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Thursday, October 11, 2007
Clark's suspension far too harsh

Jeff Carlisle, ESPNsoccernet

When MLS commissioner Don Garber announced last week that Houston midfielder Ricardo Clark would be suspended for nine games and fined $10,000 for his violent kick of FC Dallas forward Carlos Ruiz, Garber clearly was making a statement. Such a heinous act will not be tolerated and will be met with the steepest of sanctions. Laudable as that goal is, the unintended consequence is that Clark's suspension raises as many questions as it answers.

The most contentious issue centers on the whether Clark's ban is too long. Clearly, what Clark did during that Sept. 30 match is better-suited for an Ultimate Fighting Championship match, not MLS. My first thought upon seeing it was that the U.S. international should find his favorite couch, the better to watch most or all of the playoffs in comfort. But nine games? If precedent is anything to go by, then Garber went too far.

Are we really supposed to believe that Clark's actions, deplorable as they were, somehow deserve a punishment that is 50 percent (or three games) worse than the six-game suspension Dallas goalkeeper Dario Sala received for punching Colorado's Hunter Freeman and Jovan Kirovski during last year's playoffs? And can the same be said regarding Chicago forward Andy Herron's altercation with a referee after the Fire's playoff loss to New England in 2005? And what of the typical two- to three-game bans handed out for leg-breaking tackles like the one Tyrone Marshall delivered on Dallas forward Kenny Cooper earlier this season?

Placed in that context, I just can't see how Clark's actions rise to the level of nine games. Six would have sufficed. And the irony is that on this point, the opposing coach agrees. FC Dallas head coach Steve Morrow said he was "surprised" at the length of the ban, and he indicated that Ruiz himself was reluctant to see Clark punished that harshly (attempts to reach both Ruiz and Clark for this story proved unsuccessful).

So how did Garber arrive at his magic number? In talking to people around MLS, the Sala incident did play a role in Garber's thinking, but not in terms of precedent. Rather, some players and coaches complained during the offseason that Sala's punishment was too lenient. Other incidents across the globe played a part, as well, including the six-month ban handed to Valencia's David Navarro for punching and breaking the nose of Inter Milan defender Nicolas Burdisso during a Champions League match in March.

The visceral reaction that the episode sparked also had an impact. Apparently, various members of the soccer community, including past and present players, communicated to Garber that they felt the event was the worst case of on-field violence they'd ever seen, the sense being that kicking a player, literally, while he's down and unprotected is well beyond the pale.

The images are terrible, to be sure, and do plenty to sully the image of the game. But in my book, a confrontation that results in injury is worse. Case in point was Herron's well-aimed elbow at New England defender Jay Heaps that occurred on April 23. That earned Herron, now with Columbus, a four-match ban while giving Heaps a concussion. As violent and brutal as the Clark/Ruiz episode was, neither player was injured.

But while Clark's moment of madness and the length of his ban have received most of the attention, the other question surrounds the relative slap on the wrist Ruiz has received. The Dallas forward is currently serving a two-game suspension, but one of those was for accumulation of yellow cards. His role in the incident, in which he kneed Clark in the back to spark the melee and then writhed on the ground clutching his face after Clark kicked him in the shoulder, saw him draw only the customary one-game suspension for a red card.

Given Ruiz's long and inglorious history of off-the-ball shenanigans, my impulse is to slap him with an additional multi-game ban. However, the evidence for such a suspension is largely circumstantial. Ruiz's knee to the back earned him a red card for violent conduct, which seems to speak volumes about his intent, while Clark's reaction and reputation as a heretofore solid citizen hasn't seemed to count for much.

But the question that emerges is this: Would a player not named Carlos Ruiz be slapped with an additional ban under identical circumstances? Probably not, and much like a defendant whose prior bad acts can't be brought up at trial, word is that MLS was loath to take Ruiz's reputation into consideration. Add in the lack of corroborating evidence, on video or otherwise, and the league's reluctance to penalize Ruiz further is more understandable.

As for Ruiz's apparent instigation, since no advantage was gained in the form of caution or ejection, this is really a nonstarter, despite the ridiculous scene on display.

That the logic of MLS will trump the perception of Ruiz seems unlikely, especially since it is near certain the two teams will face each other in the opening round of the playoffs. As it stands now, Ruiz and his Cheshire-cat grin will be lining up in the center circle for the opener on Oct. 27, while Clark will be watching from the stands. Advantage Dallas.

Of course, Clark has himself to blame for this. The general rule that the one who retaliates gets the tougher punishment applies to soccer fields as well as school yards. Yet the fact that the instigator in this mess has emerged from the incident relatively unscathed smacks of inequity. At minimum it will make for an interesting set of refereeing assignments come playoff time.

There is also the issue of what will happen to the unlucky player who next runs afoul of Garber and the disciplinary committee. The implication is that the ante will be upped the next time some on-field fracas erupts. Will the league follow through, especially if a marquee name or two is involved? By dropping the hammer in this case, Garber has backed himself into a corner and left himself little wiggle room.

As for what will happen with Clark's appeal, the fact that the same person who meted out his original punishment -- Garber -- will be hearing his appeal doesn't bode well. But I suspect that Clark will have both his suspension and his fine reduced, but not enough to stop him from taking an early vacation. Meanwhile, Ruiz will be in uniform, once his brief stint in purgatory is completed. One player will have gotten exactly what he deserved while the perception of many will be that the other didn't. One gets the feeling that this story isn't over yet.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.




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