April 2011, Featured

Latest Wave of Injuries Just MLS Growing Pains

Zakuani will return in time, and yes, the tackle was heinous, but it's not a sign of a broken system.

By Andrew Villegas

In America, we’re constantly splashed by images flying off the screen of men in plastic armor beating up other men in plastic armor. The two fight over an oblong ball that they throw from end to end, smashing, clothes-lining, up-ending each other in the process. They pay in bone breaks, brain-damage and constant injuries.

Is it any wonder then that MLS – trying desperately to capture the attention of a largely apathetic nation that follows American football fanatically – would follow suit?

This week’s physical and injurious play in MLS has some (me) wondering, in the United States, is soccer the beautiful game or the beat-me-up game?

This week saw Colorado Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan break the Seattle Sounders’ Steve Zakuani’s tibia and fibula, and MLS MVP David Ferreira had his ankle broken by Vancouver Whitecap Jonny Leathers. The league is renowned for hard tackling and physical play as much as for its long, searching balls (sometimes I feel as if I’m watching a punting contest or the world’s largest game of foot ping pong).

American sports are physical, and we like it that way. That's one reason we love hard-nosed players like Brian Urlacher so much.

Most guys who play the sport in America grew up watching other sports, namely American football. Most, me included, still do. And I’m guilty of the mindset it brings: I play physically. At the small-sided games I usually play in, boxing, shoving a player out in front of the face of goal is defensive prowess, and hard, standing tackles get respect and less-well-placed passes next time. It’s how many of us were raised in the sport.

But does MLS need to get the rough play under control, or is the physical nature of the league what’s keeping it from fading into obscurity? No one likes to see broken legs, but they do like to see hard tackles won cleanly, and it’s just a fact of the game that you can’t take the chance for the latter without the former happening occasionally.

In a technical document for U.S. youth soccer coaches revealed last week by U.S. Soccer, coaches are instructed to focus on attacking, fast passes and development of the technical side of the game. Indeed, in the “style of play” section, an increased focus is given to speed, agility and endurance as top-line takeaways. Strength and power in development remains a focus, but are there, the document says, to foster faster development of speed.

Now, coaches at the youth level aren’t going to promote aggressive, physical play. Indeed, arguably the best soccer players at every level are those most talented technically, and bringing American soccer youth in line with how the best sides in the world train tactically is a step away from the bone-crunching tackles we saw this week (coupled with a fair amount of acting-out from Mullan) toward a solid skill set method of training and playing.

Chalk it up to American exceptionalism or whatever you will, but for a long time, it seems, the MLS and American soccer in general has tried to make soccer more like other sports in America. Finally, we are seeing American soccer step toward the international way, which is no easy feat in any aspect of our culture.

It would be easy to say this weekend was a fluke: that injuries and physical play happen in all leagues around the world, and that’d be right. But, that ignores the precedent it sets. Other leagues around the world do have physical players, some downright even dirty, but they also have an abundance of technical skill. As long as America cannot grow the technical talent needed to play the game beautifully, overly aggressive physical play will vine up U.S. Soccer’s ranks, infiltrating it even to the top.

A few weeks ago I was playing defense in my indoor soccer league. One of the players on the other team was quite gifted technically, and he made short of work of dismantling our midfield and defense and had hung several goals on us already. On one play, the player took a touch with his left foot, rolled it toward me and made a deft move around me. Frustrated, I kicked out, somewhat at the ball, but mostly at his ankle. It was a spur of the moment reaction I had to the frustration I felt, and it was met with strong words from the other team, which I deserved. The player himself was gracious and accepted my apology after the game that I had not meant to attempt to injure him.

I’m an amateur, to be sure, but it’s human nature. When we’re frustrated, we act out. Same goes for others. Add money and attention, and you can see how things get out of control quickly if MLS does what it typically does, which is foster such play by allowing loose refereeing of most matches in favor of letting games flow. Depending on your point of view (which may change week to week and opponent to opponent) you may like or loathe this aspect of how U.S. Soccer Federation allows its referees to call the game.

All this is not to say that the characterization that MLS and American soccer gets as purely physical or purely aggressive is deserved, but the trap is set and it plays to American sensibilities: “If they hate the way we are, we may as well be that way.” If we can’t escape that thinking, we’re doomed to self-fulfilling that prophecy.

The fact is, the coincidental timing of two stars getting injured by ill-timed tackles may prove a point about MLS in many people’s eyes, but that point isn’t that MLS has a problem. The point is that as the league matures, these are the problems that happen and they should be met with an appropriate response from the league – red cards and suspension.

There are no easy answers for what comes next, but smashing, clothes-lining or upending the way the sport is played just as MLS starts to make some progress toward becoming the beautiful game surely isn’t it. This ain’t the NFL.

Andrew Villegas writes a weekly column about Major League Soccer for The Yanks Are Coming. You can reach him at andrew.villegas@gmail.com and you should follow him on Twitter at @ReporterAndrew

Andrew Villegas