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Wednesday, October 25, 2006
League credibility stretched with Joseph's suspension

Frank Dell'Apa

MLS' decision to suspend New England midfielder Shalrie Joseph for Game 2 of the playoffs against Chicago raises questions about the league's credibility.

Referee Tim Weyland appeared to have correctly handled the incident between Joseph and Chicago's Ivan Guerrero, a clear play-on situation after Guerrero had grabbed Joseph from behind in the center circle. Joseph was able to free himself, using an elbow and forearm to do so, making a pass, with play continuing.

Guerrero went down on the play but did not appear to be injured. In fact, Weyland could have whistled the play at that point and might have even cautioned both players. But, acting in the spirit of the game, Weyland allowed play to continue.

This was a roughly played game and there were several dangerous clashes -- the Guerrero-Joseph incident was not among them. Again, Joseph could have been yellow-carded or, later, fined for having used his elbow and forearm. But these disciplinary actions would have been interpreted as symbolic, sending a message discouraging others from using elbows and forearms.

Weyland missed a couple of other much more damaging actions. The Revolution's Joe Franchino cleated C.J. Brown in a battle for the ball in the second half. And Brown took down the Revolution's Clint Dempsey from behind while Dempsey was attempting to shoot late in the game. Dempsey departed and went for X-rays on his right ankle.

But this is where the credibility issue comes up.

Franchino was going for the ball when he took down Brown. And Brown was making a last-gasp slide in an attempt to stop Dempsey. Both Franchino and Brown should have been sanctioned, but at least they were trying to gain possession of the ball.

Guerrero, however, was not playing the ball. In fact, in the Guerrero-Joseph clash, only Joseph was attempting to play soccer. Guerrero was obviously trying to provoke a situation; he was not trying to play the ball, and he was not in a position to stop Joseph from doing so. If Guerrero had tried such an action in England, where he performed for Coventry City, he might not have gotten off easily.

This is a fundamental failing of the MLS, and there has been evidence of it since the league started.

Referees and committees must realize that no player has the right to go through another to win the ball. The game is about playing the ball, not the man. Plenty of roughness and violence results from players going for the ball. It is when players forget the ball and simply try to take out the opposition that the trouble escalates. Sometimes this is through a gratuitous bump or a subtle clipping of the heels, but that is all it takes to make the victimized player feel justifiably paranoid. Sometimes this contact is out in the open, as the clash initiated by Guerrero was.

If you have ever played soccer at any decent level, you realize very quickly that coming up from behind on a competent player can be risky. A few years ago, Steve Ralston, playing for Tampa Bay, caught up to Dallas' Ariel Graziani from behind and received a wicked elbow to the face. Graziani received a suspension from the disciplinary committee but there was a question about the decision, considering the fact that Ralston was technically trying to go through Graziani to the ball. Ralston has not tried such a move since then, his instincts of self-preservation kicking in. And Graziani is still using his body to clear space and being paid good money to do so for Liga Deportiva Universitaria in Quito.

The Graziani elbow to Ralston looked bad, and you got the feeling MLS wanted simply to discourage anything that looked that bad. But the Joseph elbow and forearm to Guerrero was comparatively a comedy sketch. Joseph can take care of himself on the field, and if he wanted to do some damage, surely he could. Joseph himself has twice sustained a broken nose from elbows and was playing this game with a protective cast on his right hand because of finger tendon damage.

The point is, refereeing decisions should benefit the player in possession. The performer playing anti-soccer -- holding, attempting to go through the player in possession, initiating contact without the intention of playing the ball -- should not receive that same benefit.

In the Guerrero-Joseph incident, either both players should be sanctioned or neither should be sanctioned. And the referee, who was in perfect position to make the call and followed this reasoning, should not have his authority undermined by being overruled.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.

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