Only three games for Rafa Marquez?
The Red Bulls DP has been banned by MLS, but does the punishment fit the crime?
Every time the MLS Disciplinary Committee makes a decision, it seems only to make life harder for itself.
The latest hullaballoo is over the committee's ruling to suspend New York Red Bulls midfielder Rafa Marquez for three games for breaking the collarbone of San Jose midfielder Shea Salinas. Late in the first half of the match, Marquez was marking Salinas on a corner kick, took him down with a tackle better suited to the NFL, and then lashed out with a kick for good measure.
"I think that the committee looked at the totality of the action," said Nelson Rodriguez, who in his role as MLS Executive Vice President of Competition and Game Operations, oversees the work of the Disciplinary Committee though doesn't have a vote on the five-member panel. "All of [these actions] were outside the course of the game and all of which demonstrated a blatant disregard for the safety of the opponent; from the tackle, to landing on the player, to the kick to the head, all of those actions are not normal soccer actions. They should not be part of a soccer game, and they're certainly not actions that we wish to have inside of MLS. So in reviewing the play, and reviewing all of it, that's where the decision came out to multiple games, and in this instance three [games]."
Salinas underwent surgery this past Wednesday and is expected to miss six to eight weeks. Marquez, meanwhile, will be on the shelf until the May 9 home game against Houston and will miss the Red Bulls' match against the Los Angeles Galaxy four days earlier. At that point, due to a previous suspension from 2011 that carried over into the current campaign, Marquez will have been suspended for more games this season (five) than he's actually played (four).
Invariably, the question that gets asked is: Was the decision fair and consistent?
That of course is in the eye of the beholder, and requires comparing the suspension to those made in the past. On that count, the committee has only created confusion where it was hoped there would be clarity. Were Marquez's actions as bad as those of Brian Mullan, who was given a 10-game suspension last year for breaking the leg of Seattle midfielder Steve Zakuani with a brutally reckless tackle? How does it compare to the four-game ban put upon then-Chivas midfielder Marcos Mondaini for breaking the ankle of Real Salt Lake midfielder Javier Morales? Or how about the fact that then-Vancouver defender Jonathan Leathers wasn't sanctioned at all for breaking the ankle of FC Dallas attacker and reigning league MVP David Ferreira?
When you compare Marquez's penalty to those prior events, it appears as if the Mondaini incident was the basis for the current decision. A play was made that resulted in a significant injury to an opponent, and the committee acted accordingly.
But from there things get complicated quickly. Mondaini's tackle was simply viewed as sloppy, albeit highly dangerous. Yet what Marquez did was clearly premeditated, and while no one can say for sure that he intended to injure Salinas, it's quite apparent he didn't care. Shouldn't that factor into the committee's calculus? It certainly did when it threw the proverbial book at Mullan.
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When Mullan was suspended last year, MLS said in a statement, "In making this decision, the Committee took several factors into account: the timing of the challenge, the location on the field, the moments immediately before the challenge where it is clear that Mullan is frustrated and the severity of Zakuani's injury."
Yet Rodriguez insists that such comparisons aren't so clear-cut.
"It's an inexact science," said Rodriguez. "There is not a formula that the committee or any disciplinary body can follow. You try to weigh the action, you try to weigh the result of the action, you try to weigh precedent or reputation of an individual. In certain instances it's hard to ignore if an injury took place. You mix that all up, you debate it as vigorously as you can and you land on a disciplinary decision."
But most troubling of all is the fact that Marquez's current ban is exactly the same as the one he received for throwing the ball at -- and hitting -- Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan and sparking a postgame melee during last year's playoffs. Digging deeper into that suspension, Marquez was banned for one game due to the red card he received, then given another two by the Disciplinary Committee.
The difference is that Marquez was not red-carded for injuring Salinas. In fact, it was not even deemed a foul by referee Ricardo Salazar, even though Rodriguez is of the belief that the incident was seen by the referee. He added that in calculating the length of the suspension, the committee tried to take into account the fact that Marquez was not ejected during the game.
"I understand at times the fans' or media or players' confusion or desire for 'consistency,' " he said. "But in the end, what the committee is trying to do is assist in ensuring player safety, preserve the integrity and reputation of the league, and also simultaneously educate players, coaches, and referees as to what are and are not the acceptable boundaries of behavior on our fields."
Laudable goals, all, but the fact that the total suspension is the same as the one handed down against Marquez last year practically screams that the Mexico international has gotten off lightly. Against Los Angeles, no player was injured. Against San Jose, the same can't be said.
Should Marquez have gotten the Mullan treatment? No, but a game or two more spent on the sideline by Marquez would have sent a stronger and clearer message.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.
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