The 2011 Major League Soccer season ended with the Los Angeles Galaxy’s cathartic cup win: the fulfillment of David Beckham’s American Dream, Landon Donovan’s fourth title, Robbie Keane’s first. On its face, the season represented another year of progress for the league, for American players and for football in the United States. The quality of play had improved since 2010. Star players like Beckham and Keane were finally producing the football their paychecks warranted. Yet 2011 left behind a distinctly bitter taste. Attacking players like Steve Zakuani, Branko Boskovic, Davide Ferreira and Javier Morales all missed large chunks of the season with serious injuries. “Injury is inevitable in all sport, but for its own development, MLS must create an environment in which the best players do not live in fear”, James Grossi wrote in The Blizzard. Administrators feared that MLS was turning into a gruesome, unwatchable spectacle. Given that the league struggles to attract viewers at the best of times, the situation was clearly dangerous.
So Major League Soccer sat back, reflected and embarked on a disciplinary crusade aimed at changing the way the game is played in the United States.
Nelson Rodriguez is Major League Soccer’s Head of Competition. These days, people call him the Discipline Tsar. Rodriguez oversees the MLS Disciplinary Committee, the same body that lengthened Mullan’s ban, but, while Rodriguez facilitates much of the committee’s activity, he doesn’t have a say in its decisions.
The Disciplinary Committee is a mysterious, almost clandestine body. It meets weekly to review footage from every MLS game, looking for opportunities to crack down on unpunished, or underpunished, foul play. Rodriguez is allowed to tell us that the committee has five members: three former MLS players, one former MLS head coach and one former MLS referee. However, he can’t tell us exactly who these people are because MLS doesn’t want them to face “undue pressure.” Of course, this also leaves the people responsible for important sporting decisions totally anonymous, making it impossible to hold them accountable for their mistakes.
Before 2012, the Disciplinary Committee rarely enforced discipline. It extended suspensions only if an offense had caused serious injury or if the play in question was deemed an “extraordinary” circumstance (Mullan’s tackle qualified on both counts). During its lengthy 2011/12 offseason, the MLS Technical Committee -- Major League Soccer’s main body -- re-evaluated the league’s disciplinary practices. A couple of weeks before the start of the 2012 season, Rodriguez confirmed a new, proactive approach: “We’ll put players and clubs on notice that if this [dirty play] continues, they will be met with a more active disciplinary body.”
With the new approach came a new set of policies. The Disciplinary Committee can now extend suspensions and increase mandatory fines if a player’s actions are “egregious or reckless”, even if no one got hurt. As before, players are subject to retroactive review whether or not the referee identified the offense during the game. “Embellishment and diving” are also punishable. Clubs and players aren’t allowed to appeal the committee’s final decision. The five-person panel is the ultimate judge; its word is law.
The stated goals of the Disciplinary Committee are to “preserve the integrity and reputation of the game” and to maintain player safety. In the wake of Zakuani’s injury, those objectives make a lot of sense – coaches have been asking for more protection for creative players since the beginning of time. The “reputation of the game” is also key: in the United States, football is still developing, so it’s vital that MLS showcases the sport at its best. Americans interested in football can watch Barcelona on TV, but the country’s long-term football success requires high-quality domestic competition.
So the Disciplinary Committee’s stated goals are very much in tune with MLS’s stated goals: promote football in America by maintaining an attractive national league. But the committee’s plan, while in many ways positive and progressive, isn’t necessarily what’s best for football’s development in the United States.
In an interview with ExtraTime Radio, the official Major League Soccer podcast, Rodriguez admitted that players have mixed feelings about the Disciplinary Committee. “As you might expect, some got it and get it and understand that they may need to adjust their game to conform and comply with the direction that we want to see”, he said. “Some others are perhaps a little slow to the table.”
“The committee is not trying to re-referee games”, Rodriguez said later in the same interview. “What the committee is trying to do, though, is educate players, educate coaches, educate referees as to what is and is not acceptable within our league. It is encouraging coaches to understand the direction [of the committee], which influences player selection, which influences tactics, which influences how they teach certain techniques. Players, referees and coaches, they’re all very adaptable. They will adjust and modify their behavior. And those that don’t, don’t at their own risk. They run the risk of constant sanctions.”
Essentially, the Disciplinary Committee is trying to scare professionals into adjusting their playing styles.
But MLS’s approach ignores the fundamentals of positive footballing change. All of Europe’s most successful footballing nations, the countries that host the most attractive and popular domestic leagues, rely on homegrown players and the coaches who groom them when they are young to dictate the style and tempo of play in the professional leagues those players move into when they mature. When football officials demand change, usually after a disappointing international tournament, the first place they look is the country’s youth system. That’s what Germany did after the 2000 European Championships.
In the United States, big, aggressive athletes thrive in high school and college leagues, which provide the conventional route to an MLS career. Aggressive players thrive not because of the rules of the game, but because of the “winning-is-the-most-important-thing” mentality that dominates youth sport. Because aggressive athletes can generally overpower their more talented peers at youth levels, coaches tend to pick players based on their physical qualities. The result is a conveyor belt transporting rough, untalented college kids into MLS. In the professional game, however, physical advantages are less, well, advantageous, and therefore an average MLS game, which also features more technically adept foreign players, contains a wide range of talent. Too often, the less gifted bridge those gaps with violence. The presence of such players in MLS has discouraged technical play and contributed to the proliferation of serious injuries.
