Sounders forward Clint Dempsey has been suspended an additional game for a red card taken 25 days earlier: a delayed decision that's caused much head-scratching amongst MLS fans ever-frustrated by the league's murky disciplinary system.
The mysterious operating procedure of Major League Soccer’s disciplinary committee continued Thursday with an announcement that Sounders forward Clint Dempsey had been further penalized for an incident that happened nearly four weeks ago.
No other North American professional sports league metes out discipline quite like MLS: using an anonymous five-member committee that punishes players with minimal explanation, apparently even for events most fans have long since forgotten. In Dempsey’s case, he’d already served an automatic one-match suspension after a red card received March 18 in a loss at FC Dallas for appearing to backswing his elbow at defender Jacori Hayes.
In the 25 days since that time, several video replay angles caused significant public debate about Dempsey’s actual intentions and whether he’d even landed a blow on Hayes at all. But rather than soften the punishment, the committee chose to extend it and announced the decision just three days before the already-shorthanded Sounders are to play at Sporting Kansas City.
“When I saw the red card initially, I thought it was a soft call,’’ Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said Thursday after the additional suspension was announced.
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Furthering the confusion: The Sounders apparently were told by the league late last week that Dempsey was unlikely to play in the K.C. game. As to why it took another week for a formal announcement – and more than 3 ½ weeks since the incident to announce an additional penalty – the details remain murky and MLS officials declined to officially comment on the matter.
But a deeper look into the incident, speaking on background with various sources, found that Dempsey himself caused some of the lengthy delay by taking his time before declining to speak to the disciplinary committee. Then, after being informed the committee planned to suspend him an additional game, Dempsey also took some time letting players’ union officials know whether he wanted them to appeal the decision on his behalf.
It’s unclear just how hard the committee pushed Dempsey for an answer.
There was no fixed time limit for Dempsey to communicate his wishes. Typically, with teams playing games every week, players make decisions one way or the other in quick fashion so that they know whether they’ll be eligible for the next match.
But in this case, because of their previous CONCACAF Champions League schedule, the Sounders have played just one MLS regular season game since that Dallas contest. Dempsey knew ahead of time he’d be sitting that one game out automatically as a result of his red card for the Hayes incident.
So, once Dempsey was tossed, he knew he was done with further MLS play for a month. Hence, the possible reason for any lack of urgency on his part to help get the disciplinary proceedings completed as quickly as possible.
Dempsey has not spoken to the media since receiving the red card.
Hayes did agree to speak to the disciplinary committee to offer up his version of events. It took about 10 days for the committee to gather all evidence – including any interviews – before reviewing the case.
The Sounders had been privately informed by the league about a week before the official announcement that the committee had decided to extend Dempsey’s suspension. That means it took roughly that amount of time for Dempsey and the player’s union to communicate that there would be no appeal of that decision.
Though the league can issue statements further clarifying the reasons for additional discipline, it did not do so this time in Dempsey’s case.
The MLS-overseen disciplinary committee is comprised of three former players, two former coaches and a former referee and their identities are kept secret to prevent outside influence attempts – especially by former colleagues still working for the league’s teams. Had the Sounders formally appealed the initial red card, the Dempsey case would have been forwarded to a separate independent review panel.
But the team only gets to appeal two such decisions per season and Lagerwey said he felt doing so this time would have been a waste because Dempsey’s red card came on a video review call.
Lagerwey explained that: “when you have things that are reviewed on video replay, there is an understandable institutional reluctance to reverse plays that have been reviewed by replay.’’
Both Lagerwey and team vice-president Chris Henderson had been in constant contact with the league since Dempsey’s ejection and were able to further gauge the likelihood of a successful appeal.
Last year, the Sounders successfully appealed a Roman Torres red card. But Lagerwey noted the red card in question had been called by the referee in that game without video review, which made it easier for the team to counter the decision by offering up various replay angles.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said he’s spent this week knowing Dempsey was unlikely to play for his 0-3 team against the Western Conference leaders. That challenge got tougher Thursday when midfielder Harry Shipp – who was to take Dempsey’s lineup spot – injured his ankle in training and had to be carted off the field.
Shipp’s status was not immediately available, though Schmetzer said it won’t help if both he and Dempsey can’t play.
“We’re trying to just push past it,’’ Schmetzer said of Dempsey’s additional suspension. “I don’t agree with it. But at this point in time I have to focus on Sporting K.C.’’