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April 06, 2016

Painting the town red: Union's Curtin and Carroll on rash of MLS ejections

Soccer Union
040616_Redcard_PSP Earl Gardner/Philly Soccer Page

There have already been 16 red cards in 42 MLS games this season -- which is five-year high.

Warren Creavalle lunged at Razvan Cocis from behind and missed the ball, coming down instead on the midfielder's left leg.

What most viewers thought was a second yellow card, was instead a straight red and ejection for the Union's spark plug in the center of the field.

It caused a momentum swing that probably cost the Union at least a point in Chicago. Just prior to the sending-off, Philadelphia had the Fire pushed back in their own half and even struck the crossbar through a long-range Ilsinho blast.

"It's difficult, and it's usually ugly soccer. It (has to be) careful. You want your stars on the field, but at the same time you're sacrificing the big picture quality of play for the other 19 guys that are out there, I guess."

Instead, Philly came home with zero points, and manager Jim Curtin found himself in agreeance with the red card.

"When you watch it back again, a general comment would be that it's become a little too easy to get kicked out of games," Curtin began. "But in this instance I think it was deserved. (It was) unnecessary, and we've talked with Warren about it. Obviously, when he was on a yellow, we talked about him not leaving his feet. And in that moment it was difficult, because we started the second half really well. We pressed and had them pinned in. For the entirety of the three minutes before the red card, they were literally in their half and they were scrambling a bit. That obviously changes the game. But Warren knows it was a play where he lost a bit of discipline."

Union midfielder Brian Carroll was about 10 feet away from the play. In the heat of the moment, he originally saw a red card challenge.

"That's what it looked like to me, as far as how it played out (on the field)," the captain said. "I think, after seeing it (on replay), it should be two yellow cards. It's the same result, but just a technicality I guess. It's hard. Warren's natural instinct is to go for the ball and (Cocis) tries to shield the ball by sticking his leg out. It was an unfortunate situation for us. It's something that's happened for us, and now against us, and it's just something that you need to be aware of."

Creavalle's red card was the 16th in Major League Soccer through 42 games, which is a five-year high. There were four this weekend, including game-changing ejections for Felipe Martins and Matias Laba. In Colorado, Toronto midfielder Benoit Cheyrou received a second yellow when he went up for an aerial challenge and connected with what can only be described as an inadvertent elbow.

It was a point of emphasis this offseason to cut down on violent conduct in an effort to boost player safety.

The genesis of that probably goes back to 2011, when a three-week series of appalling tackles resulted in season-ending injuries to star attacking players.

On April 22nd, 2011, Steve Zakuani's career was forever changed by the most abhorrent of challenges from Brian Mullan. The MLS veteran left the ground with venom and force and snapped Zakuani's leg, keeping the winger out for 15 months. Zakuani did return, but was never the same, and retired at the age of 26. Mullan was suspended for 10 games and fined $5,000.

Two days after that incident, Dallas midfielder David Ferreira was tackled from behind by Vancouver center back Jonathan Leathers and went down awkwardly on a turf surface. Ferreira broke his ankle and didn't return until 14 months later. Leathers' tackle seemed to lack malice, but was poor in technique and shouldn't have been attempted in the first place.

Then, two weeks after that incident, Real Salt Lake's Javier Morales was brought down from behind by Chivas USA forward Marcos Mondaini, fracturing his left tibia and fibula and further dislocating his ankle in the process. Mondaini was suspended four games and fined $1,500. Morales returned four months later.

When three of the best and brightest attacking stars went down hurt, everybody knew that something had to change. MLS began to err on the side of caution, and slowly started to clamp down on tackles that had previously been borderline punishable. Yellow cards became red cards. Red cards became multi-game suspensions. The shift in disciplinary culture was apparent.

The issue is whether or not the league overcorrected with these new guidelines. Seattle coach Sigi Schmid says referees are "probably not" finding the right balance between protecting players and preserving the integrity of the game. Bruce Arena and Carl Robinson say there are "too many" red cards in the game. Will Johnson questioned the pattern of ejections in a rare Twitter appearance. Kendall Waston referenced "barbies" in his dissent.

A former defender Curtin seems to agree with what most coaches and players have said.

"I mean, you see this in other sports," said Curtin of promoting player safety. "It comes to mind with the NFL, with a lot of the rules they put in to protect the wide receivers. The rules will always favor the offense in all sports. There is a fine line though. You want your guys to still maintain, and be aggressive, and be physical, but the one thing that they've made a real issue of is when you leave your feet, and anything where the studs are showing.

"Again, I'll always argue that you can't slide in soccer and not have your studs show. It's really a gray area. But it's something that they're cracking down on, and something players and coaches will have to adjust to. I can't say I'm fully onboard. I think, when you start saying that we're going to referee differently from league to league, all over the world, then it's risky. It's an area where they're going to need to be consistent. To their credit, they have been consistent; they're just sending everybody off. I think for the fan though, they don't want to see games end with a team short-handed, especially the early (cards), where it's the 12th minute and teams are playing down a man for 70 or 80 minutes.

"It's difficult, and it's usually ugly soccer. It (has to be) careful. You want your stars on the field, but at the same time you're sacrificing the big picture quality of play for the other 19 guys that are out there, I guess."

Carroll has been around the league for awhile, and put in his share of tackles. He thinks that the move to the other end of the disciplinary spectrum is "a little bit over the top", but understands the reason for the changes.

"There's definitely a concerted effort to have more of the attacking soccer come out and sort of protect some of the marquee attacking forwards," Carroll explained. "But overall (it's about) player safety. They've said it, they've demonstrated it, and the rules apply to everybody. So, everyone has to adjust accordingly."

One problem is the watchful eye of the MLS Disciplinary Committee, which operates with anonymity and no real accountability. Each week, referees have their decisions scrutinized and/or trumped by a group of five people who hand out ridiculous decisions like suspending a player for cutting across the field to celebrate with his team.

So don't be surprised when Mark Geiger or Ted Unkel flash a questionable red card. They've been instructed to do that, and if they get it wrong, they have a bogus tribunal lording over them to correct their mistakes.

"I think, in general, every part of the game is getting ramped up to another level," Carroll added. "Players, coaches, referees - everyone is walking that fine line on how to do their job the best way they possibly can, while getting it correct. We're humans. It's natural. We're not always going to get it perfect, but everyone's trying to improve and I think this is just the product of that."