In an effort to better protect players against dangerous tackles, MLS will take a harder stance against physical play this season, and, when necessary, impose greater penalties.
“We remain concerned about player safety and the frequent nature of certain challenges,” Nelson Rodriguez, MLS’s executive vice president of competition and game operations, told the Insider. “As a result, and as part of an overall disciplinary code, we’ll put players and clubs on notice that, if this continues, they will be met with a more active disciplinary body.”
That means the five-member disciplinary committee will penalize players for over-aggressive tackles — even if no injury is suffered and no yellow or red card issued.
In the past, injuries were usually the threshold for disciplininary action on plays not witnessed by the referee. Not anymore.
The aim, Rodriguez said, is to ensure “the man on the ball is better protected and less susceptible to rash challenges than in previous years.”
The league hopes stricter parameters will lead to changes in coaching tactics and decision-making by players. Essentially, MLS wants to promote modificiation in behavior.
“We need a recognition and acceptance that the [players, coaches and referees] are intertwined,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not just the referee.”
Last spring, three of the league’s most influential players — Seattle Sounders winger Steve Zakuani, FC Dallas central midfielder David Ferreira and Real Salt Lake playmaker Javier Morales -- were sidelined for long periods after suffering injuries caused by hard challenges. The disciplinary committee issued suspensions in the Zakuani and Morales incidents.
This winter the MLS board of governors, competition committee and technical committee “felt strongly” about a more proactive approach toward curbing unacceptable tackles, Rodriguez said.
The league, in turn, shared their thoughts with the players’ union.
“They expressed concern about it swinging too far” and excessively penalizing players, Rodriguez said, “but in the end, we are aligned with looking out for the well-being of our athletes.”
The disciplinary committee will continue to review all matches and incidents — clubs do not need to request reviews. As in past seasons, the commmittee has the power to take additional action against a player who receives a red card or commits an egregious or reckless act that isn’t witnessed by the referee.
In cases where a referee sees an incident and, in the committee’s unanimous opinion, should’ve taken action, MLS is more likely to hand out suspensions and fines this season.
Rodriguez supervises the committee but doesn’t vote. The group includes a former MLS coach, a former referee and three ex-players, one of whom is appointed by the players’ union. Their identities are not made public, Rodriguez said, in order to “prevent undue pressure” during the disciplinary process and harassment after a decision is rendered.
Officiating has also become a point of emphasis this year, and MLS is working with the U.S. and Canadian federations — which oversee referee identification and training — to improve the quality of performances. Details of the enhanced officiating programs are expected in the coming weeks.