It looks like MLS wants to be tops in one category league-wide: Suspensions handed out by the league office via an anonymous, secretive committee.
D.C. United's 4-1 victory over FC Dallas was supposed to feel like good news all week long, but MLS has decided to throw a wrench in our plans. Center back Brandon McDonald has been suspended for one game and fined some unknown amount for the tackle that got him a yellow card, while Danny Cruz was also fined for embellishment. McDonald will have to serve his suspension on Apr. 7 against the Seattle Sounders.
In his place, Dejan Jakovic can be expected to step back in alongside Emiliano Dudar in central defense. Jakovic has not played since leaving the 3-1 loss to the LA Galaxy early with a groin strain, but is reportedly practicing at full strength.
Frankly, I'm completely baffled and very upset about this. It's bad for D.C. obviously, but it's also a self-inflicted wound for MLS. There is apparently going to be no consistency for what gets an after-the-fact suspension from MLS and what won't. This particular decision wasn't even on the radar as a remote possibility. What's next? Suspension for any tackle resulting in a foul? What if a player is injured in a clean challenge; are we going to start suspending the tackler anyway?
MLS just opened a can of worms that could have easily been avoided. This isn't some mistake under duress; this is a decision made heedless of consequence and without any thought towards the future problems it will bring up.
McDonald's tackle was punished by referee Hilario Grajeda with a yellow card at the time. Grajeda was well-positioned to judge the foul's severity, and was far more likely to have a good grasp of the game's tone than a handful of people watching the game on a monitor. There is no replacement for being on the field in the middle of a game to be sure of what did or did not happen (not to mention the "why" of such situations).
Grajeda set a very consistent, lenient tone throughout the game. That meant fewer cards than a normal MLS game, but it is important to note that Grajeda was very even-handed for both teams. What was a foul for United was a foul for Dallas, and what was a yellow card for them was a yellow for us. Even in the game's biggest flash point, with Daniel Hernandez wiping out Dwayne De Rosario and De Ro retaliating, the punishment was even: A yellow card for both players; the fact that Hernandez already had one at the time and was sent off was down to his own poor judgment, not Grajeda's.
MLS is setting a terrible standard with this kind of decision. Unlike most MLS referees - who are either totally unreliable in terms of how they'll punish similar fouls, or go out of their way to make themselves a factor in the game - Grajeda kept the focus on him to a minimum in a game that was played very physically. On another night, with a card-happy referee, the game might have ended 10 v 9, and we'd all be complaining about how the man in the middle spoiled the contest. Instead, Grajeda's only possible mistake of any significance is more the mistake of his assistant referee, and ended up being fairly irrelevant in the process.
For MLS, a well-officiated game is apparently not enough. Instead, fouls that were justly punished by the person best suited to mete out that punishment must instead be dealt with all over again by other people who weren't at the game and are thus less able to justify their decision to hand out additional punishment.
This undermines the authority of referees, and serves to further confuse players who are already subject to the indisputably uneven pool of MLS referees. Give me four different MLS refs, and they'd have responded in four different ways to McDonald's tackle (no call, foul but no card, yellow card, red card). Add in a fifth, and he'd have booked Blas Perez for a dive that never happened.
Speaking of Perez, where is his fine for embellishment or "bringing the game into disrepute," as was said about Cruz? After McDonald's doubly-punished foul, Perez grabs just below the knee. That's strange, since the contact with McDonald occurred on his ankle, nearly a foot further down his leg. If Cruz deserves a fine for falsely grabbing at his face after nearly being elbowed there, surely Perez deserves a fine for needlessly rolling over twice and feigning an injury that somehow only felt painful at a point far away from where the contact happened. If that wasn't embellishment, then what is?
This doesn't condone McDonald's tackle; in that area of the field, there is no reason for McDonald to be diving in for such a risky tackle. It's also a fairly dangerous tackle. If there were such a thing as an orange card between yellow and red, Grajeda would have been well within his rights to hand one out. I also have no intention of defending Cruz's playacting, which despite Jair Benitez's attempt to do harm (Benitez was also suspended for one game for intentionally throwing an elbow) was definitely a blemish on an otherwise great performance.
