The veteran Soccer America scribe and Curmudgeon-in-Chief wrote an interesting column yesterday in which he republished a piece he’d written for the New York Times in 1976. He then drew an all-too-apt parallel between the contents of his 34-year-old article and the state of MLS today.
The 1976 piece (you can read both here) decried the physical style of the NASL, kicking off with a description of a New York Cosmos–Miami Toros game that was broadcast on national TV.
Viewers of that game, Gardner wrote, “saw something that I—and, I am sure, the people who run the North American Soccer League—would rather they had not seen.”
“They saw Pele running full speed past the ball and launching himself at the legs of a Miami defender. An ugly and dangerous foul, one for which Pele should surely have been cautioned, if not ejected from the game.
Yet, had he been ordered off, travesty would have been added to tragedy because Pele’s assault was the almost inevitable climax to an afternoon in which he had been repeatedly kicked and knocked down. It was, in short, retaliation for almost 90 minutes of cynically brutal play by the Miami defenders, all of it taking place under the inexplicably lenient eye of referee Gordon Hill.”
Gardner went on to argue that the problem was one of imbalance: the Peles, George Bests, Rodney Marshes and Bobby Moores at the high end of the NASL skill spectrum caused the many more players at the low end to resort to rough play to keep up.
Major League Soccer doesn’t have exactly the same problem—Thierry Henry has scarcely been fouled during his time in the league, and the talent gap is not as great as it was in the NASL.
But given recent injuries to four of its most skillful players due to reckless tackles, the league does have a problem with physical play, as Gardner rightly points out.
Even the games this past Wednesday bore this out. There were no injuries, but all three matches—Los Angeles at Philadelphia, Toronto at FC Dallas, and San Jose at Vancouver—had a similar quality. They were hectic, edgy, and full of very athletic players high-pressuring one another all over the field.
The result, across the board, was a lack of sustained possession and flow, and a sense that the most skilled players were forever leaping and/or getting the ball of their feet quickly to avoid heavy tackles.
Or not avoiding them: Late in the first half of the Dallas-Toronto game, new Reds defender Richard Eckersley (on loan from rough-and-tumble Burnley) absolutely plowed into Dallas midfielder Brek Shea, with no chance, and seemingly no intention, of playing the ball.
We thought the body-block would yield a straight red, especially as Shea was slow to rise after the collision. Perhaps it would have if Shea had been seriously hurt (or embellished it, which brings up a corollary problem to this issue, but that’s another post).
But the lanky midfielder eventually got up, and Eckersley was shown a yellow. The ref would have been well within Don Garber‘s preseason mandate of protecting skill players—Shea was Dallas’s most effective offensive player on the night—if he had shown a red. And he should have.
This was just the most striking example of the physical play that held sway on Wednesday night. All three games had a little menace to them.
This is a real problem for MLS this year, and with four of its most spectator-friendly players already gone for all or most of the season, the league needs to take a more pro-active stance than simply handing out harsh, re-active suspensions for rough play.
MLS needs to work closely with its players, coaches, and—especially—its referees, to implement changes on this issue, and get all three factions to raise their collective game.