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Best way to protect MLS stars? Keep them honest

  • Freddie Ljungberg was called out for flopping by Philadelphia head coach Peter Nowak during a recent game.


    Freddie Ljungberg was called out for flopping by Philadelphia head coach Peter Nowak during a recent game.

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By John Boyle
Herald Writer
  • Freddie Ljungberg was called out for flopping by Philadelphia head coach Peter Nowak during a recent game.


    Freddie Ljungberg was called out for flopping by Philadelphia head coach Peter Nowak during a recent game.

More than two weeks after Seattle Sounders FC's season opener, Freddie Ljungberg is still playing through pain, the result of a vicious knee to the back in a season opening win over Philadelphia.
And with every training session Ljungberg winces through, Union coach Peter Nowak looks more and more ridiculous for his postgame comments when he called Ljungberg out for embellishing on what turned out to be a very real foul.
When one of the league's top players is hurt on a senseless foul in the middle of the field, it's not just bad for Seattle, but for a league still trying to establish itself in a country that has long rejected soccer as a mainstream sport.
“We as a league need to decide what kind of league we're going to be,” Sounders FC general manager Adrian Hanauer said a few days after the season opener. “Then we need to communicate that to U.S. Soccer and referees and the world, so that if we're going to protect attacking, creative play, we do that. And if we want to be a league of thugs and knee-high tackles and knees in the back, then tell us all that and we'll cut the players that are the creative, attacking ones and go sign a bunch of thugs.”
That's not what Hanauer wants to do, and it's highly unlikely you'll see Hanauer and Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid getting rid of players like Ljungberg and Fredy Montero anytime soon to replace them with enforcers, but he makes a good point.
But here's the problem. How does Major League Soccer, or any soccer league for that matter, go about keeping star players safe and protecting an attractive version of the game?
You want the league to start cracking down on dangerous tackles such as the one that ended Ljungberg's night early? More cards, heftier fines? Well OK, but that's where we run into another problem. Despite picking a very dumb example when he singled out Ljungberg, Nowak had a point, however poorly he argued it.
There is too much embellishment in the game. There are way too many players who spend time writhing around in pain as if, to borrow a phrase used by Nowak, they have been shot. And in most cases, the guilty parties are the same star players we worry about protecting.
If offensive players want to be protected on the field, they first need to stop embellishing, stop taking dives, and stop doing things that make life nearly impossible for referees. As it stands now, refs sometimes have a hard time differentiating between hard fouls and non-contact, because either can lead to a player rolling around on the ground for two minutes holding his ankle as if it's broken.
The game is simply too fast for officials to get every call right, and the job only becomes more difficult when you have a healthy dose of theatrics mixed in with sport.
“It's frustrating as a defender,” said Sounders FC center back Tyrone Marshall. “A lot of guys get calls that they shouldn't, and it's tough because that takes away from your game, you can't be aggressive. Any little touch they're going to fall, so that changes how you defend.”
Aside from the lack of goal scoring, players taking dives is the most common argument anti-soccer Americans use to discredit the game. It's not uncommon to hear non-soccer fan dismiss the game by saying — and with good reason — “If you saw a football player rolling around on the ground like that, it would be a season ending injury, but that guy is back up and playing.”
And the way the rules stand now, it's hard to blame players for trying to bait refs into a call. Yes players can be given yellow cards for simulation, but that is such a difficult call to make at full speed and isn't often called. Quite frankly, it's worth the risk to take a dive in the box if it could lead to a game-changing penalty kick.
That's exactly what happened when Houston beat Real Salt Lake last week on a pair of penalty kicks, the second of which was questionable at best. That evening, ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas — a defender in his playing days — defended Houston's Luis Landin for embellishing on that second foul, saying he might as well go down because it is “Part of the game everywhere in the world.”
But why does it have to be? Why can't Major League Soccer, a league behind the rest of the world in a lot of areas, become a front runner on a quest to remove this ugliness from the beautiful game?
Sure players like Montero, Donovan and Landin might risk a yellow card now if it means a penalty kick, but what if they knew big brother was watching? What if every play of every game was up for review in the days following the game, and that cards and fines could be issues after the fact? Would those players be just as willing to take dives if they knew a letter from the league might be coming to inform them of a fine and a card? Doubt it.
Already the league can review hard fouls that resulted in cards to see if a fine is warranted. The next step is allowing league officials to punish players who get away with diving or embellishing.
And here's another crazy idea. If you end up rolling around on the ground for more than, let's say 30 seconds, that means you're hurt. You're out of the game for five minutes to recover. If the player is really hurt, he'll either need a sub or some time to deal with the injury, and if he's not, well consider it a penalty box for being a wimp.
Major League Soccer would be wise to keep its star players safe. That starts, however, by letting those same players know that they're on notice. Stop the diving, then you'll be protected.
Herald Writer John Boyle:

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