Seattle general manager and investor Adrian Hanauer offered a simple solution to start the inevitable disciplinary discussion prompted by Brian Mullan's shocking tackle on Steve Zakuani on Friday night.
“I think maybe a good answer is Mullan gets to play when Steve is back on the field,” Hanauer told the Seattle Times after Sounders FC's hollow 1-0 victory over Colorado in Commerce City. “He's a hard player, but that was a dirty tackle. He lined him up. There was absolutely no reason to crush him like that. It's my hope that he'll be heavily punished, but obviously it's out of our hands.”
Mullan will no doubt feel the wrath of the MLS Disciplinary Committee when it renders its verdict this week, but his punishment should not and will not approach the extensive period Zakuani will spend on the sidelines after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured right fibia and tibula.
The exact length of time Mullan will miss remains uncertain, but the final decision should rest solely on the dangerous and reckless nature of the tackle and previous precedent in similar cases. Other tangentially related factors – the desire to use Mullan as an example to ward off other brutal challenges, the prevalence of physical tackles around the league this season and the severity of Zakuani's injury, for example – may also invade the deliberative process even though they probably should not.
Precedent all but requires the Disciplinary Committee to reject the emotional and hasty calls for a ban of 10 or more matches. A suspension of that length would create a whole new disciplinary approach and disregard the sanctions handed down for serious incidents in past seasons.
Former Houston midfielder Ricardo Clark served the longest suspension for an on-field incident in league history when he missed nine matches and paid a $10,000 fine for intentionally kicking then-FC Dallas forward Carlos Ruiz on Sept. 30, 2007. Clark broke the mark set by former FC Dallas goalkeeper Dario Sala when he incurred a six-match ban and a $3,500 fine in Nov. 2006 for punching two Colorado players after the Rapids defeated FCD on penalty kicks to advance to the Western Conference final. In stark contrast to those lengthy suspensions, serious tackles – even leg-breaking ones – usually draw anywhere from a one-match to a three-match ban and an additional fine depending on the nature of the incident.
Although the Sala suspension appears a bit too light with the benefit of hindsight, it may play a role in constraining the period Mullan faces on the sidelines. It does not appear appropriate for Mullan's suspension to match or exceed Sala's ban or approach Clark's punishment given the context of his challenge. Mullan may have committed a reckless and ridiculous tackle during the course of play, but his poor decision lacks the discernible intent of Clark's kick or the staggering scope of Sala's actions.
The range for a potential Mullan suspension – assuming Sala's ban still provides a reasonable guide – should fall between three and five matches. The Disciplinary Committee could simply cite several previous examples and send Mullan away with a three-match suspension, but two factors indicate that Mullan's suspension should land at the highest end of the potential options and set a new and stricter standard for serious tackles.
Mullan's decision to engage in such a tackle after just three minutes should serve as an aggravating factor as the Disciplinary Committee ponders potential sanctions. Early tackles inflame the tone of matches, particularly given the lack of man-management skills deployed by most MLS officials. It is a credit to the composure possessed by both sides that subsequent incidents did not further mar the proceedings when they easily could have done so. While tackles like Mullan's lunge have no place in the game at any point, they are particularly incomprehensible at such an early stage in the match. MLS must act decisively in this instance by noting the juncture of the tackle and showing that rash decisions in the opening stages of a contest will face serious consequences.
(One tangential note: The time of the challenge and the selfishness of engaging in such a frustration-borne tackle so early in the game should also lay the foundation for a club fine. Colorado's chances of taking three points from the game decreased significantly once Mullan decided to lunge at Zakuani and procure an almost certain dismissal. Such a disciplinary option may or may not be on the table in Colorado, but it probably should be from a purely competitive standpoint.)
Mullan should also face more scrutiny for the extensive buildup to the tackle. Seattle defender Tyson Wahl rode Mullan off the ball – legally or illegally is probably up for some debate – and Mullan gestured to the referee to express his displeasure. He quickly discerned Zakuani's likely path back up the left flank and then charged for several steps before launching himself toward Zakuani with his right leg showing the bottom of his studs and his left leg bent.
Zakuani took a bit of a long touch and perhaps created the illusion that Mullan could win the ball, but that fact provides no salvation for Mullan in this instance. Mullan decided to slide well in advance, jumped into his tackle and made contact over the top of the ball. The running start and the desperate lunge reveal a significant level of recklessness that MLS simply cannot tolerate from its players.
While all of the instant factors suggest Mullan should serve somewhere between a three-game and a five-game suspension, it is uncertain whether other ideas will alter the final result.
The severity of Zakuani's injury stands out as perhaps the most jarring of the outside influences. In addition to the horrific nature of the broken leg and the ghastly replays of the tackle, Zakuani stands out as perhaps the most dynamic player in Sounders FC's arsenal. His loss will hurt Seattle's chances of MLS Cup glory substantially despite the club's ample depth in midfield. There just isn't another Zakuani available and Seattle will no doubt make that point clear to league officials.
MLS' desire to protect its best players and reduce the occurrence of similar challenges may also amplify the disciplinary measures. The prevalence of other nasty incidents in the early stages of the season – Seattle's Servando Carrasco, in fact, served a one-match ban for an ill-advised challenge on Patrick Nyarko – contradicts MLS commissioner Don Garber's stated desire to cut out such behavior. If the final suspension edges north of three games, this policy reason could play a significant role in the outcome.
