Sunday, April 24, 2011

On Mullan And The Rapids Being Thugs

My standard game review is coming tomorrow, but i wanted to get my comments on what happened to Steve Zakuani down before MLS makes its ruling. This is a long post, so settle in. Anyone who watched the game or any other MLS game this weekend has heard (or seen) what happened. In the 3rd minute Brian Mullan went in two-footed on Steve Zakuani and got his leg, breaking the tibia and fibula (both lower leg bones). He was rightfully red carded and Zakuani was taken to Rose Medical Center where he had successful surgery on his leg. He'll be able to travel home to Seattle in a few days.

Let me get this out first. Mullan was completely in the wrong, he made a tackle that has no business being in the game, and he should be heavily fined and face a long suspension.

Not surprisingly this has led to two days of extended discussions on BigSoccer about the deserved punishment, Mullan's rep, and if this was a result of the long history of the Rapids being thugs. There are many people saying that Mullan should be suspended for a great length of time. They're talking about Mullan being suspended for the rest of the year, for as long as Zakuani is injured, and there's even one idiot Sounders fan who's calling for MLS to fire Mullan and black ball him from the league (since the league controls all player contracts). All is this is knee-jerk overreaction crap.

Let's look at the history of some major fouls and suspensions in MLS;
  • Dema Kovalenko broke Brandon Pollard's leg in 1999 and Ronnie O'Brien's leg in 2002 (both Dallas players), both times he served a 1 game suspension if I remember correctly
  • Tyrone Marshall broke Kenny Cooper's leg in 2007 (Yeah, Dallas has been really unlucky with 3 broken legs), he got a 3 game suspension.
  • Rapids fans will remember Dario Sala (Dallas again!) going bonkers after we eliminated them from the playoffs in 2006, punching Jovan Kirovski in the back of the head and dropping Hunter Freeman with a punch to the jaw before Petke and Cannon corralled him. Sala was suspended 6 games.
  • Ricardo Clark kicked Carlos Ruiz (Yes, still Dallas) in the shoulder after Ruiz was on the ground from a foul and the whistle had been blown. He got a 9 game suspension, the longest in MLS history.
In another recent example from outside MLS Stoke City's Ryan Shawcross broke the leg of Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey earlier this year. Shawcross was given a 3 game suspension.

As you can see the idea of a season long (28 games) or until Zakuani returns (at least 28 games) suspension doesn't fit with the precedents set both by MLS and by other leagues. MLS and the EPL both gave 3 games for their most recent tackle that broke a leg. MLS gave 6 and 9 games for actions that took place off the ball in dead ball situations that had nothing to do with playing soccer.

There's also been a call to use this as a turning point for the league, to show how they are going to crack down on thuggish play. I understand that, and if MLS wants to do that I can understand. But that still doesn't justify a double-digit game suspension based on precedent. People point to the foul that Mullan didn't get called seconds before and the fact that he immediately went after Zakuani to show that this wasn't a soccer play, he was head-hunting. At the same time there have been Sounders fans who think he was frustrated by his poor play in losing the ball in that incident and was going to get the ball back recklessly, not head-hunting. Clearly his intent is difficult to determine. His post-game comments look bad in print but the video of him making them shows that he's remorseful for what happened. Obviously there are going to be a number of factors going in to the Disciplinary Committee's decision.

I think a suspension of 5-9 games, along with a large fine. is appropriate and I expect the Committee will end up in that area, maybe on the low side. Anything more than 9 games and the committee is saying a possible, but poorly executed, attempt to play the ball is worse that players starting fist fights and kicking players on the ground. At the same time this was a serious incident and rises above Kovalenko's 1 game and Marshall's 3 games.


The incident has once again brought to the forefront a debate that has taken place mainly this off-season. Is Colorado a dirty team and/or filled with thugs? The general BigSoccer belief is that they are. I think they're wrong.

