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.