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Course correction: MLS finds its feet on disciplinary matters

Apr 4, 2012, 9:50 AM EDT

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Good on Major League Soccer and its disciplinary committee for finally gaining some ground in the battle to eliminate the dirtier stuff.

Four more suspensions were announced Tuesday as the disciplinary committee is now finding its feet, administering justice and sending messages more aggressively.

It’s a long overdue course correction (assuming the league stays this new course) in finding a better place along the technical–physical continuum. We always heard that Major League Soccer was a “physical” league; I always said that it didn’t necessarily need to be that way, that MLS needed to more assertively guide things in a better direction.

MLS always had power of enforcement. So players who rely on the doctrine of “tackle by collision,” or those prone to stunts of flying kung fu feet and elbows, are on notice. Instead of leaning heavily on holding, hitting and obstructing, defenders will need to do a little more, you know, “defending.”

And the league’s agitator forwards might need to calm down a bit, too.

Even the best referees make mistakes. They certainly can’t see everything. So this new push for retroactive justice is a great step – even if overdue.

The fear before, I believe, was that retroactive action was tantamount stripping authority from match officials, effectively undercutting them. But that’s way wrong.

In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.

Retroactive action actually empowers match officials. It lights a path, showing a direction the league wants to go, with less ambiguity. It provides referees the authority to take stricter action on match day. Because the other way – when the league too frequently declined retroactive action – sent the wrong message.

Effectively, league inaction was granting tacit approval to the dangerous stuff and the silly shenanigans. These things were always there on the video; the league just chose look the other way, wrongly fearful of stripping authority from referees. (Or possibly afraid to incur the wrath of powerful owners.)

Thus, the league set the tone. If MLS was a “physical league,” an association of too much hurly-burly, better suited for big defenders than skillful playmakers, the league was granting sanction.

MLS always said U.S. Soccer, not the league, controlled referees and assignments. And that’s technically correct. But the opportunity always existed to do exactly what is being done now, to send messages that the injurious, the reckless and the ridiculous simply will not be tolerated – even if the perpetrators manage to sneak it by the man in the middle on game day.

(UPDATE: I just spoke to Nelson Rodriguez, MLS executive vice president of competition and game operations; I’ll have a little more on this later, and on one tackle that didn’t warrant a suspension in the committee’s eyes, despite some public outcry.)

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