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Clint Dempsey banned three MLS games, can still play in Gold Cup

Clint Dempsey’s U.S. Open Cup outburst will cost the forward three MLS games and a fine, but not his participation in the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup, thanks to MLS commissioner Don Garber's Friday ruling.

Clint Dempsey’s U.S. Open Cup outburst, during which he tore up the referee’s notebook and threw it to the ground while protesting the overtime ejection of a Seattle Sounders teammate, will cost the forward three MLS games and a fine, but not his participation in the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup, thanks to MLS commissioner Don Garber's Friday ruling.

The U.S. national team captain’s Gold Cup fate was at stake because of a U.S. Soccer Federation regulation stipulating that, “Should the League suspend the player from competition with his club, the player would not be eligible to compete in any soccer competition while serving that suspension.”

Dempsey’s behavior fell under MLS jurisdiction even though Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Portland Timbers came in the Open Cup, because the incident, which falls under the federation’s “Professional Leagues Policy Against Referee Assault” guidelines, occurred while he was playing for his club.

Assuming he’s called up by U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, Dempsey will be available to play in the July 3 friendly against Guatemala in Nashville and then in the continental championship tournament, which kicks off four days later. Dempsey previously won Gold Cup titles in 2005 and 2007.

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His tantrum was part of a surreal evening at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila, Washington, where the Sounders had never been beaten in Open Cup play. Seattle, winners of four of the past six Open Cup titles, finished the match with only seven players. Brad Evans was ejected in the second half and forward Obafemi Martins then left with a groin injury after the Sounders had used all three substitutions (he’ll be out 3-to-6 weeks).

In the 111th minute, Seattle midfielder Michael Ariza was shown a straight red card for what looked like a relatively innocuous challenge. That’s when Dempsey lost his cool. He grabbed referee Daniel Radford's notebook and threw it to the ground, at which point Dempsey was cautioned. The Sounders star then picked the pad back up, tore it in half and tossed the remnants aside.

Dempsey mockingly clapped in an assistant referee's face as he and Azira walked toward the locker room. Portland scored a few minutes later and while the crowd at Starfire expressed its frustration—some fans hurled trash and debris toward the pitch and the Timbers bench—Sounders coach Sigi Schmid left the technical area and headed down toward one of the corner flags.

“I didn’t want to get thrown out so I just walked away form the bench because I was maybe going to choke a referee. So I figured I would walk away before I did something stupid,” Schmid told reporters following the game. He said his team got “robbed," and even blamed the officials for the fact that his team had to change jerseys at halftime because of a color clash with Portland.

In hindsight, it probably was a mistake to assign a referee who had never worked an MLS game to handle an elimination match between two arch rivals played in a 4,000-seat band box. But that doesn’t excuse the Sounders’ behavior, and owner Adrian Hanauer admitted as much while speaking to reporters on Wednesday.

“Tuesday evening, the passion piece maybe went a little bit overboard and was maybe directed in the wrong ways. That goes for players, coaches, staff, fans,” Hanauer said, according to The Seattle Times. “Now, we need to regroup. We’ve had lots of internal conversations. We will do whatever we need to collect information on fan misconduct and dole out appropriate punishments if those are necessary. We’ll deal with all of the rest internally. But I thought it was important to acknowledge that it wasn’t our proudest moment as the Sounders organization and we’re going to do better.”

Dempsey still may face further sanctions from U.S. Soccer, which can fine him and/or ban him from future Open Cup participation. The federation said Friday that its U.S. Open Cup Adjudication and Discipline Panel will hold a hearing next week. Seattle's run in this year's tournament is over. The Timbers will meet Real Salt Lake in the round-of-16.

The league faced some time pressure because the Sounders are scheduled to host the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday, and Dempsey needed to be afforded the time to appeal if he so desired. It’s unlikely he’ll do so.

When deciding on the three-game ban, MLS appeared to be operating under the spirit of the law, rather than all the letters.

