Let’s stop the pretense and the pretending.
Does Major League Soccer want to be known as a physical league — a euphemism for the kind of horrific, bone-crunching tackles that has sent one of the league’s emerging creative stars to the sidelines for 18 months?
That’s the first thing coaches and players and so-called experts say about Major League Soccer. That it’s physical and athletic. That’s another euphemism for unskilled and lacking in creative, attacking flair.
Or does the league want to promote creative, attacking soccer that celebrates the talent, the artistry and the skill that makes this game so popular and fun to watch? I have yet to hear the MLS be called the “creative” league, or an “exciting” league. Why is that?
MLS Commissioner Don Garber came out strongly at the beginning of the season, offering his vote for creative, skill-based soccer over the thuggery and unnecessary physical play that, at times, characterizes this league. He even said the league referees were instructed to crack down on serial offenders.
Now, Garber faces his first litmus test. Colorado’s Brian Mullan should face a severe ban. He should be held as an example that the league won’t tolerate this type of retaliatory action. The league’s decision, though, should be viewed beyond the Steve Zakuani incident, however painful that loss is to the Sounders.
This is really about what kind of league is the MLS going to be?
Does anyone pay to watch the league’s creative players get hacked, fouled and brought down by opponents who knowingly and willingly violate the rules? Does anyone pay a premium to watch a “physical” match, or a dull, defensive matchup that produces few scoring chances?
Sure, defense is important. Physical play is part of the game. But too many times, MLS teams sit back and play defensive soccer because they fear losing, rather than try to win the game by attacking. This is very true when teams play on the road.
Too many times coaches quietly support or defend their hardmen because they can be useful in stifling creative players. But what should not be tolerated is the kind of injury-inducing tackles that crosses a line, that seem aimed at more than winning the ball. This form of American machismo has no place in the MLS.
We need goal scorers. Not goal wreckers. We need a league that attracts the rising creative stars of the world as well as the rising creative stars in this country. Uncontrolled tackling will chase players away, and the MLS will become oh-so-boring as the likes of the Mullans of the world replicate and fill the rosters of a league that unofficially seems to cherish this type of physical play.
Seattle and Dallas just got duller. Zakuani has been scythed by Mullan. David Ferreira, last season’s Most Valuable Player, is done for the season thanks to Vancouver’s Jonathon Leathers’ crunching slide tackle with studs up. The referee called no foul and one of the league’s most exciting play makers is out for the season.
Garber has a big decision to make, potentially a defining one. Let’s hope everyone is mindful that bone-crunching, retaliatory tackles will not fill the seats of any MLS stadium. A physical league is a boring league and one that will ultimately fail in the U.S. if coaches and players are left to their own devices.
Garber and the MLS must offer clear guidelines about what this league ultimately wants to be. Garber started saying the right things at the beginning of the season about clamping down on rough play. Now he needs to follow through.