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Published: Sunday, March 16, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Clean it up, MLS; crack down on the persistent fouls degrading soccer

  • The Sounders' Clint Dempsey walks off the field following Saturday's game.

    Associated Press

    The Sounders' Clint Dempsey walks off the field following Saturday's game.

SEATTLE — Late in the first half of an eventual loss, Seattle Sounders star midfielder Clint Demspsey swung his right arm behind him and hit Toronto FC defender Mark Bloom in … let’s just call it a bad place.
Dempsey said he was trying to get Bloom’s arm off of his back and that the shot to the nether region was accidental, adding that he apologized to Bloom. And Bloom told the Toronto Sun, “I believe him, for now.”
But regardless of Dempsey’s intent in that moment, the incident points to a bigger issue facing Major League Soccer that was on display throughout Toronto’s 2-1 victory at CenturyLink Field. If Dempsey did hit Bloom intentionally, it’s inexcusable and he deserves a fine, which could be coming from the league’s disciplinary committee. At the same time, it also would be somewhat understandable if Dempsey did act out in frustration.
The Sounders were fouled 25 times in Saturday’s game, matching the dubious club record that was set all of seven day earlier in a season-opening win. Those 50 fouls are 20 more than the Sounders have committed, and they’re hardly a team that shies away from physical play.
Dempsey, one of the most skilled players in the league, was on the receiving end of more than his fair share of fouls, which has been the case ever since he joined the Sounders. To paraphrase an old Chris Rock joke, I’m not saying he should have hit Bloom, but I understand.
“I think everybody was getting frustrated. I think it was 21 fouls against us?” Dempsey said before being corrected on the total. “How many, 25? That’s 50 (in two games). From a fan’s perspective, that’s not fun to watch a game with that many stoppages. When you see it being stop, start, stop, start, foul, foul, foul, it’s definitely frustrating for everybody.”
As Dempsey notes, for the second consecutive week, the Sounders played a disjointed, start-and-stop game that was interrupted by far too many whistles. Major League Soccer has long been known as a physical league, but these past two games show that something has to be done to clean the game up at least a little. Since soccer, unlike basketball, has no limit on fouls a player can have, and unlike football, a lot of foul calls aren’t particularly punitive depending on where they happen on the field, it’s up to a referee to take control of a physical game early. The easiest way to do that is to give a yellow card or two to send a message, yet in this game neither team was carded in the first half despite 15-first half fouls from Toronto and six from Seattle.
“They’re calling the fouls, but maybe after two or three you’ve got to bring out the card,” said Sounders midfielder Brad Evans, who left the game early after being kicked in the calf. “... Clint’s getting crushed all the time.
“Bringing out the yellows would definitely change the complexion of the game a little bit, make it run a little bit more fluid, not as many fouls.”
And before we go further with this topic, let’s get one thing clear — persistent fouling isn’t why the Sounders lost Saturday. They lost because, as Sounders coach Sig Schmid put it, “we gave them two gifts.”
The Sounders let Jermain Defoe run free through the middle of their defense to give Toronto the lead in the 17th minute. Seven minutes later, Seattle fell behind 2-0 when Sounders midfielder Marco Pappa accidently played a backward pass right to Defoe, who put away his second goal in his first MLS game. And the Sounders lost because, despite playing much better in the second half and getting a goal from Dempsey, they weren’t able to get a second goal out of the many chances they created.
Even if we concede that physical play wasn’t the cause of Seattle’s loss, that doesn’t mean excessive fouling isn’t an issue the league needs to address. MLS is still a growing league trying to make up ground on America’s top sports leagues, and having a disjointed product is hardly the way to win over new fans. It’s also bad for the product if the best players are subjected to the hack-a-Clint strategy we’ve often seen since Dempsey signed with Seattle in August.
And this is hardly a new issue in MLS soccer. Remember the Sounders’ first big-money star, Freddie Ljungberg? He was the most frequently fouled player in the league in his first season. Signing big-name stars from top clubs in Europe is great for MLS — just look at what Defoe did in his first game since going from Tottenham to Toronto — but watching them get kicked and tripped for 90 minutes is not good for the league.
“For both teams, you want to get in a rhythm of play, you want to see the ball moving around, you want to see chances being created,” Dempsey said. “You don’t want to see a lot of stoppages and a lot of time going into people being down on the ground. ... At the end of the day that’s what comes with it, so you’ve just got to adapt.”
The league should figure out ways to limit the fouling, not just of stars but in general, and the best way to do so is to send a message early with a yellow card or two. Until that happens, however, the Sounders and every other team need to adjust, as Dempsey points out. While some of Toronto’s fouls did little but slow down the game, others did give Seattle free kicks in dangerous places, and none of those resulted in goals.
“We’re getting the fouls and we have good aerial threats, so we have to take advantage of those set pieces when we get them,” Evans said.
Goals off of set pieces are definitely are more productive response than retaliation. For the good of the league, however, figuring out a way to cut back on fouling is response that is needed most.
Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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