MLS commissioner Don Garber provided fair warning in preseason: league leaders were serious about policing games better, determined to protect the players with the ball. If doubt still lingered about his or his league's commitment to this necessary course correction, toward taming matches and reducing the brute force factor, MLS removed it Thursday by closing the matter of an ugly incident with a historically severe suspension.
The message couldn't be clearer after Colorado Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan was suspended for a total of 10 games and fined $5,000 for the awful tackle on April 22 that broke Steve Zakuani's leg in two places.
It's too late for Zakuani, the Seattle Sounders winger who continues to recover in a Denver hospital. But perhaps the episode and ensuing discussion can help reduce the temperature in matches and shrink the chances of similar unpleasantness going forward.
It certainly can't hurt, because the precedent is staggering. The league's longest suspension yet eclipsed the one handed to Ricardo Clark for one of the darkest incidents yet seen on an MLS ground. In 2007 the league levied nine games and $10,000 on Clark for kicking FC Dallas' Carlos Ruiz. In that case, the players were away from the ball, with Ruiz on the ground when Clark brutally kicked him in the upper body.
Clearly, that's a different situation, more outright assault that tackle gone horribly wrong. Mullan's actions fall under "egregious" recklessness and disregard for fellow player safety.
"Egregious" is the word Nelson Rodriguez used. He is MLS' executive vice president of competition and game operations and also serves as spokesman for the league's five-person disciplinary committee.
"The committee believes the challenge showed an utter disregard for Zakuani's safety," Rodriguez said in a statement Thursday, also noting that injury severity affected the final verdict.
"Before this season, MLS worked with all its players, coaches, referees and the two federations to develop, illustrate and discuss several key points of emphasis," Rodriguez said. "One of those points of emphasis is to protect the safety of the player on the ball and reduce or eliminate reckless and violent tackles. Mullan's tackle is the type of play we need to eliminate from our game and the level of discipline is consistent with our efforts to do so."
Real Sale Lake midfielder Ned Grabavoy says the severity can't be a huge surprise to anyone paying attention to those preseason talks. Like many players, he didn't voice an opinion on whether the punishment was too severe or too lenient, saying only that it's unfortunate for both parties, Zakuani and Mullan.
But Grabavoy understands the complexity of the situation. Yes, he said, players have some awareness that the league wants to reduce fouling and promote attacking soccer.
"And that's the way it should be," he said. "They keep making adjustments to keep helping the attacking players and to help keep us safe. All we ask is that they be consistent."
There's the rub. Temperatures tend to reach boiling point when justice is meted unevenly, perhaps inequitably in some eyes, which has always been the complaint about MLS officiating. And what of the coaches? As Grabavoy said, they demand that players "get stuck in right away, in the opening minutes." (Mullan certainly did; his mad lunge occurred less than three minutes in Friday.) So, what is the coaches' role in preventing injurious actions?
Los Angeles Galaxy assistant Dave Sarachan says Thursday's fine and suspension is bound to get players attention in the short term. Matches this weekend, he predicted, aren't so likely to boil over. But over a longer period, he reminded, soccer is a contact sport. Collisions are simply unavoidable, and some tackles are going to be late. So he wonders if the real answers aren't in a greater respect for the game generally?
"I just think those things will develop through time," he said. "It can't happen just because there was a 10-game suspension. What has to be developed are things like, 'What is a proper tackle? What is the proper use of your body?'" From there, he said, the respect must cascade outward. Players and coaches must respect the decisions of the men in the middle, which will help players become more accepting and so on.
So, yes, we're back to the referees. We keep talking about them, but this is why. It comes back to them. Always.
What shouldn't be lost in the Mullan-Zakuani discussion is the retribution factor, something else the committee considered in rendering such harsh judgment. No one believes Mullan meant to harm the Seattle winger; Mullan is hyper competitive, sometimes to the point of belligerence, but he's not a nasty human being. On the other hand, there certainly was some "retaliatory strike" factor. Mullan felt he had been fouled just seconds before. He lost his temper, reacted emotionally and took out his frustration in a costly lunge at the nearest target.
FC Dallas defender Ugo Ihemlu said players generally understand each other and usually do OK at looking out for one another. But this is where a referee's proper match management comes in. Because little incidents lead to big incidents, he said. That's exactly what happened Friday at DSG Park. Inconsistency begets frustration.
"I know it's hard for them [the referees]. And I don't want to call out the referees, but that's their responsibility," Ihemelu said. "Things escalate, and they have to take care of it. Not even necessarily a card. They can call a foul, say 'Here's what you did and cut it out.' Hopefully, that will get in guys' heads and that will calm things down a little bit."
Only, it doesn't really work that way. In MLS, players aren't listening to referees because they are too busy screaming at them, complaining about calls and politicking for the next one. It's a circular pattern that takes us right back to Sarachan's comments about respect. So where does that leave us?
We know where it has left Zakuani.
Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer issued a short statement Thursday, which began with a lament for Zakuani and for a league that just lost one of its truly talented and entertaining players for a substantial amount of time.
"As a league, the Commissioner has stated his intention to be more protective of dynamic, attacking players," he continued in the statement. "Hopefully this suspension is a step in the right direction. However, the harsh reality of this situation is that no length of suspension will bring back Steve to action any faster."
No, it won't. But if anything good comes from all this, it has become an anchor for a discussion that needed to happen about a league that lost the balance and became too physical.
"It's just another moment in our league's history," Sarachan said. "It's one of those water-in-your-face kind of moments. So we say, 'OK, here's an incident. It's been addressed. Now there is precedent.' Now we move forward and we hope that we don't have to address these kinds of incidents anymore."