Less than a month into the 2016 Major League Soccer season, there have already been 16 red-card ejections. Factor in retroactive bans by the Disciplinary Committee, and more than half of the league’s games to this point have produced suspensions.
But when judged against MLS’ recent history, are trigger-happy referees really that uncommon of a trend, especially this early in the season? And even if they are, is erring on the side of caution when it comes to dangerous tackles necessarily a bad thing?
That depends on who you ask.
The verdict was unanimous in Vancouver on Saturday night, after Whitecaps midfielder Matias Laba was sent off for making contact with Galaxy attacker Mike Magee’s ankle with cleat studs showing. Ever the curmudgeon, even L.A. coach Bruce Arena pontificated afterward despite the fact that his team benefited from the call.
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“There’s just been too many red cards in this league. It’s ruining games,” Arena said after the scoreless draw. “Those are difficult games and it doesn’t make the game entertaining and I don’t think the fans like it. It seems like every game in this league, there’s a red card, and it’s been tough.”
Vancouver coach Carl Robinson, unsurprisingly, concurred. And one of his players went even further.
“I understand what MLS is trying to do by protecting the players, but right now, we’re trying to take tackling out of the game,” Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted told reporters. “That’s not going to purify the game. It’s not going to make it any prettier to look at, and it’s especially not going to evolve this league. I think it ruins games more than it benefits the players.
“We are in this together, MLS and the players, to develop this league into hopefully one of the best in the world, but I think some of the (disciplinary) things are misplaced. I think it’s a duty of the players as well to sometimes speak up and tell MLS that we’re not moving in the right direction with this (new mandate).”
Though the red-card numbers are slightly higher than usual at this point in the season, they’re not outlandishly so. Through 42 games of the past two campaigns, that figure has ticked slowly upward from 11 in 2014 and 14 last year. Taken as a lump sum, yes, 16 red cards in less than a month is a lot. But comb through each individual call, and most of the decisions are at the very least defensible, even if the four most recent ones from this past weekend were varying degrees of questionable.
Though few would argue with the fact that ejections hurt the aesthetics of a game in the short term, a case can be made that such heavy-handedness is beneficial in the long run.
This is a league with a reputation for chewing up its playmakers. Though attacking midfielders are no longer an endangered species in MLS, we’re still not so far removed from that barbarous fortnight in 2011 when Sounders winger Steve Zakuani, Dallas’ David Ferreira and Salt Lake’s Javier Morales were all felled with serious leg injuries.
“I think, over the long run, it’s (good),” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said Monday about the change in emphasis. “Finding that right balance right now? Probably not. But it takes a while to find that. Eventually, things change. When you look back over years and years, the game was much slower. It’s a much tougher game to referee now because the game is so much faster. The game was also more physical, and sometimes tackles like that were considered good things. Slowly but surely, those got ruled out. On corner kicks, people still grab each other, but because they’ve put a lot of emphasis in world soccer on that, it’s not like it was 20 years ago. They would grab more than just your waist.
“All of that has come down because people realize that if they do that, it’s going to get called. That learning curve takes time. That learning curve isn’t going to happen in a month.”
– Long live the seemingly random Sporting Kansas City-Real Salt Lake rivalry. Though separated by more than 1,000 miles and a mountain range, these two teams have a history. Most date their shared bad blood to a 2011 preseason match that ended in a brawl, and two years later, Kansas City beat RSL in a marathon penalty kick shootout to win MLS Cup.
Salt Lake got a tiny measure of revenge on Saturday night, knocking off previously perfect SKC 2-1 to remain the only unbeaten team in the Western Conference.
Mischievous Englishman Luke Mulholland clinched the victory with a long-range bomb, celebrating it in characteristically cheeky fashion …
… and Benny Feilhaber’s stoppage-time penalty kick came too late to spark a comeback but in plenty of time to inspire a goal-mouth skirmish, because see the opening paragraph above.
– Player of the week: Kaka, Orlando City.
If the Brazilian midfielder was feeling the affects of the thigh injury that kept him out of Orlando’s first three matches or the rust of a long offseason, it certainly didn’t show on Sunday evening. Kaka led the way to a 4-1 rout of the defending champion Portland Timbers, assisting on two goals in the opening 32 minutes before scoring the third himself just after halftime. Orlando’s four goals equaled its output from three previous matches without its playmaker combined.
– Goal of the week: Brek Shea, Orlando City.
The give-and-go with Kaka was nice. The rocket off the inside of Shea’s left boot that curled inside the right post was even better.
– Games to watch in the coming week: Columbus at Montreal (Saturday at 1 p.m. PST on MLS Live), Kansas City at New York Red Bulls (Saturday at 4 p.m. on MLS Live), Portland at L.A. (Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on Fox Sports 1).
|Orlando City SC||8||2||4||2||0||2|
|New England Revolution||6||1.2||5||1||1||3|
|New York City FC||5||1.25||4||1||1||2|
|New York Red Bulls||3||0.75||4||1||3||0|
|Columbus Crew SC||2||0.5||4||0||2||2|
|Sporting Kansas City||9||2.25||4||3||1||0|
|Real Salt Lake||8||2||4||2||0||2|
|Vancouver Whitecaps FC||7||1.4||5||2||2||1|
|San Jose Earthquakes||7||1.75||4||2||1||1|
|Seattle Sounders FC||3||0.75||4||1||3||0|