First and foremost, if you haven’t checked out Javier Hernandez’s solid job on the red card mandate from PRO–the organization that governs the MLS officiating crews–be sure to do so. While I’ll end up partially disagreeing with one of Javier’s main premises, he does a great job of putting the red card rate in MLS into context relative to other major leagues around the world, and by that standard, Major League Soccer is definitely producing an outsized share of ejections.
Where I differ with his take, though, is that the numbers don’t take into account the differences in style and pace of play from league-to-league. Take, for example, the Dutch Eredivisie. The Eredivisie favors finesse and attacking over strong defending and aggressive play, to the tune of a collective 805 goals scored among its 18 teams through 30 games apiece as of this writing in the 2015-2016 season, a rate of 26.83 goals scored per average gameday.
If you take the top 18-scoring teams in MLS in 2015 (basically, the league minus Real Salt Lake and Colorado), they scored a collective 866 goals over 34 games apiece, for a rate of 25.47 goals scored per average gameday. And that number is charitable to MLS: if you accounted for the lower attacking outputs of RSL and Colorado, the number of goals per gameday per team would be even lower.
All of which is to say: not every league in the world values or even plays defense the way that MLS does. Which is, by itself, neither a good thing or a bad thing. Different soccer cultures value different aspects of the game. But for years now, the rap on MLS has been that it values the physical aspect of the game far above the technical. Cynics will say it is an overcompensation for a lack of talent relative to the big European leagues, while less jaded people would say that is simply how Americans have best played soccer, especially on the international level: by being defensively sturdy and generating goals off counterattacks.
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But the current debate over the sudden increase in ejections in MLS doesn’t even center around an American at this point: in yesterday’s 1-1 draw at the StubHub Center between the LA Galaxy and the Portland Timbers, LAG’s new defensive midfielder/one-man wrecking crew (and temporary captain in the absence of Robbie Keane as the Irishman recovers from surgery) Nigel de Jong went in studs-first on a tackle on Portland/USMNT attacking midfielder Darlington Nagbe, which ended as anyone remotely familiar with de Jong’s reputation might expect: de Jong completely missed the ball and completely got Nagbe’s ankle, stomping down hard on the Timbers talisman’s leg and forcing him out of the game due to injury.
Incredibly, center referee Alan Chapman only issued de Jong a caution for what was clearly–in both real time and on replays–a foul worthy of an immediate sending off to this neutral fan (even more incredibly, despite de Jong’s extensive history of gross physical assault on opponents ranging from Stu Holden to Hatem Ben Arfa to Xabi Alonso, he has only ever been sent off twice in his entire career, and neither time for endangering the safety of an opponent: one red card was for denial of an obvious goalscoring opportunity in a Serie A game for AC Milan against Hellas Verona last winter, and the other was for two cautions in a UEFA Cup game so long ago that, well, it was in the UEFA Cup and not what that tournament is now called: the Europa Cup.
How long Nagbe’s injury forces him onto the shelf remains to be seen, but at a minimum, the question concerning a suspension to de Jong isn’t “if” but “how long.” At a minimum, it would seem the Disciplinary Committee should suspend de Jong for two games, one to make up for not being immediately ejected and the other as the automatic suspension that should have come with said ejection. At a maximum, the precedent set by Brian Mullan’s record ten-game suspension for a tackle that for all intents and purposes ended Steve Zakuani’s career would suggest an eight- or nine-match ban for de Jong. My guess is he ultimately gets something in the three-to-four-game range, and if the Galaxy have any decency, they won’t bother appealing it.
Because it is especially rich that an LAG player would be caught committing a foul like this just days after manager Bruce Arena publicly lamented the increased number of red cards, saying in a post-match presser after LAG’s 0-0 tie with the Whitecaps that the number of red cards are “ruining” the game.
Maybe they are–that is Javier’s conclusion, and I can understand why. But injuries of the sort that Nigel de Jong has now inflicted upon a third world-class footballer (after Holden and Ben Arfa; Xabi Alonso mercifully avoided any broken ribs as a result of de Jong’s kung fu) ruin the game far more. From the clubs, such injuries take away talented players around whom entire teams may be built. From the fans, they take away exciting talent to watch and applaud. And de Jong’s opponents themselves, they take away future earning potential and livelihoods.
Arena should be ashamed of his rash words from the postgame press conference a week ago. He signed de Jong knowing full well the Dutchman’s reputation for sawing his opponents in half; it isn’t even tax day and we already have de Jong’s first high-profile on-pitch mugging.
In the wake of such fouls, inevitably someone from the opposing side suggests that the player who committed the offense be suspended for as long as his victim remains unavailable for selection (Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer said as such about Mullan regarding the aforementioned tackle on Zakuani). But that is a mean-spirited way of keeping order, and moreover, it only addresses a single layer of culpability: the player who committed the foul, and not the manager who signed him.
So here is a modest proposal: in addition to whatever suspensions and/or fines are retroactively handed out to the players, the MLS Disciplinary Committee should hand out matching bans/fines to those players coaches as well. Yes, de Jong was the one who committed the foul on Nagbe, but Arena (and Galaxy GM Chris Klein) are the ones who signed de Jong, and they didn’t do so under any sort of duress or coercion. The buck ultimately stops with them.
So let’s have the Galaxy or Arena himself also pay the same fine that de Jong will inevitably pay, even if its only in targeted allocation money, retention funds, or whatever version of Garber Bucks the Galaxy has on hand. Let’s have Arena be suspended from the touchline for however long de Jong is. I’m a Sporting Kansas City fan, but the league could have had Peter Vermes sit out the Sporks’s 2-1 loss against Real Salt Lake last weekend as a result of the automatic suspension incurred by Roger Espinoza for a very similar play against Toronto FC (Roger was red carded for the foul, and tellingly, he didn’t protest the call one bit), and I would have been fine with it.
Vermes surely wouldn’t have been so fine with it, though, but then again, that’s the idea: maybe if the coaches had a little more skin in the disciplinary game, so to speak, we might see what PRO is attempting, to varying degrees of success and quite a bit of criticism, to do: create a cleaner game in the United States.
Certainly, some will think this too extreme a solution. But when the symptoms at hand are as severe as they are, sometimes the medicine has to be bitter if it is to effectively do its job. Major League Soccer has tolerated significant amounts of fouls that would draw immediate bans and suspensions in other leagues; de Jong’s battery of Nagbe is simply the latest example of this trend of PRO officials simply not taking charge over matches as they ought to (for another example involving the Timbers, you need look only as far back as last year’s playoffs, when their knockout game against Sporting KC really should have ended nine-on-nine but somehow ended eleven-on-eleven thanks to Armando Villareal’s steadfast refusal to show red on at least four different occasions that surely merited his doing so).
In that respect, I suppose, PRO’s own red card mandate could be seen as a part of that bitter medicine, an overcorrection of the pendulum’s swing, if you will. But that does not preclude correcting in the other direction again once this particular problem has been addressed.
Put a different way: let’s solve problem A first, and worry about problem B once we reach that bridge and are ready to cross it.
Soccer in the United States may never entirely resemble soccer in, say, the Netherlands or in Spain or in Germany. But it can surely rely a bit less on the sorts of fouls that importing a destroyer like de Jong was sure to bring, and a bit more on coaches more judiciously selecting players for their pure soccer talent, rather than their raw ability to hack at their opponents’ legs.