Mullan's tackle puts Garber on the spot; more goal celebration folly

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1. The Brian Mullan-Steve Zakuani matter: This is a big moment for MLS commissioner Don Garber. Later this week MLS' disciplinary committee will render judgment on Mullan, the Colorado midfielder whose terrible tackle has ended Zakuani's season of high promise.

Mullan was immediately red carded for the 3rd-minute tackle that snapped the Seattle winger's leg Friday outside Denver. Now all eyes are on Garber.

The backdrop for all this is the serious, ongoing and long overdue discussion about refereeing. Garber has publicly stated his frustration at the lack of organizational control over referee development and the volatile way league matches are officiated. (U.S. Soccer oversees and assigns referees, not MLS.) And Garber has vowed to increase protection for the highly skilled, offensive players.

Well, the Mullan decision (and the precedent) is something that Garber controls.

Before the commissioner sits a fiercely physical player who has done grievous harm to a highly technical player, there are several points to consider. Is Mullan a dirty player, one prone to cheap shots? No. But his aggressiveness is notoriously weapons grade. He's the very embodiment of MLS' highly deserved reputation as a "physical league," which is really just a candy-coated euphemism for an overly combative league where pugnacity frequently rules over technical ability, where hustle and brute force often trump the beautiful game.

That's Mullan. He has always played on the edge, consistently straddling the line between the legal and illegal. Players around MLS respect Mullan's work rate and his do-or-die mentality. But they'll also tell you privately that he can cross the line into reckless behavior and that he's fortunate something like this hasn't happened before.

Mullan works ferociously; that part is commendable. But he also plays with a chip on his shoulder, always quick to scream and complain when the whistles don't go his way. And he has always been prone to emotional overreaction when he doesn't get the calls -- which is exactly what happened Friday.

Highly combative, aggressive players have a duty to police themselves and their emotions. Short of that, Garber must do it for them. Because it's too late for Zakuani, but not for the next tibia and fibula that may be in jeopardy.

Playing the game with that signature competitiveness has helped Mullan earn five MLS Cup rings. But there will eventually be a price for habitually pushing the limits, and here we are.

Finally, Mullan did himself no favors with his tone-deaf reaction, which included this unfortunate groan-inducer: "It's a tackle that I've done hundreds of times and would probably do again."

No, Brian, it's not a tackle you've done 100 times. Because this one shattered someone's leg. That makes it a very different tackle -- as he is sure to discover this week.

2. The gulf between Red Bull Arena and RFK: Signs abound that Ben Olsen has put together a better team this year at D.C. United. Charlie Davies' fortuitous arrival and ongoing recovery have something to do with that. So do smart acquisitions like Dax McCarty and Josh Wolff, who have added to the midfield and the attack. And even belittled DP Branko Boskovic finally had a good night, against New York, despite the result.

But if anyone needed a reminder of how far United's roster had spiraled into disrepair, it was all there to see in a 4-0 loss against the Red Bulls.

The biggest disparity between the two sides: the back line. The yawning gap at center back is particularly striking. Tim Ream and Rafa Marquez, easily the best central pairing in the Eastern Conference, were in charge all night for New York. They shut down Davies and Wolff without really ever stretching themselves. Ream won ball after ball, almost always immediately finding a teammate.

On the other side, Dejan Jakovic and Perry Kitchen struggled to contain just about everybody. Marc Burch's bad night didn't help, as the left back had terrible positioning on one Red Bulls goal. Nor does it help having such a young goalkeeper behind them. Bill Hamid, 20, appears to have a bright future and, all things considered, he's the right choice. But he's simply not ready to boss a back line, one that's struggling for leadership all the way around.

3. The celebratory ejection: So, about goal-scoring celebrations: Is everybody clear on this thing now? Are you sure?

Lordy, how did this happen? Again!

Vancouver's Eric Hassli drew giggles for receiving his second yellow two weeks ago after improperly celebrating a goal ("improper," at least, by letter of the FIFA law.) It happened again on Saturday when Toronto's Tony Tchani, understandably elated at nailing his first goal for a new club, leapt into the stands to celebrate and got his second yellow.

If only Tchani had been with Toronto FC last month in Vancouver, when the Whitecaps' Terry Dunfield was cautioned for doing the very same thing against his Canadian rival. If it makes anyone feel better, the very same thing happened in the English Premiership earlier this year, to West Ham's Freddie Piquionne, who saw a second yellow for celebrating with fans.

FIFA laws do stipulate a caution for a player who "climbs on a perimeter fence to celebrate a goal." Of course, FIFA directives also say: "A player who is guilty of dissent by protesting (verbally or nonverbally) against a referee's decision must be cautioned." If referees did that, a large percentage of every match would be abandoned for lack of players remaining on the field. Honestly, referees are "required" to show yellow for so many things that are routinely ignored. So why show a yellow to Tchani here? Where is the common sense?

That's another debate. A long one. For now we'll just settle for this: Everybody understands this rule now, right?

4. Benny Feilhaber's debut: Revolution coach Steve Nicol wasted no time in adding Feilhaber's talents to the effort. The U.S. international midfielder certainly lifted the Revs' overall quality, especially considering New England's recent emphasis on possession, something that really hasn't "taken" just yet. The key to possession, of course, is players who are good at possessing. And there just weren't enough of them on Steve Nicol's team.

Saturday's 3-2 win over against Kansas City was a good start. Feilhaber lined up alongside Stephen McCarthy in the middle as the Revs, lately in a 4-3-3, reverted to their more comfortable 4-4-2. Shalrie Joseph played ahead of Feilhaber as a withdrawn striker.

Thanks to his calm and awareness, Feilhaber needed just 12 minutes to record his first MLS assist. Later, his best moments were balls that put teammates' through, some of which needed to be dealt with better.

Now he has a chance to get even better as he gets more familiar with teammates. Overall, his control and distribution were fairly good, as his ability to hold the ball allowed other Revs the time to work into better spots. (Anyone remember how Steve Ralston once did the same?)

Finally, if Feilhaber partners with a more experienced type in the center of the park (Joseph or the still-sidelined Ousmane Dabo), he'll be that much better. Nicol has some thinking to do in terms of midfield mix, but it's a great problem to have.

5. Team of the Week:

Goalkeeper: Donovan Ricketts (Los Angeles)

Defenders: Jan Gunnar Solli (New York), Chad Marshall (Columbus), George John (FC Dallas), Heath Pearce (Chivas USA).

Midfielders: Landon Donovan (Los Angeles), David Beckham (Los Angeles), Logan Pause (Chicago), Teemu Tainio (New York).

Forward: Thierry Henry (New York), Rajko Lekic (New England).