MLS player 50/50 tactics too harsh

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

To whom it may concern,

I’m writing to express my strong disapproval of the tactics used by MLS players when competing for 50/50 balls in the air and defending set pieces i.e. striking players in the head with arms, and defenders holding players. These tactics were both on display this weekend in the two MLS games I watched, Portland vs. Houston and Colorado vs. RSL. I am a supporter of none of those teams, but support and enjoy MLS soccer.

I like that MLS is a physical league. I can accept pushing, pulling, grabbing, shirt tugging (within reason), and tough tackles. I can even accept that fouling to stop counterattacks, stalling free kicks, and wasting time at the end of games are parts of the game. But I feel that the above tactics specifically, are disgraceful to the league and preventable.

In the matter of set piece defense, it’s common to see defensive players hug players around the waist, grab arms and shoulders, and then to use these grips to physically pull players away from the incoming ball. It’s not uncommon to see players pulled by the arm down to the ground, hugged from behind and pulled backward, pushed in the back and thrown forward, or simply held down from jumping.

In the Denver-RSL game, there was a set piece where one player had ahold of the other so strongly, that when the player tried to circle away, they spun around each other several times like they were doing a dosey-doe. Ridiculous. Again, I am for physicality, some pulling and pushing, some grabbing and such, but when the dominant tactics for MLS defenders are tactics that have nothing to do with playing soccer and are specifically prohibited by the rules, then I think there is a problem. When I see that, I think “Look at the US play ‘soccer.’ This is MLS soccer apparently. This is MLS defending. Shame.”

Worse than the defense of set pieces, the prevalence of players getting hit in the head with the arms, sometimes elbows, concerns me. This is tricky, because in a physical league, players spread out their arms to create space, hold off players, and help them jump. It’s also difficult to assess intent, but it’s common for players fighting for balls on the ground to swing their arms upward and behind or around toward opposing players’ heads. Additionally, it is common for players’ arms, and particularly elbows, to strike opposing players’ heads when contesting 50/50 headers. Regardless of intent, they are a problem.

In Portland vs. Houston, this was featured when Diego Valeri contested a header and was elbowed. His face was lacerated, his eye immediately swelled and he had to leave the game. I’m sure he required stitches, and I hope his concussion evaluation is negative. Elbows to the head are dangerous. The league has begun taking head injuries seriously this season, immediately stopping and evaluating players. I applaud this, but it seems lacking when elbowing other players in the head seems to be how the game is played.

Intent is hard to assign, but to this fan, many of these elbows seem intentional. Either retaliatory, or just the status quo tactic, I think intentional elbows are particularly problematic for MLS. They are dirty tactics. They are abhorrent to the concepts of sportsmanship and fair play yet they seem prevalent in MLS play. I will also say that the public has become more aware and concerned with the impacts and prevalence of concussions in professional sports and question seriously the impact of sports related youth concussions. MLS is a role model for soccer in America.

I believe that both of these tactics have become the status quo because they are effective and unenforced. And although these tactics will never disappear completely from MLS, I believe that enforcement of these violations will dramatically reduce the incidents. I understand that it will be difficult to enforce every violation, but an emphasis on enforcement will change the standard tactics used by players. I want these incidents to become the exception, not the norm.

If I were a blogger, I would write online posts about these tactics in MLS. I’d post on fan websites, asking the fans if this is how they want to see their players treated, if these are the tactics that they want to influence their teams’ losses. I’d make gif image of players being spun around, pulled to the ground, and pushed in the back so you could watch the violations in infinite repeated loops. I’d have a website where you could go to see clips of all of the week’s elbow-to-the-head action, with all the past weeks’ archived, and nice zoomed in close-ups of players with bloody faces, and a running list of the players who’ve received concussions. I’d start a Facebook page with a funny name about MLS defenders lacking the necessary skill to defend and having to use illegal tactics to prevent goals and how it’s a joke. I’d tweet about it, and record web videos about it on Youtube.

But I’m not a blogger, so I hope this voice and message becomes one of a chorus of disapproving message for these tactics in MLS play.

FanPosts only represent the opinions of the poster, not of Sounder at Heart.

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