BY Stanley Holmes 11:23AM 04/25/2011

Brutish play in danger of defining MLS

It’s up to commissioner Garber to crack down, not the players

Steve Zakuani was carted off the pitch Friday night after a reckless tackle by Colorado's Brian Mullan broke Zakuani's leg. / Doug Pensinger, Getty Images

Let’s stop the pretense and the pretending.

Does Major League Soccer want to be known as a physical league — a euphemism for the kind of horrific, bone-crunching tackles that has sent one of the league’s emerging creative stars to the sidelines for 18 months?

That’s the first thing coaches and players and so-called experts say about Major League Soccer. That it’s physical and athletic. That’s another euphemism for unskilled and lacking in creative, attacking flair.

Or does the league want to promote creative, attacking soccer that celebrates the talent, the artistry and the skill that makes this game so popular and fun to watch? I have yet to hear the MLS be called the “creative” league, or an “exciting” league. Why is that?

MLS Commissioner Don Garber came out strongly at the beginning of the season, offering his vote for creative, skill-based soccer over the thuggery and unnecessary physical play that, at times, characterizes this league. He even said the league referees were instructed to crack down on serial offenders.

Now, Garber faces his first litmus test. Colorado’s Brian Mullan should face a severe ban. He should be held as an example that the league won’t tolerate this type of retaliatory action. The league’s decision, though, should be viewed beyond the Steve Zakuani incident, however painful that loss is to the Sounders.

This is really about what kind of league is the MLS going to be?

Does anyone pay to watch the league’s creative players get hacked, fouled and brought down by opponents who knowingly and willingly violate the rules?  Does anyone pay a premium to watch a “physical” match, or a dull, defensive matchup that produces few scoring chances?

Sure, defense is important. Physical play is part of the game. But too many times, MLS teams sit back and play defensive soccer because they fear losing, rather than try to win the game by attacking. This is very true when teams play on the road.

Too many times coaches quietly support or defend their hardmen because they can be useful in stifling creative players. But what should not be tolerated is the kind of injury-inducing tackles that crosses a line, that seem aimed at more than winning the ball. This form of American machismo has no place in the MLS.

We need goal scorers. Not goal wreckers. We need a league that attracts the rising creative stars of the world as well as the rising creative stars in this country. Uncontrolled tackling will chase players away, and the MLS will become oh-so-boring as the likes of the Mullans of the world replicate and fill the rosters of a league that unofficially seems to cherish this type of physical play.

Seattle and Dallas just got duller. Zakuani has been scythed by Mullan. David Ferreira, last season’s Most Valuable Player, is done for the season thanks to Vancouver’s Jonathon Leathers’ crunching slide tackle with studs up. The referee called no foul and one of the league’s most exciting play makers is out for the season.

Garber has a big decision to make, potentially a defining one. Let’s hope everyone is mindful that bone-crunching, retaliatory tackles will not fill the seats of any MLS stadium. A physical league is a boring league and one that will ultimately fail in the U.S. if coaches and players are left to their own devices.

Garber and the MLS must offer clear guidelines about what this league ultimately wants to be. Garber started saying the right things at the beginning of the season about clamping down on rough play. Now he needs to follow through.


  • Austin

    First I agree that a tackle like the one sufferd by Zakuani is horrible and should not be tolerated. I definitely feel play like that should be met with harsh and lasting consequences. ( I feel it is unacceptable for Mullen to claim that the takle was one he had done many times before and would probably do again)
    Second I disagree with the statement that a physical and athletic league is ” another euphemism for unskilled and lacking in creative, attacking flair”. I do think it points in part to the lack of diving in the league, and the drive for a player to be able to work his way past another, without just trying to draw the foul and placekick. I think not having that would kill professional soccer in the US faster that seeing our creative players sidelined.
    There should be a safe middle ground for the league to reach that will allow the MLS to showcase it’s unique style of football as the league continues to grow and continue to take root as a mainstay. We can not try to strictly emulate other leagues around the world. They all have their slightly different styles of play and the MLS should do the same. The MLS is not the EPL, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, etc..
    It is not right to wag your finger at the coaches and players in general. Especially as the league has continued to make strides since it’s inception 15 years ago. Also of note is that David Ferreira’s ankel break does not appear to be the cause of a malicious tackle(in fact it has been noted that it the tackle appeared to be clean) but David’s foot getting caught on the turf.

