Peter Walton found himself in the news far more than he probably would have liked over the past week. Through five rounds of MLS action, red cards were at an all-time high. And of those, straight reds were being distributed at a rate unseen in the league’s 20-year history. Week 5 alone saw four players earn red, and one suspended after the fact.
"The referees will continue to call the game within law,” Walton, the general manager of the Professional Referees Organization (PRO), told reporters on a Friday conference call. "If the players decide they’ll continue making such rash challenges, then we will still see the red cards being administered.”
The conference call was Walton’s way of putting out a fire. Then Nigel De Jong came along in Week 6 and poured gasoline all over the embers. His tackle on Darlington Nagbe at the end of the LA Galaxy’s 1-1 draw with Portland on Sunday night re-ignited the conversation around discipline in Major League Soccer. Only now, the talk is less about the harshness of its dispersal, and more about its alarming inconsistency.
De Jong’s challenge, on the face of it, is a more violent version of the one that earned the Red Bulls’ Felipe a red card last week against New England. But while referee Mark Geiger ejected Felipe from the game, Alan Chapman gave De Jong a yellow card for a tackle that was stronger, harsher, more reckless, and far more damaging to the player on the receiving end.
“I think that the protection of players, the protection of skillful players is the right way to go, and being strong and tough on plays that could endanger the safety of opponents,” Walton said in that Friday conference call—a quote that looks especially bad after seeing Nagbe, a budding U.S. international with skill, flair, and imagination, having to leave StubHub center in a wheelchair following the game.
”What I think will change is that players already are beginning to modify some of their behavior,” Walton said Friday. “That boils down to 'Do I lunge in for that ball or do I close down instead of running the risk of a red card and lunging in?’"
This, quite simply, is wishful thinking. Next to sympathy for Nagbe and outrage at Chapman, the next strongest emotion to come out of the incident should be a complete lack of surprise at De Jong. This is simply how he plays. He’s a fine midfielder no doubt, but would he be as well-known if he had never left a cleat-shaped imprint on Xabi Alonso’s chest? Or if he hadn’t directly caused one of the many injuries that led to the end of Stuart Holden’s career?
For what it's worth, he only got yellows for both of those tackles, too.
Attacking player of the week: Quincy Amarikwa, San Jose Earthquakes
The San Jose forward has been in great form, distressing opposing back lines with his relentless activity. It’s not all bluster, though—both of his assists in Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Dallas show that he can play delicately when needed as well.
Defensive player of the week: Tim Melia, Sporting Kansas City
Melia made five fine saves in the run of play and stopped a Bradley Wright-Phillips penalty kick as Kansas City rebounded from its home loss to RSL last week with a good win away from home. Melia had to work without U.S. international center back and club captain Matt Besler in front of him, but still organized his defense well and made key stops when needed.
1. Sporting Kansas City
How do you get outshot 22-7, possess the ball just 34% of the time, and still win away from home? Ask SKC, which did just that at Red Bull Arena. Opportunistic finishing and superb goalkeeping were the difference.
2. FC Dallas
A draw at home against a good San Jose team isn’t a bad result, per se, but the manner in which it happened may be worth some worry. Sans Mauro Diaz, Dallas’ tallies came via a PK and a Victor Bernardez own goal.
3. Montreal Impact
A duo of headers led the Impact to a win over Columbus, much needed after two straight losses cooled the club’s hot start to the season. The better news? Didier Drogba will return to the fold now that the early games on artificial turf are out of the way.
4. Real Salt Lake
Joao Plata’s goal game RSL the win, but more comforting to coach Jeff Cassar will be the shutout—the team’s first this season. With Orlando’s loss, Salt Lake is now the only unbeaten team remaining in MLS.
5. Philadelphia Union
The moment of the weekend was likely Barnetta’s late swerving free kick goal in the 90th minute, but that goal would have meant far less were it not for an outstanding Andre Blake save just moments later.
6. Los Angeles Galaxy
The Galaxy’s goal-scoring woes continued without Robbie Keane up top. The team is relying heavily on former MVP Mike Magee, but he hasn’t scored since opening the season with a double.
7. San Jose Earthquakes
Quincy Amarikwa is playing the best soccer of his life, and San Jose looks like its regained its trademark swagger. Chris Wondolowski’s goal in a draw at FC Dallas gives him four in the season’s opening five games.
8. Orlando City SC
The Lions’ unbeaten start to the season came to an end thanks to Barnetta's fantastic free kick goal in the 90th minute. Orlando City can take solace in the fact it nearly walked away with a point despite being without Brek Shea and Cyle Larin.
9. Toronto FC
Toronto benefited from some favorable officiating away from home vs. New England. Referee Edvin Jurisevic turned down a penalty shout just before Sebastian Giovinco’s equalizer, but the Italian was electric all game as usual.
10. Portland Timbers
Fanendo Adi is in great form once again, but Portland figures to be without Darlington Nagbe for a while thanks to Nigel De Jong’s ridiculous tackle. That could have massive implications for the Timbers’ title defense, depending on the severity of the injury.
11. New England Revolution
Kelyn Rowe scored a fantastic headed goal and the Revs looked good on attack, generating 13 shots, eight of which were on target. They really should be finishing more of those, though.
12. Seattle Sounders
The Sounders needed a positive result in Houston and got one, thanks to a late equalizer from Chad Marshall, who didn’t score at all last season. Slowly, Seattle is finding its footing after a disastrous start to the season.
13. Houston Dynamo
Houston was just seconds away from a much-needed win at home against Seattle, but allowed an equalizer with the last kick of the game. Even for MLS, the boys in orange have been remarkably inconsistent so far.
14. New York City FC
Yawn. Yankee Stadium’s turf was a mess, and that affected all facets of the game as Patrick Vieira’s side grinded out a scoreless draw vs. Chicago.
15. New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls did well in every facet of the game vs. Kansas City except the ones that matter most: scoring goals and defending them. Bradley Wright-Phillips’ scoring drought went on thanks to a saved PK and other missed chances.
16. D.C. United
Well, that’s one way to get your first win of the season. Granted, Vancouver hasn’t been great this year, but a 4-0 win is still an impressive result. Former RSL strike partners Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio each netted a brace.
17. Vancouver Whitecaps
The Whitecaps put in by far the worst performance of what has already been a disappointing season, losing 4-0 to D.C. United in Washington.
18. Chicago Fire
After conceding four goals in the season opener, Chicago has only allowed one over its last four games. Unfortunately, it has struggled to score as well, scoring just two in that same span.
19. Colorado Rapids
Zac MacMath is a good goalkeeper, but has been in terrible form since the Tim Howard signing was announced. A miscommunication between him and his back line led directly to Plata’s goal in a 1-0 loss to RSL.
20. Columbus Crew
Columbus had chances to score in Montreal, but its inability to take advantage seemed to weigh on the team in a 2-0 defeat. The MLS Cup finalists are still seeking their first win of the season.