
  1. Allan Lindh, June 20, 2015 at 11:23 p.m.

    But Mr. Gardner, you are right. BUT you leave out that this ref, overseeing a very heated match, let mayhem occur all over the pitch. Sure the players and fans shouldn't have lost it, but the problem was an incompetent ref, and it is a mistake to condemn the "passion" without condemning the complete stupidity on the part of USSoccer in not assigning an experienced ref with a track record of handling "difficult" matches. This was a match where the first excessive tackle should have resulted in a Yellow card, and everyone thereafter, until they calmed down, or were playing 7 v 7.

  2. steve foster, June 20, 2015 at 11:29 p.m.

    I love Dempsey, but that behavior has no place in the game. He's out for 6, no call for Gold Cup. He gets no second chance. For me, punishment needs to he harsh to set example. Ref was quite right in his decision.

  3. Tom Symonds, June 20, 2015 at 11:31 p.m.

    With regard to passion, Adrian Hanauer should not be surprised one bit about the over-the-top antics of players and fans. Three years ago at the end-of-season "business meeting" with the STHs (a post-mortem of the season just concluded and a rah-rah session for the next season), principal owner Joe Roth railed on the team and insisted he wanted players who would (in his words, not mine) "run through a brick wall for the team" and fans to demand it. We old timers remember going through this American football farcical overlay with Bruce Anderson in 1983 (the last year of the NASL Sounders). Granted Adrian is younger than me, but 1983 in Sounders history should not be an unknown to him and he would do well to heed Santayana's prophetic words about learning from history or being doomed to repeat it.

  4. charles davenport, June 21, 2015 at 8:03 a.m.

    If the same offense was committed by a non-MLS player?

  5. feliks fuksman, June 21, 2015 at 9:49 a.m.

    Very disappointed behavior for such experienced player; he should get full punishment and more to discourage repetition of similar acts.

    Moreover very good question Mr Gardner,"Is it worth it?"

  6. Michael C, June 21, 2015 at 12:28 p.m.

    "We know what U.S. Federation regulations say about that sort of thing -- it is clearly considered, as it should be, an assault on the referee, and the mandated punishment is a six-game suspension."

    No, we don't know.

    That's the problem. Every US soccer fan thinks they know the rules better than [fill in name here].

    The Assault rules are clearly, and more than once, labeled as addressing "physical assault." Interpreting them the way you do shows your bias.

  7. Michael C, June 21, 2015 at 12:30 p.m.

    Disregard my comment above. I didn't realize your article was sarcasm. (The "reducing the passion element" should have been my clue.) Sorry, carry on!

  8. Scott Johnson, June 21, 2015 at 9:06 p.m.

    With regards to the "blame the ref" crowd: There are two issues at stake here: a) does the ref have basic competence to call a match at a high level (where things are faster, the players more athletic and more skilled, and fouls are more likely than in amateur matches)? And b) does the ref have the players' respect? If the problems with a given referee are in category a--this is the fault of the ref. But I've got little truck for arguments in the latter category; the players on the pitch owe basic respect to whoever is wearing the yellow shirt. And if players don't accord such respect and get booked or sent off, that's their fault, not the fault of the referee for "failing to control the match". The respect of the players is not something the referee must earn; and a referee should not be criticized for meting out discipline when appropriate.

  9. Rick Estupinan, June 21, 2015 at 10:46 p.m.

    I was surprise to see Martins and Dempsey in the line up.Before they had use the B team for the US Open Cup and those boys did "pretty good",wining all their 3 previous games.So,I think it was a mistake by the directors of the Sounders to risk those solid players for this match.But no, they wanted to win.So what what would have been wrong with Portland wining this one(witch they did anyway).I like the Timbers,every body outside of Seattle loves the Timbers.
    And Paul,please stop criticizing the Seattle Sounders fans,they are the most enthusiastic in the country.I myself may move there,a great city with the best team in MLS.

  10. R2 Dad, June 22, 2015 at 1:43 a.m.

    Getting the "right" referee for this type of match is critical; blame the assessors and assignor for screwing this up. Who are they? No one has noted this. Scott points out competence and respect; the first is determined by the assessors, the second by the players (and we know what the players thought of this referee). What this comes down to on the pitch is foul selection and man management. This referee (of whom I have no knowledge) failed in both areas, with his poor foul selection putting pressure on his poor man management skills and it all snowballed. Watching the video clip, it's Deuce bullying the official by metaphorically pantsing him. But watch the ref--he is blissfully unaware of what is happening around him, which is different from being aware but not engaging a player. There is a reason this referee hadn't done an MLS match before, and this peter principle moment should be a warning to all assignors.