  • david

    “Brutish play in danger of defining MLS” This is a ridicules headline. Yes it was a bad tackle and punishment should be handed down on mullan ( I have yet to see teh tackle on David Ferreira). However, this is the first time i have seen this type of leg break occur since i started watching MLS a few years ago. This type of tackle happens once every month or two in the EPL. Yes it is bad, but this is the media trying to hype it up and make MLS look bad. This is not a common occurance in MLS.

  • Well said. I think every soccer fan in the country is thinking the exact same thing. The question is, does Garber have the guts to do something about it.

  • P.Scott

    The softest way I can put it is, Brian Mullan doesn’t get it. I hope the MLS provides Mullan with the opportunity for comprehension. Steve Zakuani is a friend of mine. And like Steve’s teammate James Reilly asked, I am praying for both of them. Apart from the issues of Steve’s horrendous injuries, and Mullan’s apparent cognitive dissonance – the MLS has a huge, global black eye from what happened. The truth is, the MLS is a “hack league” – American soccer (particularly at the college level) suffers because of it. One hope I have out of all of this is that journalists, leading players and concerned others would help this be addressed. It is severely holding back the development of a world class game in this country.

  • Bjørn Wahl

    Very well said and written. Part of MLS’ problem is it is more physical and the referees accept more than in international leading leagues. Let entertaining play be the norm, not a Canadian hockey style soccer. Or do we want fights on the field too?

  • rainier beacher

    I don’t have a problem with protecting scorers from brutes as long as the league also punishes diving. Both Montero and Fernandez were guilty of this v. Colorado. I’d like to see the league issue retroactive fines for this with extra damage for dives that result in a called foul.

  • JHR

    I can’t agree more with the comment about flopping should receive retro-active cards. However, flopping doesn’t leave people in hospitals and take players out for the season. Flopping is another issue altogether and should have no bearing whatsoever with the issue at hand. I like Hannuaer’s take on this, Mullan should return when Zakuani returns. At the very least he should be suspended for the season.

  • Hansville Pasta Boy

    Mullans was a vicious tackle of Steve Zakuani. He should be suspended for 10 games. Gerber must act. Sigi needs to defend his players and self important Adrian Hanauer needs to lead that effort in a formal written complaint to the Commissioner. Team owners need to adopt a clear and punative policy penalizing vicious play.

    The MLS is a farm system and retirement home for players on their way to or from the EPL,La Liga,Series A,Bundesliga,et al. I do not believe MLS is anywhere near the best international teams. The quality of play in MLS, does not begin to approach that of these Leagues for pace, passing and artful defense. Comparing their respective payrolls tell that story. Annual salaries: Messi $31 million, Ronaldo = $27.5 million, Kaka $19.3 million,Drogba $18.6 million, Buffon $16.3 million. By contrast, in 2010 Sounders Kasey Keller made $300,000, Freddy Montero $155,000 topping out @ $1.3 million for Freddy “The Whiner” Lundberg. The Sounders goal scoring will suffer badly without Steve. Will the Sounders FC follow through ?

  • butterGlory

    @ David: Can you provide us with 6 examples of broken legs from violent tackles in the EPL this season? Sure, that injury has happened before but it is hardly the norm.

    I’d have to agree with the Stanley H. here. I hope Garber makes a stand to protect our young stars, with harsh punishments that make the “physical” players think twice. For players like Mullan, the MLS is the end of the line. We want other leagues to be interested in our young talent – it means we are building a stronger league.

    You have to wonder if our older dp’s Nkufo and Freddy L. figured that the paycheck wasn’t worth the beating they would take. And to be clear I have very mixed emotions about both of them. Not their biggest fans in any case.

    But it seems like a clear tactic in the MLS for inferior defenders – if you can’t keep up with them, kick at em to get them off their game. Who does Mullan plan on taking out next?