Let's look at the starting eleven.
  • Matt Pickens - Normally goalkeepers aren't considered in the debate of dirty or thuggish teams, but MLS employs Matt Reis so I include Pickens. He has no reputation as a thuggish player.
  • Kosuke Kimura - Koz actually has a pretty clean rep for being a defender.
  • Marvell Wynne - His speed pretty much keeps him from needing to make any dirty plays.
  • Drew Moor - For a center back he has a remarkably low number of cards.
  • Anthony Wallace - He's too young to have any sort of rep, but so far he hasn't been dirty.
  • Jamie Smith - Certainly a hard player, but not thuggish
  • Omar Cummings - The next dirty play he makes will be his first.
That's 7 of our starting eleven with essentially no rep as thugs or dirty players. The other 4 are definitely more in question.
  • Jeff Larentowicz - As a defensive-minded midfielder he's had his share of cards and bad tackles. I don't think he's been dirty, but he's been on the edge and he's gone over it from time to time.
  • Brian Mullan - Before the Zakuani tackle he was a physical player that pushed the boundaries. He has a temper and that has gotten him in trouble int he past. The Zakuani tackle may push him into the thug category, but prior to that I wouldn't have labelled him as such.
  • Pablo Mastroeni - Certainly the most physical player on the team, perhaps in the league. His play has never been dirty but it certainly falls into the category of thuggish. Of course all defensive midfielders have some thuggishness in their game, it goes with their position.
  • Conor Casey - Probably the closest thing the Rapids have to a dirty player, but he still doesn't qualify. He's a physical player that will play like a thug if given the opportunity.
So that's somewhere between 2 and 4 players on the Rapids that could be considered thuggish. Of course I could name 2-4 players on a number of MLS teams that could be considered thuggish.
  • FSL - Borchers, Olave, and Kyle "I learned d-mid from Pablo" Beckerman
  • Dallas - Hernandez, Ihemelu, Shea (and last year they had Harris and Sala)
  • Chivas - Braun and Conrad
  • NY - Mendes and Richards
  • etc.
All MLS teams have a couple of physical players that push the limits. That's the nature of the league. So the Rapids can't be considered thuggish just because they have a couple of those players.

Let's look at the "thuggish" stats for the last few years, fouls, yellows, and reds:
  • 2010 - Next to last (15th) in fouls committed, 5th in yellows, 4 way tie for 11th in reds
  • 2009 - 11th in fouls committed, 9th in yellow cards, next to last (14th) in reds
  • 2008 - 10th in fouls committed, next to last (13th) in yellow cards, 4 way tie for 4th in reds
As we can see, the Rapids have been in the bottom half of the league in total fouls all 3 years, and the bottom half of the league in each card category 2 of the 3 years. Not the numbers you would expect from a "thuggish" team.

So why the belief that the Rapids are a thuggish team when a majority of the player reputations and the numbers don't back it up? I think its two things. First the Rapids aren't a "pretty" team, so they aren't watched on a regular basis by many neutrals. So when the Rapids play a physical game like MLS Cup, when everyone was watching, or has incidents like Brian Mullan's tackle, the reputation of Colorado gets set based on a couple of incidents instead of their whole body of work. Secondly two of the Rapids best known players are Conor Casey and Pablo Mastroeni, the two players who play the most thuggish soccer in the starting XI.

So when people think of the Rapids they think of two thuggish players, a physical MLS Cup game, and (now) Mullan's tackle. Those of us that watch the Rapids week in and week out know that its an unfair label to place on the team based on their whole body of work.

I will say that this season the Rapids have gotten more physical than in past year. I don't know if that's due to a change in the team mentality or just a temporary thing due to the number of injuries and new starters. This debate has been running since MLS Cup though, so clearly the play this season can't be the reason for the reputation, since it started prior to the season. I hope that this is a short-term thing but its something to keep an eye on this season.


Anonymous said...

2010 #1 Fouls commited - Conor Casey with 52 - you have a point with Hernandez & Harris (they are in the top 10) but none of the other "thuggish" players you list are in the top 10.
2009 #1 Fouls committed - Conor Casey with 62 (joining him in the top 10 is Larentowicz though with another team then). Again, only Harris on your list of other "thuggish" players is also on that list.

