It didn’t have to be this way.
It all started during last week’s MLS Playoff match between Toronto FC and New York City FC. Armando Cooper and David Villa had already had a few scuffly moments. Cooper had already been crumpled on the deck, hands over his eyes in the traditional “Oh dear God!!! It hurts! It huuuurts!!” routine that’s all-too common in modern football.
And so later in the game, it came to pass that Villa, the high-profile and exceedingly well-compensated Designated Player, decided he’d had quite enough of this Cooper fellow and that he deserved a swift kick in the hamstring.
It was an action less ambiguous in intent and execution than Paul Reubens giving critical feedback in a dark movie theater. It was less subtle than Donald Trump expressing attraction to a member of the opposite sex. There was enough space between the two players to park a small moped. There was no way you were swinging a kick at the other fellow without it being staggeringly blatant.
Villa didn’t seem to care. He just swung that leg anyway. The ball was a good yard away in a totally different direction. The referee was almost as close in another.
No card was given.
In most parts of the footballing world, we’d have all yelled at the telly, ranted about how ludicrous the decision was and spent three or four days discussing the controversy. Then it would be over and we’d move onto the next colossal bad call.
In most parts of the world, if the referee makes a call, no matter how incredulous, it’s final.
Not so in Major League Soccer.
Now, I’m actually an advocate of the concept of the MLS Disciplinary Committee. For those who don’t know, this is a panel that reviews egregious or controversial incidents (bad fouls, offensive slurs, blatant diving, etc) retrospectively and if they see fit, take further action. This could be the bumping of a yellow card to a red, an additional ban (like the one we saw when Nigel De Jong put Darlington Nagbe on the injury list for three hours) and so on.
Given the pace of the game and the difficulty referees already have with judging these incidents in a single moment, with no tools for review, the DisCo isn’t actually a bad idea. The bad idea is putting yourself in a very public, awkward position when your decisions don’t match what the masses anticipate.
What then, did the DisCo make of David Villa’s blatant, violent conduct?
By their own testimony, they unanimously agreed that the referee should have given a red card. What then, would Villa’s punishment be? As it turns out, nothing.
You see, his unnecessary, violent action didn’t meet the criteria for a suspension. It passed the “red card test”, however the referee did see it. For some reason, this apparently means that they can only give a suspension if they consider the act to have put the opposing player at risk of injury.
In fairness to the DisCo, it was a fairly crap kick. In stretching to reach Cooper, Villa didn’t quite get the solid contact he presumably intended, so his counterpart was in no danger of being significantly physically harmed by this poorly-executed whiff of an assault.
It seems that David Villa escaped punishment for being crap at kicking people.
Of course, that’s not the reaction that this has garnered. Almost as unanimously as the panel deciding that this was a red card offence, observers agree that this is a rather tepid excuse to avoid taking Marquee Attraction David Villa out of the most important game in NYCFC’s short history.
It certainly looks that way. I could be pragmatic and look back to see if they’ve made decisions that contradict this one (feel free if you have the time or inclination – I’d be curious to see the results) but it seems pretty clear to me:
If a guy that can kick a full-size football at 80+ mph, recklessly swings for your leg with full intent of making contact, he’s not just putting you at risk of being injured, he’s doing so knowingly. The fact that he didn’t get enough purchase on the attempt shouldn’t be grounds for a full reprieve.
By having this very public retroactive system that’s somewhat unique to your league and not punishing such a blatant act, you put a target on your back and provide heavy artillery to those seeking ammunition against you.
If this was as it appears, a contrived decision to keep a high-profile player in a big game, then shame on you. That’s an insult to the game and an embarrassment to each and every one of us that supports your league.
If this somehow was a by-the-book decision, made on specific criteria that has been used consistently since the Disciplinary Committee formed, then you need to revisit those rules. Any such system that acknowledges that one guy brazenly kicked another, agreeing in the process that it was a clear sending-off but leaves the perpetrator unpunished on a technicality, is conclusively failing in it’s job.