    • david

      You should read my post better before you comment.
      My point being, the mullan tackle was the worst i have seen in about 3 years of watching mls. mls is nowhere near as hard tackling as the EPL. My worry is that the media is trying to give MLS a bad name. Below are some examples of hard tackle. not all of them resulted in seaon ending injures, but could have

      Nigel de Jong on Hatem Ben Arfa
      Johnny Evens on Stuart Holden
      Kirk Broadfoot on Antonio Valencia ( that was in teh Champions League, not EPL)
      Ryan Shawcross on Aaron Ramsey ( happened last year)
      Karl Henry on Jordi Gomes (Luckily did not break Gomes leg)
      Jami Carrigher on Nani ( Nain was sidelined with a deep laceration)
      Rafael on Lucas ( retaliation for the Nani tackle)

    • david

      I forgot this on Karl Henry on Bobby Zamora

  • David

    I’m a Rapids fan and I pretty much agree with Holmes’s opinion. The Rapids commit too many fouls. Some of our best players commit a lot of the fouls. I doubt that the Rapids are any worse in this regard than a lot of other MLS teams. I fault the coach and especially the referees for it. Of course the referees go the direction the MLS wants them to. As a season ticket holder, I’m going to pressure the Rapids to clean up their play and let the fans enjoy the beauty of the game.

  • Mike

    I think the author really scores the best point at the end of the article: The thuggery is retarding scoring opportunities. “A physical league is a boring league”. Now, I want to make it clear that I’m exaggerating here to make a point, but basically, as far as club play goes, I plunk my cash down at the gate to see goals. I don’t pay to watch defense, and if I do see defense, I prefer it to be the kind that is the result of calm composure under pressure, not making red mist charges and hitting people.

  • butterGlory

    @david – thanks for the reply. To be honest my nerves were still really raw and I shouldn’t be commenting when I am seeing red. I read your post as “yea, it was a bad tackle, but since it happens all the time in the EPL we shouldnt be too upset about it.” I watch a fair amount of EPL and have never seen a tackle that bad.

    So point well taken.

    • david

      My comment was about how the media is trying to make mls look bad because of this one tackle when its not a common occurance in mls. I did not hear any outcry from american media when holden season was ended by johonny evans

  • Chris

    I second Mullan being allowed to return only when Zakuani returns, or at the very least he should be suspended for the season.

    • david

      most likely, he will be given 5-10 game ban based on past precendent. I do think garber should enacta new rule for next season and set standard suspensions for malicious tackles that result in injuries.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure why the total number of transactions is such a “go to” line for pundits. Who cares really? Sure, Seattle is one of the worst teams in the league. But Hawk_Eye and Cruddly hit the nail on the head by basically responding with, well, duh! That’s kinda what happens in year 2 of a complete rebuild. The question worth writing about is whether Schneider and Carroll are building the team the right way.

    The vast majority of Schneider’s transactions have been to raise the baseline level of talent–the talent at the bottom of the roster. Our defensive ends used to be Lawrence Jackson and Darryl Tapp, backed up by Jason Babin. Now our ends are Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, backed up by Raheem Brock. In terms of performance relative to price I’d say we made out rather well. LoJack and Tapp have done nothing. Babin has been a revelation now that he’s in a scheme with no run responsibility, but I’d say he’s offset by what we’ve found in Bryant (who is playing at a near Pro-Bowl level).

    As for Jackson/Whitehurst, they couldn’t have made it more obvious that they’re both “Mr. Right Now” unless they hung a sign around them with those words. Right now, I’d rather have TJax doing no worse than Kevin Kolb for what Arizona paid. 

  • zippy

    right on for the offense- bu why does every story ignore significant progress on the defense– half the game, right?
    they find an elite slinger in the draft (seahawks have never had one) and they are right back in the mix. There likley is a franchise QB somewhere in the draft other than Luck- the trick is to figure out who that will be– I’m thinking Foles.

  • thxNJ7Z

    As for the roster rebuilding, I remember Sonic fans crying foul over Sam Presti’s demolition and rebuilding “the’re ruining the team on purpose so they can get out of town!” – No, they had a plan, and now the Thunder are a playoff calliber team. The Seahawks are on the same path, we will just have to wait and see if they get simmilar results. As for the coaching, young teams make mistakes, but the lack of apparent discipline is concerning.

  • Can’t blame this mess on Ruskell anymore

  • The vast majority of Schneider’s transactions have been to raise the baseline level of talent- dcrockett  u mean like at QB?  Trojanman and Bo Duke gave up how much again for clipboard jesus who can’t beat out Tjack who is the worst so called starter in the NFL?