The Mauro Diaz tragedy: MLS at fault

By Paul Gardner

So we've seen the last of Mauro Diaz for this season. He will not be part of the Dallas bid for the MLS title. A serious injury -- ruptured Achilles apparently -- will keep him sidelined for months.

An injury that casts a somber shadow over the playoffs. A wonderful player -- probably the best in MLS at the moment -- has been lost. My reaction is sadness and almost despair. Why has this happened? Could it have been avoided?

The injury came as he was tackled by Seattle’s Tyrone Mears. Well, what would pass for a tackle in the lower-level clubs in the north of England where Mears spent most of his time. It was not particularly violent, just clumsy, inexpert.

I see no reason to doubt Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer’s almost too loud assertion denying that his team had targeted Diaz: “In no way, shape or form do we advocate going after their best players. We don’t play like that.”

With Mears and Seattle exonerated, we could look at the performance of the referee in the Dallas-Seattle game, Mark Geiger. There was a time, some years back, when Geiger was very clearly the best of the American referees. FIFA agreed, and put him in charge of the 2011 U-20 World Cup final.

Geiger, unfortunately, has since fallen under the influence of Peter Walton, the man in charge of MLS referees. Walton is English and carries with him the English notion that vigorous even violent, tackling, is a part of the game. Along with that goes the parallel idea that small fouls should not be called. A point that Walton made a couple of years back, and which Geiger, sadly, endorsed.

Geiger’s performance in the Dallas-Seattle game was not one of his best but, no, it was not responsible for the Diaz injury. Not directly responsible, that is.

The key to the Diaz injury can be found buried in the mountain of statistics that MLS issues. Under the heading “Fouls Suffered” you’ll find Diaz in the No. 1 spot, having been fouled 81 times in 27 games. Averaging 3 fouls per game throughout the entire season. And it’s worth noting that these are only the fouls that referees called; while the “minor” fouls, under Walton’s diktat, go unpunished.

I have seen Diaz described as injury prone -- a ridiculous description of a player who is hammered every time he takes the field. Who wouldn’t be “injury prone” under that onslaught?

I have frequently had foreign players tell me that MLS is a physical league. Fredy Montero, the beautifully talented Colombian forward whom Seattle failed to hold on to, assured me that MLS was much more physical than the Colombian league. “Much more?” I asked. “Muchisimo!” was his reply.

And who bears the pain of these fouls? Diaz, for a start, but he’s followed in the list by Alberto Quintero, Juan Martinez, Dom Dwyer, C.J.Sapong, David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco, Felipe Martins, Ignacio Piatti, and Patrick Nyarko -- which is a pretty comprehensive list of players whom MLS should want on the field.

Is MLS doing anything to ensure that these guys do stay on the field? Was Dallas coach Oscar Pareja right to complain that, “We have to protect our players”? Meaning that MLS referees have to be harsher in their punishment of those doing the fouling.

Of course Pareja was correct. It’s not as though the league has not been warned.

Flashback: At the beginning of the 2011 MLS season, no fewer than three of the league’s most exciting, most creative players -- Steve Zakuani, David Ferreira, Javier Morales, Branko Boskovic (a DP with D.C. United at the time) -- were quickly felled by serious injuries resulting from crude, dangerous tackles.

But even that slaughter failed to make any real difference. Once the crocodile tears had dried up, it was back to the physical game that too many of the coaches admire anyway.

That was five years ago. This season it was alarming to watch the developments at the Galaxy where Bruce Arena, having signed the heavily physical Jeff Larentowicz then added the dreadful Nigel De Jong, a midfield assassin.

I rate Arena as the league’s most insightful coach. There is reason to believe that wherever Arena goes, other coaches are likely to follow. Was Arena deciding that a murderous midfield was necessary to win MLS?

Maybe, maybe not -- but there can be little doubt that physical play, not adequately policed by Walton’s referees, is alive and well in MLS. In the Dallas-Seattle game, Geiger whistled 29 fouls, which is a lot. A total that would seem to call for more than the two yellow cards that he issued for “unsporting conduct” -- the MLS definition that conveniently shrouds the nature of the foul.

MLS referees are not nearly quick enough with the yellow cards. No doubt this is Walton’s English influence again -- ignore the minor fouls, and when a major foul arrives, have a nice little chat with the perpetrator rather than give a card. English referees are very fond of those absurd chats and all the determined arm gestures that follow, trying to make out that this is a tough-guy approach when it is, in fact, an abject weakness that makes a joke of the rules.

