The Other Side of The Pond

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Are Creative Players Doomed in MLS?

In the past few weeks Major League Soccer has seen some of its brightest stars fall victim to tragic injuries. I can’t recall ever seeing a league’s best players get hurt so brutally in such a short time span. With Javier Morales (MLS Best XI last year), Steve Zakuani (one of the best wingers in the league), and David Ferreira (MVP last year) all out for the season most likely the league has to ask itself some tough questions.

First, is MLS too physical? I would say the answer is that it is no more physical than the Premier League, or the English Championship. Players like Thierry Henry have come out and said that they don’t feel the league is any more physical than the Premier League. I tend to agree. I watch MLS and the Premier League more than any other soccer league and I don’t feel that there is a huge difference in the physicality of the players.

If MLS is not an excessively physical league than why all are these players getting hurt so viciously? Some have suggested a problem with the refereeing. The poor quality of MLS referees is well documented, I wrote an article about for this site, but I don’t see it as the cause of these injuries. The referees in all these cases made the right decision, giving straight red cards to Brian Mullan for his horror tackle on Steve Zakuani and to Marcos Mondaini for his two footed lunge on Javier Morales. There really isn’t much else the referee can do in this situation, both injuries occurred early in the game so it isn’t as though the official promoted a reckless atmosphere through not handling the game correctly. The David Ferreira situation is a different one, as the tackle from Jonathan Leathers was really only a foul and was called at such; the injury really occurred in how Ferreira planted his feet and fell on his ankle. To me, it is the only one of these injuries that can be called an accident.

So if the league is not overly physical, according to the players who have played in Europe, and if the referees called the games in question in a correct way we have to consider whether this rash of terrible injuries is just a horrible coincidence. All that needs to be looked at to know that this is not a coincidence is the type of players we are talking about. We aren’t seeing holding midfielders get hurt, we aren’t seeing defenders getting hurt or even forwards, these are all creative midfielders. While Zakuani is more of a traditional winger, it can certainly be argued that he is among the most creative and energetic players in MLS. Because of the common traits all the players share we cannot see their injuries as a coincidence, in fact I see it as the potential start of a trend that could hurt MLS. I am not implying that we are going to see players like Dwayne De Rosario or Landon Donovan get their legs broken in the coming weeks but I do think that creative players are going to be targeted in this league.

While I’m sure Mullan and Mondaini did not want to injure anyone I do know that they were fully intending to bring down Zakuani and Morales. MLS used to be comprised of hardworking, relatively unskilled players that relied on a physical game to have success. In the past few years we have seen more of an influx of creative, mercurial players like Morales and Ferreira. It is players like Andy Najar that are the future of this league not players like Brian Mullan. What we are seeing with these injuries is that creative players in this league, traditional number 10s, are going to be targeted by the remaining “blue-collar” players in the league. This is of course true in any league, but in MLS the number of gritty midfielders far outnumbers the number of creative sparkplugs.

We can only hope that as MLS continues to evolve we will see more creative players flock to the league so that we see less games with tackles flying in and passes being played backwards with no idea of attack. This can only happen if MLS starts to protect the few players they have who are capable of doing the extraordinary and bringing people to their feet. The way to do this is by showing players that diving in on ruthless tackles, especially on the league’s best players, will not be tolerated.

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