I'm also not trying to blame the victim by bringing up Perez. I'm just using the parameters MLS set out. If Cruz grabbing his face following a failed attempt to elbow him in the face merits a fine, then surely Perez rolling a yard or two and grabbing his knee after being hit on the ankle is just as bad. If you punish Cruz, you must also punish Perez. And on down the slippery slope we go...
This underlines how stupid a policy this is for MLS to follow. Players now have no idea what will be punished, since worse tackles have and will continue to not get a suspension. Should players assume that anything they do on national television carries a higher risk of punishment? What about if your game happens to be officiated by a ref like Grajeda, who "lets the players play" on a regular basis? What about Ugo Ihemelu's yellow card offense? Not sufficiently dangerous? The ball was several yards away, the tackle was from behind. In my book, Ihemelu's was actually the worst tackle in the game.
If McDonald's tackle is worth a suspension, then where is the suspension for Eric Hassli's studs-up, knee-high attempted tackle on Maicon Santos? If that had connected, Santos could have sustained a severe, season-ending injury. On that occasion, MLS decided not to add anything to the referee's decision to yellow card Hassli (since the foul fortunately didn't make contact). If we're talking about endangering someone's safety, then Hassli's tackle is far more dangerous. It's not even close.
This kind of decision also undermines the authority of referees. In this case, Grajeda already dealt out a punishment. Now, we have two new problems as a result: Players and the public have a reason to question Grajeda's competence, regardless of the fact that he did a good job in a tough game to call.
Further, McDonald's yellow card has not been expunged to the best of my knowledge, even though MLS decided it was the wrong punishment. This is a form of double jeopardy; McDonald has been punished twice for one offense. If McDonald should happen to pick up four more yellow cards this MLS season, he'll have to serve an additional suspension.
I am fine with MLS having a Disciplinary Committee to deal with incidents that referees can't deal with. When Colin Clark uses an anti-gay slur far from the referee but near a field microphone, this committee is exactly the right body to deal with the situation. The referee was not able to hand out a punishment for something the league has established is not allowed; someone has to step in after the fact.
The Disciplinary Committee is also the right body to deal with things that the officials inexplicably did not punish. That's why I don't have an issue with the suspension for Benitez, who threw that elbow with intent and cruel intentions. The assistant referee was right there, yet somehow did not feel it was worth telling the referee about an offense that is a red card if it's caught. There's the difference: McDonald's foul was noted and punished; Benitez's elbow was not dealt with at all. In situations like this, where the officials make a mistake or couldn't have seen something, the committee should get involved.
McDonald's suspension is much different. We have a referee who was ideally placed to deal with the situation, and he dealt with it. One indicator that Grajeda was correct was that the game did not boil over after the foul. You didn't see Dallas players looking to "get justice" against McDonald, which is what you often see when a player who should be sent off is not. No one was saying McDonald should be sent off. Apparently, the only people that thought so are the anonymous, overzealous members of the MLS Disciplinary Committee.
Pandora's Box is now open. If McDonald's tackle is truly worth a one-game suspension, then a fair and equitable enforcement of the new rules will mean suspensions being handed out left and right. If this is the new standard, the league will be forcing all teams to deal with being without suspended players every week.
It won't surprise regular readers to note that I watch a ton of MLS soccer. By my estimation, tackles roughly similar to McDonald's happen two or three times a game. Does MLS really want to start sending out press releases listing off somewhere between 18-27 suspensions? Do referees really want to officiate in a league that apparently doesn't trust them to do their job without re-doing everything they've already dealt with? How can players know what will happen when they go in for a tackle now?
MLS now has two choices: Continue to hand out suspensions for anything equivalent to McDonald's tackle and fines for any embellishment of contact, or ignore the embarrassing situation they've put themselves in and continue handing out suspensions without any consistency.
Both options will make the league look foolish.