As an ironic comment on that approach, Tyrone Mears did get a yellow in the game against Dallas ... for timewasting. Which demonstrates pretty clearly that Geiger -- and, I think, the rest of the MLS referees -- have got their priorities wrong.

That impression is heavily underlined in another area -- something I find immensely irritating. Let us consider the actions of the anonymous members of the MLS Disciplinary Committee.

While far too much physical play on MLS fields is being dealt with far too leniently by MLS referees, while Mauro Diaz has sustained a serious injury and David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco are being serially fouled, what is the DisCo up to? Well, it issues weekly reports, usually informing us, with evident satisfaction, that it has fined a player for what it calls embellishment. (There is actually no such crime as embellishment in the FIFA rulebook -- my assumption is that MLS means simulation, even though that is not the same thing).

Well, whoopee DisCo! While the league’s most exciting players are in danger of being crippled, the mysterious DisCo guys are busy extracting fines from some guy who rolled over three times, when twice was deemed enough.

But DisCo is not responsible for the Diaz injury. Any more than Seattle or Tyrone Mears or Mark Geiger. Not directly responsible. But all played their part.

One can say, reasonably, that there will always be injuries in soccer, and that what happened to Diaz was simply unfortunate. I am not saying that, because I am looking at that “Fouls Suffered” statistic, and that yells loudly in my head that what happened to Diaz was an “accident” waiting to happen.

Meaning something that could have been avoided. Not an accident at all, then.

What can be done to avoid such “accidents” in the future? A question that leads us, not for the first time, to confront the problem posed by MLS itself, that of having a non-soccer guy, Don Garber, as the head of a soccer-playing organization. Leadership should come from Garber, but no one is going to listen to him when he gets serious on soccer matters. He will be seen as a lightweight, trying to rule on matters of which he has no experience.

Yes, Garber can take the moral high ground and demand that something be done. I can see him doing that, I think he could be convincing. Against that, Garber has always insisted -- possibly correctly -- that MLS will not interfere with the actions of its coaches. Garber will not be calling the coaches together and reading the riot act.

Peter Walton should be a key man, but nothing that he has done during his time with MLS suggests that he can shake off his English mindsets -- prominent among which is the preference for a physical game. He has not, to put it mildly, been a force for a more skillful game. Lamentably, Walton now looks more like part of the problem, than a contributor to its solution.

Earlier, I used the word despair. I feel that way because I cannot see that MLS, with its current structure, has an authoritative soccer voice. And that is what is needed to deal with a complicated issue like this, one that involves players, coaches, and referees, one that brings in style and tactics. I do not see MLS in a position to make any meaningful move that would ensure that its playing fields nurture skillful soccer and welcome the artists who make it happen.

Artists like Mauro Diaz. His absence from the scene as the playoffs begin is to be deplored as it robs the climax of the MLS season of a remarkable player. There aren’t so many of those around in MLS. The realization that those who do exist are constantly at risk while the Disciplinary Committee busies itself by pouncing on embellishers ... well, what is the fitting reaction to that absurdity, that obscenity?

Only despair, I fear. Only despair.

20 comments about "The Mauro Diaz tragedy: MLS at fault".
  1. Brian Something, October 21, 2016 at 7:48 p.m.

    England hasn't produced a world class attacking player in ages. Maybe Michael Owen was the last one. How can they when their refs subscribe to the no broke bones, no foul mentality. If it's insane we basically follow their player development model, it's even more insane we follow their permissive officiating culture. Skill players can't develop when they are constantly being injured by clods.

  2. Kent James, October 21, 2016 at 7:58 p.m.

    I certainly agree that referees should call games tighter, and issue more cards. An unwarranted yellow card should not hurt anyone (unless it's a 2nd, in which case a ref should be certain it's not unwarranted). I wish PG would see diving not as a zero sum game with calling more fouls (where calling more diving means calling fewer fouls, or vice versa), but part of the problem. If players successfully fool referees by diving, referees become hesitant to call fouls (nobody likes to look like a fool). If players know that diving is punished (even retroactively), they may do it less, so referees feel more comfortable calling fouls. And yes, I’d be fine with physical play that is missed by the referees also being punished retroactively.

