I don't want to be premature here, but I think it might finally be happening: MLS referees might finally have gotten the message to tamp down on the worst tackles through strict enforcement of the rules. And man is it about freaking time.
On Saturday, FC Dallas finished their 4-1 loss to D.C. United with nine men on the field, having spent the majority of the match at 10 men. The disadvantage came when Zach Loyd's high, studs-up tackle on Davy Arnaud earned him a second yellow card in the 39th minute (his first coming for a professional foul on Fabian Espindola in the game's first few minutes). The game was already over when Michel lunged in on Chris Rolfe with both feet, from behind, earning him a straight red card.
Like the tackle that earned Lewis Neal a suspension earlier in the season, these are potentially leg-breaking tackles, endangering the safety of the other players involved. These are exactly what red card tackles look like.
Don't believe me?
That's Zach Loyd's tackle. His studs are showing, and his foot is over the ball. Even if he doesn't make contact with Arnaud's leg - which he obviously does - that's a card-worthy offense. There's no place in the game for that level of disregard for your opponent's safety, and referee Fotiz Bazakos was spot on in sending the defender off. Loyd knew it, too - as he made the long walk to the visitors' tunnel, he held his hands over his face in shame. If anything, Loyd was almost fortunate, as a straight red card was probably warranted, and he'd have survived had he not already seen yellow for an earlier offense.
And that's Michel's tackle. Studs up, two-footed, from behind. That's probably the easiest decision Bazakos made all night.
Now, to my mind, and I think probably to yours, there's nothing controversial about either decision. They were both clear sending-offs. But after laying into known coward Juan Guzman last week, I feel I owe it to the referee profession to point out when they get it right. Bazakos got it very, very right on Saturday night. (Admittedly, so did Guzman, eventually, when Columbus' Bernardo Anor's two-footed tackle finally forced Guzman to pull the red card he'd been so loath to show.)
Former MLS goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, who is currently performing color commentary duties for FC Dallas broadcasts on TWC Cable, though, disagreed. He thought the yellow on Loyd was harsh because there wasn't an excessive amount of force involved. And he was at a loss for words over Michel's red, which didn't look particularly violent to him either. He said something, though, in a complaint that I think he has exactly right, for all the wrong reasons.
At one point, Hartman said, "This is the new league right here." And he's not wrong. Those kinds of tackles were commonplace and regularly went unpunished in MLS as recently as last year. Hell, some still go unpunished this year. But there's been a clear change through the first eight weeks of the 2014 season, and it doesn't seem to be one that Hartman agrees with. Red cards are way up over last year, and it's because MLS and PRO have decided - finally! - to eradicate these dangerous tackles from the game.
But, whatever Hartman thinks, that's a good thing! Yes, it will mean more red cards in the short term. In the long term, though, players will adjust. It will mean fewer injuries and better soccer. It's been shown in study after study (outside of the soccer context, but it still applies) that regular enforcement of the rules with modest penalties works better than rare punishment with harsher consequences. That's why red carding these tackles will work better than waiting for Brian Mullan to sidetrack Steve Zakuani's career and suspending him for 10 games. Once players know that they'll be sent off for bad tackles, even if they don't injure their opponents, they'll stop diving in with both feet or their studs up as often.
In the end, it's for the defenders' own good and the good of the league. Nobody wants to see legs broken or careers derailed. It's the right prerogative, and on Saturday Fotiz Bazakos enforced it perfectly. Kudos to him, MLS and PRO.
Now, if they could only enforce things consistently.