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In the section of the USSF policy manual covering behavior toward match officials by those affiliated with a professional league, the definition of assault—the most serious charge—includes physical contact with the official as well as “damaging the referee’s uniform or personal property (e.g., car, uniform or equipment).” It’s pretty much impossible to argue that Radford’s notepad doesn’t fall under “uniform or equipment.”

Those guilty of assault “shall be suspended without pay for a period of at least six consecutive matches,” according to the manual. “The Professional League Member may not provide for a penalty shorter than the Assault Suspension but may provide for a longer suspension and/or a fine.”

That section appears to be flexible in practice, however, thanks to some potential ambiguity in the wording. It applies to "Any player, coach, manager, club official, or league official who commits an intentional act of physical violence at or upon a referee." Garber and the league did not feel that Dempsey committed "physical violence." Radford was untouched. The level or nature of the contact seems to matter.

The league did impose the full six-game ban on D.C. United forward Fabián Espíndola for pushing an assistant referee following an MLS Cup playoff game in November. But Sebastián Fernández of the Vancouver Whitecaps missed only four matches after making contact with referee Mark Geiger following last fall’s postseason loss to FC Dallas. And FC Dallas’s Fabián Castillo was docked four games for a June 2014 incident in Portland, where he sprinted toward and then bumped an official. Both four-game suspensions comprised two games for the red card/violent conduct and two additional imposed by the league.

Last month, New England’s Jermaine Jones angrily confronted Geiger as he produced a yellow card and then made contact. But Geiger didn’t eject the midfielder, and the MLS Disciplinary Committee stayed silent. In 2012, Brek Shea wasn’t carded but was suspended three games for kicking a ball at a linesman (and hitting him) in Columbus.

So clearly, these sanctions are determined on a case-by-case basis.

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Dempsey was red carded and played a key role in exacerbating the mayhem that engulfed Starfire on Tuesday. But the powers that be made a distinction between the referee’s pad and the referee’s person, thus the three-game ban.

The USSF policy requires a minimum three-game suspension for referee 'abuse', which is defined as "threaten[ing] through a physical act or verbal statement, either explicitly or implicitly," an official, including "verbal and nonverbal communication which contains foul or abusive language and which implies or directly threatens physical harm."

He’ll miss Saturday’s game, a June 24 match at the Philadelphia Union and then, ironically, the June 28 rematch with the Timbers at Providence Park.

“We do not tolerate conduct of this nature from any of our players,” MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said in a statement. “No matter how passionate our players are or what happens in the heat of the moment, they must always respect all aspects of the game, especially the referees. In light of Clint’s actions and our past precedents, we felt that a significant suspension was appropriate.”

If the U.S. makes its customary run to the Gold Cup final (it’s played in five straight), Dempsey may not play for the Sounders again until Aug. 1. That’s an issue for league-leading Seattle, but the club always expected to lose Dempsey this summer and will have planned accordingly. Had Dempsey been docked the six-games stipulated by the USSF, his MLS suspension would have run through July 18, the day of the Gold Cup quarterfinals.

That would have put his participation in danger, at least theoretically. But Klinsmann still could have called Dempsey up following the group stage and put him on the field for a potential semifinal.

This isn’t the first time Dempsey put his fate in the hands of MLS officials. Last year, he was docked two games and fined for slapping Toronto FC defender Mark Bloom in the groin. It happened off the ball and the referee failed to see it. Tuesday’s meltdown also brings to mind another infamous Open Cup fiasco. In 2008, the Chicago Fire’s Cuauhtémoc Blanco was ejected from a Cup quarterfinal against D.C. before head-butting a United staffer who was trying to convince the Mexican forward to leave the field.

Blanco’s subsequent suspension by the USSF covered six Open Cup games or the next two editions of the tournament. But it did not impact his MLS duties. The league wasn't required to adjudicate that incident because it didn't fall under U.S. Soccer's referee assault/abuse policy that governed Tuesday’s incident in Seattle.