While the San Jose Earthquakes quietly go about preparing for a top of the Western Conference showdown against Real Salt Lake, the conversation around the team this week has focused squarely on the series of violent tackles and behaviors exhibited in last weekend’s tilt in New York. Red Bulls designated player Rafa Marquez, who in crashing Quakes midfielder Shea Salinas to the ground on a corner kick and subsequently breaking his collarbone into four pieces (Salinas revealed the gruesome x-ray on this week’s QuakesCast), was eventually suspended for 3 games by the MLS Disciplinary Committee. Earthquakes winger Marvin Chavez, following a questionable tackle on Red Bulls defender Roy Miller, knocking him out of the game, was served a 1 game suspension for the offense.
Two additional events, a studs-up tackle by Thierry Henry on Chris Wondolowski that narrowly missed taking out the Quakes star striker and a Victor Bernardez elbow to the face of Kenny Cooper following the Red Bulls first goal of the game, were not deemed violent enough for further discipline by the committee, but did give everyone pause as to what referee Ricardo Salazar allowed to occur under his watch.
Speculation all week over the clearly deserved suspension for Marquez centered on just how long a sentence the committee should bestow on the troubling Red Bulls midfielder. In a widely discussed incident to close out New York’s run in the 2011 MLS Cup playoffs, Marquez received a justifiable red card for inciting a riotous end to their home leg tie against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinal round. The disciplinary committee swiftly weighed in with an additional two game suspension that took the total length Marquez was unavailable to the Red Bulls to three games. Basically, he sat out three games for tossing a ball, out of frustration more than anything, at Landon Donovan and went his merry way.
So when yesterday the MLS Disciplinary Committee finally came down on Marquez for his vicious tackle of Salinas with a similar three match total suspension, a large number of pundits and MLS followers cried foul. Sure, some thought the imposed penalty was sufficient, but the general consensus, based on the actions of the committee in the past and on the track record of Marquez in MLS, was that the Red Bulls designated player deserved a harsher penalty. Calls of at least a 5 game suspension seemed reasonable to most in the discussion, especially given that the injury suffered by Salinas will sideline the winger for nearly two months. None was more absolute then that shared by Earthquakes general manager John Doyle in a conversation with reporters following the committee’s decisions.
“I’m very, very disappointed,” said Doyle without even being prompted with a question, “that Marquez only received three games and we lose Shea Salinas for 6 to 8 weeks, and for Marvin Chavez to get a one game suspension, I don’t think that is right either. I totally disagree with the (Disciplinary) Committee.”
While acknowledging the violent conduct of Marquez in their released statement on the suspension announcement, the committee did not mention whether they made the decision based on speculation that Marquez intended to hurt Salinas. Instead, they used the damaging words that “his actions were viewed as violent conduct that demonstrated blatant disregard for the safety of his opponent.” The careful wording of the statement does not accuse Marquez of intent, but rather leaves open the question as to whether the New York midfielder was attempting to do more than neutralize Salinas on the corner kick. That he had done pretty much the same thing on set pieces prior to that fateful play suggests Marquez was going to play as rough as the referee would allow.
Within the series of sharp remarks made by Doyle yesterday afternoon following the announcement, the former MLS player, who knows a thing or to about defending corner kicks, spoke specifically about the directives set forth by MLS at the beginning of the season regarding rough conduct on the field.
“One of the biggest directives they made this season was that there would be no grabbing on corner kicks,” shared Doyle as to what the league has told players and coaches going into 2012. “There’s been more grabbing on corner kicks now, that’s a modern soccer thing. Players in the past looked for the ball and tried to win the ball. Now, players grab.”
As Salinas stated earlier in the week, perhaps if Marquez had been warned by referee Salazar that his behavior was unacceptable, the injury would never have happened. Instead, Salazar’s inability to keep the players in check during corner kicks, and his failure to call a penalty on the clear-as-day takedown of Salinas by Marquez, calls into question whether the league’s biggest directive to players will be enforced. Is the right response to call a penalty on virtually every corner kick taken in the early season? If MLS wants to clean up that aspect of the game, then perhaps that is the right thing to do.
On the flip side of the conversation is the ongoing debate as to what level of retroactive punishment is acceptable in soccer, and with MLS leading the charge in dishing out the post game penalties, the league comes under scrutiny on the world stage. Even Doyle seems in conflict in his statements regarding this conundrum. On one hand, he recognized the reality that injuries are an unavoidable part of professional sports and often are not at the hands of an opponent playing with malicious intent.
“I’m all for player safety, I want the players to be safe, I don’t want anyone hurt,” Doyle was careful to say. “But there are dangerous aspects to playing sports. You don’t have time to step back and say I made the wrong decision. You have a split second to make a decision — do I tackle or do I not tackle? — and sometimes in those split second decisions you make mistakes.”
Doyle went on to describe what he called the “grey area” of whether an incident on the field is dangerous because of the player’s actions or due to the very nature of the game at the MLS level. The tackle made by Chavez on Miller falls into that category for Doyle, which played a part in why he was so disappointed in the committee’s decision to suspend him for one game.
“I understand the black and white stuff,” explained Doyle. “With Rafa Marquez it was black and white, he grabbed a player, threw him to the ground, and the player broke his shoulder. There are a hundred to two hundred plays a weekend for me that fall into a grey area.”
Doyle talked about how every weekend he watches the entire slate of MLS matches and that physical play is going on in every one of them. He then asked a rhetorical question that narrowed in specifically on a couple cases where his own star player and face of the franchise was but into a dangerous position during the run of play.
“Can you tell me that the tackle on Chris Wondolowski by (Martín) Bonjour the weekend before from behind, studs up, right through Wondolowski gets nothing?” asked Doyle. “And then Thierry Henry, who I respect as a player, loses the ball then tries to go for the ball studs up (on Wondolowski) and nothing’s called there either?”
Doyle was clear in his opposition to the MLS Disciplinary Committee even existing at all, and stated that he did not support its founding through the league’s competition committee. However, he acknowledged the need to protect the league’s assets — the marquee players and the reputation of the league’s safety to potential signees overseas — but ended his thought with a clear message that MLS needs to do a better job of getting their disciplinary decisions right. And then Doyle finished off with a different perspective on the whole issue; one that may actually be the most difficult for everyone involved in the process to digest.
“I feel sorry for the referees, their being second guessed by a committee that gets to look at it on Monday,” stated Doyle. “I think it is a slippery slope, it is a very grey area for me, and it is dangerous.”
(Photo: Joe Nuxoll, centerlinesoccer.com)