Early Issues for MLS

A little more than a month into the Major League Soccer season, and a few troubling themes have emerged for the league.  To be fair, it’s debatable whether these are themes, trends, or more symptoms of the way MLS is structured and organized.

It starts with the horrific injuries to talented attackers.  Two weeks ago, Seattle Sounder and speed merchant Steve Zakuani fell to a scissor tackle from Brain Mullan.  The tackle was late, clumsy, and had nearly no chance of getting the ball.  Zakuani’s ankle was broken and dislocated – he’s out for the season.

A few days later, the reigning league MVP, David Ferreira of FC Dallas was scythed down by Jonathan Leathers.  The tackle was late, clumsy, and had nearly no chance of getting the ball.  Ferreira suffered a broken ankle, likely out for the season.

Then last weekend Real Salt Lake’s best creative player, Javier Morales, was taken out by Marcos Mondani.  Clumsy, late, broken ankle.  Morales out for probably the season.  So that’s three MLS All-stars gone in a couple of weeks.

Don Garber and the MLS Disciplinary Committee responded swiftly with a 10-game suspension on Mullan.  Don’t know about Leathers and Mondani.  And it raised an interesting point:  if a player goes in stupidly and clumsily and injures the other players, are you justified in doling out a long suspension?  There’s certainly not much of a precedent in other leagues around the world.  But anyone who’s seen Gareth Bale or Stuart Holden taken out by violent tackles in England this season, or witnessed the destruction wrought by the likes of Mark Van Bommell or Gattuso in Italy might wonder if such a rule would cut down on cynical, dirty play…

Back to MLS, where we’ve also seen a bunch of draws the past few weeks, including three scoreless draws last Saturday.  Now I know that draws have their place, and everyone who knows soccer has seen some breathtaking draws, but the lack of scoring could become a problem if it persists.

As we’ve written before, one reason for this is MLS’s salary cap structure, which leads to lower wages for a lot of players.  The players’ association released the list of salaries a few days ago, and as usual there are young guys playing starters’ minutes earning 30,000-50,000 a year, going up against Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, and guys earning millions.

The theme is to pay your attackers (particularly your foreign attackers) well, and low-ball the young American midfielders and defenders.  With this kind of league structure, it’s a wonder there aren’t more horrific tackle injuiries. As one longtime blogger noted, tackling and ball-winning are skills.  Skills prized in other leagues, but not necessarily MLS, where teams rely (too much) on physicality and speed in defense.

 As an example, Michael Parkhurst was the MLS Defender of the Year AND won the leagues’ Fair Play award in the SAME YEAR. The best defender in the league played 28 games and was called for only NINE fouls. It wasn’t luck, it was skills. And where does he play now?

Parkhurst

Parkhurst, like so many MLS-ers good enough to earn a fair wage but not dynamic enough to demand that much room in an MLS salary-cap structure, plays in Scandinavia. It’s a long-term problem – one MLS will have to address at some point.  Because despite the recent growth and relative success of the league, most Americans won’t tune in for dour draws and lack of scoring with the best attacking players sitting injured on the bench.

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