My point here is Rapids may have several non-thuggish players but if there are a few (Casey leading the list in fouls committed for several years!) it can be understandable why the perception is of a dirty team.

Jason Maxwell said...

True, that's why I listed Casey as the closest thing we had to a dirty player in our starting XI. I do think his (and Pablo's) play influences opinion of the team, overshadowing the relatively clean play of the rest of the squad.

Anonymous said...

A huge portion of Casey's fouls are due to his mouth not his play. Still forwards are not charged with making too many defensive plays, so there is really not too many reasons to foul. His ability to throw weight around in the box is why we love him, but it dose put his number of fouls in the thuggish category, especially for his position.

Rod Gallagher said...

Good analysis. I do believe that Conor and Pablo gives a reputation to the overall team. Unfortunately, I am afraid the reputation impacts the refs.

Schmicker said...

I have been waiting for your analysis for a while and think overall it is fair. Look, their is never going to be a punishment that fits the crime. Zakuani may never be the same physically. Mullan may never be the same emotionally (or hell, maybe it didn't effect him at all). It was a terrible terrible moment.

That being said, I think people are crazy if they think it is going to be a 10-game or season ending suspension for Mullan. You did the research and presented the case. It simply isn't going to happen.

I know you hate Sounders fans on Big Soccer - well, get ready to hate them even more because I know we will be insufferable(for the record, I hate Big Soccer because 50% of the people I find to be morons). Look on the bright side, the Rapids and its fans can continue to play with a chip on their shoulder - the same one that led them to the cup last year.

Greenie said...

While I enjoy the purpose and general message of this piece, I think it suffers from the key problem that it looks largely at broad statistics.

Fouls committed, cautions issued and ejections made do not necessarily define a thuggish or even physical player or team.

A hand ball is a foul, will be a caution if intentional and if done denying a goal scoring opportunity, will mean an ejection. Kicking the ball away in frustration will earn caution, as will delaying on a goal kick and removing a jersey celebrating a goal. Or even an ejection, for the intellectually challenged (Hassli).

Even among fouls that are issued for physical play, over the course of the game very few of them are truly "hard" fouls, let alone thuggish or malicious.

Players like Casey draw the majority of their fouls fighting for position in and around the box. He'll draw 1-2 fouls per game simply for "climbing the ladder" against a defender (who generally has a fistfull of his jersey).

I wouldn't argue someone calling Casey a "brute," but it's farcical to assess Casey or any other player to "thug" status based primarily on the number of fouls he commits.

The only statistics that matter in this discussion are the ones that aren't easily tracked, but are generally well known by reputation. How many players have been injured as a result of an individual's challenges? How many cautions and ejections has a player been issued for serious foul play? How many punches, shoves, stomps or kicks after the whistle has a player thrown?

Among all the players on the Rapids, only Pablo stands as a player who has a deserved reputation as being a hard man.

But the simple fact that so many fans will brand the Rapids as a whole to be a "dirty team" shows the ignorance that underlies everything. Prior to Friday's game had you asked the average fan who were the tough players you'd get Pablo and maybe Casey. Definitely not Mullan. Hell, the average fan probably wouldn't even have remembered that Mullan was on the team.

Of course, the real problem here is that you're responding to the opinions presented on BigSoccer. Time to kick the habit and get off the BS crack pipe.

Anonymous said...

Goon Soccer is promoted by anyone who diminish dirty thug goon players.
The MLS and the MLS refs do the same and the game suffers because its simple get rid of the goons and thug players and the game will improve allow or to justify dirty play just promotes goon play.

kylejacobritter said...

Oswaldo Alonso is a defensive mid and is not thuggish at all. He gets his fair amount of yellow cards, but it's for the positioning and time the foul occurs (i.e., stopping a break), not because he was in danger of snapping someone's tib-fib.