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.