  3. John Soares, October 21, 2016 at 8:01 p.m.

    Paul as usual you make a good point. Although it sure took a lot of words:).
    Point A: MLS refs must call a better (cleaner) game no argument there. The worse it gets THE WORSE it will become.
    Point B: To misquote you "One can say reasonably there will always be injuries... what happened to Diaz was unfortunate". Best players will always be targets by lesser players that simply can't keep up... Back to point A.
    While Geiger has always (it seems) had good to high praise. I for one have always been somewhat skeptical. Not in his knowledge of the game, but his consistency. Many games going back years, he was a different ref in the second half than the first. One other complaint was/is that any team/player that got in his face would suffer the consequences. Thin skin... back to point A. So you a had A good point:)

  4. Allan Lindh, October 21, 2016 at 8:16 p.m.

    I agree with Mr. Gardner that penalizing HEAVILY the "Professional Foul", the dirty foul, the reckless foul might help. Give a Yellow card for every such foul, whether it is in the 1st minute, or the 99th, and no leniency for a second. And make the second suspension 3 games, the third 9 games, suspension with no pay. Run the bums out of the league, and the coaches that encourage such criminal behavior.

  5. Glenn Auve, October 21, 2016 at 10:18 p.m.

    Yep. DC United showed the 1996 final last night since it was the 20th anniversary of the match. I was struck by how Esse Baharmast called all of the fouls. In today's MLS they simply refuse to do it. We all suffered through Alan Kelly's latest fiasco at RFK on Sunday. Clearly he's an adherent to the Peter Walton directives as well. In the first half he simply refused to call any of the clear and obvious fouls. And when the "professional" fouls occurred breaking up attacks instead of handing out the pretty much mandatory cautions he did the "talking to" instead. It was pathetic and would be laughable if it weren't also so dangerous to the players.

  6. Miguel Dedo replied, October 22, 2016 at 12:13 p.m.

    Well said. Your assessment of Alan Kelly at RFK last week-end is spot on. (I, too, was there.) Essy was the world's best referee in his day, he rather than Peter Walton should be in charge of MLS referees -- certainly should be the model for MLS referees.

  7. Goal Goal, October 21, 2016 at 11:16 p.m.

    Go watch the youth teams play. I was in Dallas in June watching DA show case. The officiating was horrendous across the board. Far to much play where intimidation came into play. Officials afraid to show the yellow. The MLS? Well theMLS is the MLS I guess.

  8. Ryan Dold replied, October 22, 2016 at 10:50 a.m.

    Yes! Ive coached in several leagues at all levels and the reffing is horrible. It's taboo to card a youth player no matter what age and if they do they wait until the end of the game to do so unless there is a shoving match going on or unless a player talks back at the ref. Then all hell breaks loose and cards fly. This is the result of youth soccer $$$ and wanting to retain and bring in as many willing parents as possible by creating "a positive experience" for everyone. In no other USA sport do we see such nonsense. Basketball? 5 fouls and you are out no matter how much you cry. Reffing is a huge reason why we dont develop creative players. All any youth league can say is "we need more refs. Treat them nicely". They want to meet the demand instead of improving the product. Shameful.

  9. Mark Headley, October 22, 2016 at 12:57 a.m.

    Too often I have trouble even grasping Peter Walton's explanations/c commentary on ref calls for ESPN FC -- especially when another commentator has criticized a call. Exchanges too often end w/ him shrugging. We would have been staggered playing high school soccer if we encountered so little coherence, accountability, protection from officials.

  10. beautiful game, October 22, 2016 at 1:19 a.m.

    Walton has done a great job in rewriting the laws of the game...every game has its fouling moment when referees refuses to caution a player; that being said, they should either be retrained or fired. There is no rationale for encouraging physicality by not punishing the rule breakers.

  11. Vince Leone, October 22, 2016 at 1:59 a.m.

    When Matias Perez Garcia was playing consistently for San Jose, he was often given the rotating foul treatment by opponents and was one of the most fouled players in MLS. He would get mad and protest to refs, who then seemed to go out of their way to ignore subsequent fouls on him. I hated it because I thought he was usually the most entertaining player on the field, and the entertainment was spoiled. I'm not interested in watching tough guys--I want to see highly skilled players.