(Another potentially related note: The ankle fracture sustained by FC Dallas midfielder and reigning MVP David Ferreira in FCD's 2-1 win at Vancouver on Saturday probably won't help Mullan much. Jonathan Leathers' tackle lacked the menace of Mullan's lunge – the replay angle captured wasn't particularly insightful, but Leathers' challenge looked fairly run of the mill and didn't attempt to go through Ferreira – but it did double the number of talented players sidelined through the acts of others this weekend. When the NFL suffered through a trio of helmet-to-helmet hits during one particular weekend last fall, it increased the severity of the fines. That occurrence isn't quite analogous to the current situation and may not apply here, but it does underscore that disciplinary measures can increase if multiple incidents (or injuries) take place in a short period of time.)
Mullan's reputation – diligent and scrappy, but not dirty – and the post-match remarks from the involved parties could also garner consideration, but those factors probably won't play much of a role aside from one all-too-revealing comment. Mullan's frank post-match admission that he'd committed similar tackles and would do so again may count against him as the committee weighs whether to create an example out of him or tack on an additional match or two.
MLS may sometimes treat its star players differently in disciplinary matters, but it usually does a decent job of brushing aside the external and peripheral factors and focusing on the actual tackle or infraction when dealing with a member of the rank and file.
If the Disciplinary Committee follows suit here, Mullan's suspension should fall somewhere between three and five matches. The final length of the ban won't make many people in Seattle happy, but it would fit within the overall approach and structure of the league's disciplinary process.
Five Points – Week 6
1. Give credit to Seattle for grinding out a result after Zakuani's traumatic injury: Seattle struggled to adjust to losing its influential left winger to such a horrific injury, but Sounders FC held out just well enough against the 10-man Rapids to make Fredy Montero's early goal stand up in a 1-0 victory in Commerce City. On this particular night, the somewhat passive manner of the performance paled in importance to the final result and Zakuani's health.
“You see it all the time when teams go a man down, it provides them a little more gusto to work that much harder,” Sounders FC midfielder Brad Evans told the Seattle Times after the match. “Most of the time guys playing a man down play better. Really they're only missing a guy up top. They're still playing with four in the midfield and four in the back, so you're still playing 4-on-4 in the midfield. It's the same dynamic, but they had good possession for sure. I don't think we really shifted or worked the man advantage as well as we could.”
2. Unacceptable effort leaves Frank Yallop furious in San Jose: Chivas USA returned to southern California with its first victory of the season after Mariano Trujillo's late header gave the Red-and-White a 3-2 victory over the Earthquakes on Saturday afternoon.
San Jose scored first through Chris Wondolowski after 16 minutes and should have perked up after a poor start, but the response never arrived. Alejandro Moreno gave the lively visitors a deserved equalizer on the stroke of halftime before substitute Trujillo secured the deserved three points five minutes before time.
The result left the Earthquakes with just two points from four home games and prompted Yallop to question the gumption of his charges.
“I’m a little bit lost for words to be honest,” Yallop told reporters after the match. “I was not happy from the opening whistle. I didn’t see commitment or fight from anyone. We will have to take a hard look at the team and make some decisions for next week. We need to come out with more energy. One thing that I always want to see is fight and that wasn’t there today.”
3. How will FCD cope without Ferreira?: Schellas Hyndman's side rallied to snatch all three points at Empire Field without Ferreira, but the future isn't nearly as bright if the FCD schemer is indeed sidelined for several months after surgery. Ferreira's absence will likely force Hyndman to deviate from his usual approach – some variant of a 4-4-2 designed to use the blazing speed on the flanks and the overlapping powers of the FCD fullbacks would make the most sense – and find some way to operate his side without a central attacking conduit. The changes may freshen up a FCD side still trying to find its footing, but it is tough to see the club repeated its MLS Cup run from a year ago without the influential Ferreira.
4. Sporting KC should appeal the impending one-match ban to Aurélien Collin: The combative French defender sparked a fracas by challenging New England goalkeeper Matt Reis on a corner kick in the 76th minute of the Revolution's 3-2 victory at Gillette Stadium. Several Revs players crowded Collin after he made contact with Reis as the duo challenged for a ball in the air. In the scrum, Sporting midfielder Birahim Diop pushed his hand into New England midfielder Benny Feilhaber's face. Feilhaber went to ground with some panache, but referee Edvin Jurisevic dismissed Collin with a straight red – he earned a yellow card in the first half – instead of Diop as he struggled to discern the guilty party.
Based on Collin's robust performance in central defense, Sporting should petition the league office to reverse Collin's ban. Mistaken identity is one of the few available justifications for overturning a mandatory one-match suspension, but a club spokesperson told the Kansas City Star on Sunday that Sporting had yet to decide whether to appeal the finding. The final outcome may rest on the contents of Jurisevic's match report (or not, depending on the contents), but it appears Sporting could mount a strong case to overturn the card based upon the clear and compelling video evidence that Collin wasn't the offending player.
5. Landon Donovan is doing just fine: Donovan may have missed Los Angeles' recent three-game road trip with a knee complaint, but his involvement in all three goals (two goals, one assist) and his overall performance in the Galaxy's 3-0 victory over Portland on Saturday night suggests he's feeling alright.
“He played well,” Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena told reporters after the match. “He’s obviously been out a little over two weeks. It was good to get him in for 65 minutes. I thought in the first half he played quite well. I think Landon should be scoring goals, so it’s good to get him on the board here and hopefully, there is more to come.”
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.