  11. James e Chandler, June 22, 2015 at 10:42 a.m.

    I know this match blew up, but all I've heard is generalities about how bad the official was, mostly just the negative side of "Bull Durham" response, but no one has cited specifically what was done that was so wrong.
    I'll cite one thing.
    Among referees, it's a tongue in cheek joke that it's the referee's fault if a match requires extra time. I guess Radford was guilty of that.
    Everyone keeps calling Radford inexperienced based on him not ever working an MLS match, so basically a match with a lot of third rate players with a chip on their shoulder because they're not as good as they thought.
    Radford has probably worked over a thousand matches. Actually it's easier to officiate matches with skilled players. The game has flow. Radford was physically capable of keeping up with the speed of the match as any other referee. When he made the calls that preceded the bookings, he was in good position, as close as a baseball umpire making a call at first base. What more can be asked?
    If the players are jerks, and deliberately try to cheat the game, it's not the ref's fault. What the heck. If it were me, once MLS MVP, Carlos Ruiz would have never finished a single match.
    The PRO who work MLS matches need to hold up to the pressure of the league to ignore ugly play, and repeated vehemence from players, and coaches (Watch Vermes on the sideline sometime) The owners might think that kind of play makes the game more marketable to the oft too ignorant American soccer consumer, but it just degrades what the game can be so it will always be third rate.
    Soccer is a way to celebrate life. If it ceases to be fun, people should do something else. It is, after all, just a game.

  12. James e Chandler, June 22, 2015 at 11:03 a.m.

    R2 Dad,
    "blissfully unaware"????
    IF Radford appeared to be that, then he disguised it.
    Dempsey could have gotten away with just a yellow card for tearing up the ref's book, but he couldn't let it go.
    What did he say that brought the second card? Did he issue a threat?
    The "pantsing" demonstration you reference happened while Dempsey was being shepherded off the field by team mates while Radford was answering why he thought the stomp down on the back of an opponents calf/ankle while being poked above the neck constituted excessive force that mandates a send off.

    As I saw happen in a US Youth Premier regional league match that affected relegation, if the only goal of the match caromed in off of the referee, I could see how one might have an issue with their mechanics.

    I'll say it again, because we're all human,
    "There's no such thing as a competent referee on the planet."

    That being said, if you were in Radford's shoes, what would you have done.
    Get certified and try it. The game needs referees. When both sides walk off of the pitch with a smile on their faces, it's all worth it.

  13. R2 Dad, June 23, 2015 at 5:20 p.m.

    James, there are competent referees, some more than others. However, competence will only get you through a U12 match these days. It's all the other aspects of officiating that make the difference between adequate amateur officials and professionals. Radford is supposed to be a professional but he lost control long before the Deuce ejection. There are always signs that a match is spooling up and if you're not on top of it (ie clueless) you'll miss that. BTW, when both sides walk off the pitch with smiles on their faces, you've just watched a U8 rec match.

  14. Margaret Manning, June 24, 2015 at 8:14 p.m.

    The notion that MLS has anything to say about what occurs in an Open Cup game is just bizarre. The notion that if MlS does do something, it must impose USSF penalties is even odder.

    Looks to me that USSF wants Dempsey for the Gold Cup and choose to have the club take the hit instead of the USMNT. I'd prefer that Dempsey be banned from USSF competition for whatever those rules say (it's not clear to me), and keep playing for the club.

    Yes, Seattle has soured on the Open Cup. A rabid supporter of the tournament, Seattle always took it seriously, not---like some--sending a B team and no coach. We saw Salazar hand SKC the Open Cup on inconsistent calls two years ago, and then to watch this exercise must have been infuriating. I usually disapprove of player actions that cost the club, and frequently yell at Alonso. In this case, I say to hell with it. If doing this is what's required to have USSF sit up and pay attention to the officiating problem, then so be it.

    BTW, the Sounders objected to assignment when it happened, predicting, rightly, that this untested referee would struggle to rein in the fiercest rivalry in MLS, in the most emotional-laden tournament. And then the ref refused the dark-grey-jerseyed Sounders request to make the Timbers change out of their dark green jerseys. Before the whistle even blew.

  15. Margaret Manning, June 24, 2015 at 8:14 p.m.

    *chose

  16. Margaret Manning, June 24, 2015 at 8:18 p.m.

    Rick Estupinan The Sounders revere the Open Cup and generally play their regular squad in key games.

    James Chandler--where did Radford work 1000 matches? He has only done a handful of matches in center position, in the lesser leagues, IIRC, the rest always as fourth official.

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