  12. beautiful game, October 22, 2016 at 1:02 p.m.

    Vince L...hubris has been pervasive globally in the way referees enforce the rules of the game. While the players suffer, the game suffers more.

  13. feliks fuksman, October 22, 2016 at 2 p.m.

    Agree strongly with Paul and majority of the previous comments; we're on the same page; protect the players who came to play and not intimidators and butchers; if you call the smaller stuff, especially early in the game, it sends a message, moreover, it usually discourages the bigger and more dangerous fouls .
    Nevertheless, this must come from the top (the owners, the commissioner, the game assigner, etc), so that the referees'll feel they will be supported for their decisions

  14. Goal Goal, October 22, 2016 at 9:20 p.m.

    Officials have two responsibilities.

    Integrity of the game.

    Safety of the players.

    Their RESONSIBILITY is as simple as the game of soccer is.

    Why is that difficult?

  15. humble 1, October 23, 2016 at 5:11 p.m.

    All good points, what would improve this article is links, video evidence, this is a very difficult point to get across. There are a lot of fans that think they know more about the game than they really do and there are a lot of highly paid pundits that were good players but not good analysts. This is confusing the matter.

  16. Bill Wilson, October 24, 2016 at 9:57 a.m.

    There are consistently 2 types of players who will suffer the fouls described in this article. They are either foreign creative players or big "target" forwards. In the prevailing "Get Stuck In there Lad" English-ethos of American soccer these players are considered to be either foreign pansies unable to cope or big lads who should be able to take their mauling and get on with it. It will be interesting to see how the new emerging philosophy of youth development in the Academy system, which is attempting to nurture kids who don't fit the traditional big "athletic" college soccer ready type that is now produced by our system, fares when it runs up against the incredibly powerful "manly" culture described in this article. The problem described here is very similar to the one that the NHL was finally forced to confront some years ago. It can be, and should be, confronted in MLS. I don't believed the demand to finally address this issue will appear though until the injuries that have happened to Diaz, Zakuani and Morales happen to creative-emerging Americans, those similar to a Pulisic for example, when they are playing in MLS.

  17. Alex Michalakos, October 24, 2016 at 12:21 p.m.

    I played in Chicago's ethnic leagues from age 9 to 29, where I was taught the subtle art of fouling (especially foul #10) and feigning innocence, and where I faced old-school elbows and such from players direct from Europe. I also played at a Big 10 college, where it was just straightforward rough play and clumsy fouling. In both cases if the ref called early fouls and gave early cards it would stop. Simple. One of the best was Abby Okulaja (before he went on to MLS). He called ALL fouls quickly and early, resulting open play and less fouls as the game went on. I was bigly impressed--I said who is this guy?! All the players seemed to get with the program.

    When I played, a yellow card meant you had to stop, but until then you kept doing it, almost daring the ref to give you one. A "talking to" was a joke, because while the ref is saying words all you think in your head is "I'm getting away with it."

    But I recently had a argument after the Copa America final with an experienced local ref who insisted that he had a duty to NOT give cards early, which would tie his hands later. He wouldn't listen. he wouldn't accept that a yellow card by itself means nothing, and carries no penalty. The question is why doesn't the league explain this to the refs--wouldn;t the league benefit greatly?

    As an aside, if you watch the little "highlight" clips during a game when they go to--or come back from--commercials, like at halftime, it's always been close-ups of rough play--fouls or players falling over each other. It's actually better now but that gives you an insight as to what decision-makers think is attractive.

  18. R2 Dad replied, October 24, 2016 at 7:23 p.m.

    Ha! This x1000. If U16 girls don't listen to referees, what makes us think adult men will?

  19. R2 Dad, October 24, 2016 at 7:37 p.m.

    I'm curious--how many persistent infringement cards have been issued this season? Because that's what we're talking about. Watched Lodeiro get kicked up and down the pitch yesterday. The players were more interested in talking to the ref than playing, at least for the first 20 minutes. "The talking-to" in a high-pressure match doesn't work, and Toldeo should have been more prepared for that. Good article from PG.

  20. Eric R., October 25, 2016 at 8:58 a.m.

    Great article by Mr. Gardner! Agree on all points, although I wish there was something we could do as fans to get the commissioner to relook at this problem. I would encourage anyone with genuine interest, to email Don Garber ( I believe his email address is on the MLS website ).

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