The bad tackling that caused so many injures in 2011 was evidence of not only a violent attitude but also a technical ineptitude. The slide-tackle is one of a defender’s most important weapons, just as spectacular in its way as a skillful piece of dribbling. That technique isn’t something that post-match discipline will teach.
The Disciplinary Committee aims to marginalize big, sloppy, aggressive players, and the ideas they represent, by making them disciplinary liabilities, but no one really knows whether the new regulations will work. The league would be better off attacking the initial sporting attitude – by forging a network of youth coaches focused on improving the quality of American players – than taking a gamble on what is effectively a rule change.
There’s a lot to like about what MLS is trying to achieve. If the Disciplinary Committee manages to eliminate flagrant fouls, diving and off-the-ball assaults, then the league will unquestionably be a better place. But the Disciplinary Committee’s approach is unprecedented; no other league in history has attempted to change its style through similar means. Perhaps if MLS succeeds in cleaning up game play at the professional level, a more positive attitude will trickle down to the youth game. In the meantime, however, the committee’s decisions continue to disrupt the 2012 MLS season.
The intensity of the surveillance is a little frightening; the risk is that MLS is developing into something reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. Every game is watched and analyzed by a top-secret group of anonymous individuals with the power to deal teams seriously inhibiting suspensions every week, taking disciplinary action that could influence the outcome of this year’s season. And all in an effort to change how players and coaches think about the sport.
It’s important that players don’t live in constant fear of lengthy suspensions and heavy fines, which can be particularly damaging in Major League Soccer, where some players make less than $20,000 a year. No one wants MLS to become a league in which physical contact simply isn’t worth the trouble.
This season, the Disciplinary Committee hasn’t been shy about making its point. In April, it dealt former Barcelona defender Rafa Marquez a three-match suspension for a foul on San Jose’s Shea Salinas that the referee missed. Houston Dynamo winger Colin Clark was also suspended for three games after TV microphones caught him directing a homophobic slur at a ball boy. Both players were fined heavily.
And they’re not the only ones. Shalrie Joseph, Emilio Renteria, Gershon Koffie, Hassoun Camara, Victor Bernardez, Hector Jimenez, Atiba Harris, Adam Moffat, Futty Danso, Zach Scott, Jair Benitez, Brek Shea, Kelyn Rowe, Patrice Bernier, Osvaldo Alonso, Brandon McDonald, Leo Gonzalez, Jon Busch, Danny Cruz and David Beckham, to name just a few, have all been retroactively disciplined.
At the beginning of the season, with memories of Zakuani’s injury still raw, it seemed churlish to complain about the new regulations, and some of these sanctions were well-deserved. Clark and Marquez both merited lengthy bans. David Beckham should have been punished long ago for his incessant abuse of referees. And players like Steve Zakuani, who spent more than a year on the sidelines after breaking his leg in 2011, deserve protection.
Nor is retroactive discipline a problem in itself. Most European Leagues have systems in place for punishing actions that the referee missed. In the Premier League, Mario Balotelli was suspended retroactively for stamping on Scott Parker. Wayne Rooney served a suspension after he yelled obscenities into a camera. But these kinds of incidents only crop up a few times a season.
MLS’s Disciplinary Committee, by contrast, is going overboard. It made its point by banning Mullan for ten games back in 2011; the rest just feels like overkill. There’s nothing wrong with punishing Mullan-type fouls, but when retroactive discipline extends to relatively minor offenses (Kelyn Rowe was suspended for two games after he accidentally collided with Red Bulls keeper Ryan Meara), the committee makes a mockery of itself. Every Disciplinary Committee suspension negatively affects an MLS team, and when teams can’t field their strongest lineups, the spectacle suffers.
Fans have rightly complained about a lack of consistency in the Committee’s decisions, particularly in the number of games for which players are suspended. “It’s an inexact science”, Rodriguez himself has admitted. “We’re aware of the clamor and the claims of inconsistency. I don’t think it’s ever formulaic. Everything needs to be viewed on a case-by-case basis.”
After all, how do you judge whether an off-the-ball assault is more egregious than a verbal slur? And how do you assign a penalty to either offense? Rodriguez argues that you have to follow precedent. But what if no precedent exists, or the only precedent is dubious? Issuing suspensions for bookings and sendings-off is hard enough on its own. The distinction between offenses deserving a yellow versus a red card is one of football’s most problematic. By trying to assign a different suspension to every specific type of foul, the Disciplinary Committee has made an ambiguous rule even more complicated.
The guidelines introduced at the beginning of the 2012 season stipulate that the Disciplinary Committee must agree unanimously that a foul is “egregious” for a player to be suspended. Rodriguez claims this policy of unanimity “removes all doubt.” But that is patently false. For every incident that is punished, ten comparable tackles are ignored. “I think you got to ask the people that decide these decisions, because they seem to miss everything else aside from the main talking point”, Beckham said in the wake of his suspension. “They miss everything else going on around them.”
Beckham’s comments were obviously self-serving – he was the victim of one of the committee’s decisions – but he made an important point nonetheless. The committee intends to teach players “what is and is not acceptable”, but by failing to clarify the difference between seemingly comparable challenges, it does the exact opposite: it makes the professionals uncertain.
To a certain degree, controversy fuels sport. People watch football games for the post-match discussion as much as for the ninety minutes of entertainment. Pub arguments are supposed to be fun. But this controversy, the stuff the Disciplinary Committee produces by the bucketful every week, isn’t fun; it’s as annoying as the committee itself. And, ultimately, it takes away from the football.