By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 18, 2012) US Soccer Players -- On Saturday, Rafa Marquez made the balance of a soccer game all but irrelevant. When the New York Red Bulls defender blatantly bear-hugged San Jose's Shea Salinas, rode the Quakes midfielder to the ground, and then kicked Salinas, that moment late in the first-half made it hard for people to talk about anything else.
Combine Marquez's display with Major League Soccer’s new policy of retroactive punishment, and the real story of the game would not be decided over 90 minutes. MLS set the scene, by virtue of a program meant to improve the quality of its on-field product, for Marquez to shift the spotlight away from the field altogether. A moment that didn't end with Marquez making an early exit or even getting booked becomes the story.
After the heinous kick, few thoughts were given to the tactical adjustments possible at halftime, or which impact sub might make a difference. The outcome of the game, the joy taken in watching a match play out (which is why we watch, last time I checked) was overwhelmed by a crashing wave of righteous indignation. Who cares who wins when there’s the looming punishment to discuss?
There has to be a punishment. Major League Soccer has already set a standard for taking action when the referee doesn't, and the Marquez incident requires a response. There will be discipline, no doubt. The discussion has already moved to what that discipline will be, rather than whether or not it will happen. MLS would look hypocritical if Marquez didn’t face serious sanctions. With a new era of draconian after-the-fact discipline upon us, precedents are flying everywhere.
Salinas may have decided for himself that there's no point in holding a grudge while he begins what could be as long as two months of recovery, but this season the League is far less likely to be as generous. Yet Salinas raises another point, telling the League's official site: "The two previous corner kicks, Marquez had done pretty much the same thing… wrapped his arms around me and kind of threw me to the side. No one had said anything to Marquez. I feel like if someone would have just said something to Marquez, like, ‘Hey, we’re watching you,’ maybe this could have been prevented.”
What the refs missed the League won't. The young season has already been marked by the number of retroactive decisions passed down by the MLS Disciplinary Committee. Each time a player is suspended for an infraction either missed or treated more lightly than the League believes necessary during the course of play, the news cycle churns out a flurry of opinion on the individual incidents, the policy as a whole, and the potential for it to ultimately succeed as a way to curb dangerous play.
That is, or should be, a difficult pill for League officials to swallow, never mind the damage it might do to the authority of the referees (such as it is).
What was different about Rafa’s transgression is that the started the cycle spinning before halftime. The Disciplinary Committee crackdown might be a good thing for the long term, but it makes for a messy viewing experience in the moment.
Actionable offenses are immediately subject for debate, effectively bringing interest in the on-field proceedings to a halt. In the aftermath of Marquez’s takedown-to-face kick, San Jose midfielder Marvin Chavez went in from behind on New York’s Roy Miller. In previous years, the ensuing controversy could be summed up as a question of whether Chavez deserved a card, and if so, which color said card should be. In 2012, the conversation has a new wrinkle: Should Chavez be retroactively suspended? If so, for how long?
Which, naturally, brings the in-game discussion back to Marquez, back to the MLS disciplinary campaign, and back to questions that are outside the scope of the game happening right there, right then. Major League Soccer’s business is soccer, not speculating on the actions of an inscrutable committee that won’t release a decision for another four days.
And the discussion continues. Each choice to crackdown on dirty play deemed detrimental to the game carries with it the broader message that what we're seeing isn't the end of events. Games are no longer a capsule, they're the start of a conversation. The Marquez incident started a conversation that overshadowed the rest of a game in progress. That's a clear message to the League, an opportunity to consider that broader message they're sending.
Major League Soccer became unwittingly complicit in the Marquez incident because the League has opened the can of worms on retroactive punishment. There are very good reasons that such a thing hasn’t been attempted before, and the depressing reality of Saturday is perhaps the most obvious so far. When it begins to become about the punishments, it can’t really be about the game.
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