This is a story I worked on through much of the MLS season, but the timing to run it was never quite right. I just updated a couple of figures and posted it here instead.
Early in the MLS season, a couple of league coaches were tired of hearing that their teams were playing a bit rough.
“If you want to avoid contact, I would suggest badminton or curling or chess maybe,” Philadelphia coach Peter Nowak told the Delaware County Daily Times.
“If you want me to bring a lot of ballerinas I will,” then-Toronto coach Preki told TSN.
But players and coaches can’t agree on whether MLS is a “physical” league. One reason for the lack of consensus: They’re not really sure what “physical” means or how “physical” play affects the game.
The stats give a mixed message: Fouls are down (33.8 per game in 2000, 22.0 per game this season), yet so is scoring (2.46 goals per game, far down from the 3 goal-per-game standard pre-2003 and below last year’s record low of 2.54).
The underlying question of physical play is whether anyone’s getting hurt. Yet the league’s most controversial play this season was an excessive celebration rather than a rash tackle. After a Red Bulls goal, Thierry Henry tried to kick the ball into the net again, injuring Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman’s knee in the process. That’s a fluke incident of reckless exuberance, not a nasty attempt to defend with brute force.
“I don’t know if I would classify it as ‘physical’ as much as I’d classify it as an athletic league,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said in a phone interview.
“I don’t know if I would say it was a physical league,” U.S. Soccer Director of Referee Development Paul Tamberino said in a phone interview. “The speed is faster than some leagues. It’s definitely not a dirty league that’s for darn sure. Just because of the speed of play, I think there’s more contact.”
Fans who spend their mornings and afternoons glued to global soccer may disagree that MLS is faster. But players have seen league newcomers struggle with the adjustment to the speed and contact.
“I would say that MLS is much more physical than most leagues in the world,” multi-team veteran Alecko Eskandarian said via online interview. “I don’t think I realized it until guys who had played overseas their whole lives come here and are like, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ If you are not up to par with your physicality and fitness, your skill is useless in MLS.”
“A lot of people come into this league and have a hard time adjusting to the physicality of it right away,” D.C. United midfielder Stephen King said. “The speed and the strength, it’s tough. The league’s getting better each year.”
Better, perhaps. But with so many big, strong guys racing around at top speed, the action can get ugly.
“Sometimes I think what often looks like effort is a bit clumsy,” said Los Angeles defender Gregg Berhalter, who has played in the Netherlands, England and Germany.
Not that the “physical” aspect of the game is all physical. The competitive spirit can make the game feistier.
“It’s inherent in North American athletics to challenge, to compete, to not back down,” MLS senior vice president Nelson Rodriguez said in a phone interview. “If all of that leads to a definition of ‘physical,’ then I would say that’s a fair moniker. If it’s supposed to suggest that there’s more fouls or less nuance, then I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that.”
And indeed, fouls have declined in MLS over the past decade. After climbing from 27.7 in 1996 to 33.8 in 2000, the number of fouls per game (both teams’ combined total) has declined, slowly at first and then rapidly: 28.4 in 2007, 24.9 in 2008, 23.0 in 2009. Yellow cards have also dropped from average of 4.09 per game in 2002 to 3.10 this year.
Is that decline a matter of players playing fairly or referees changing the way they call the game?
“I don’t think (referees) would’ve gotten worse at making calls,” retired defender Eddie Pope, now with the MLS Players Union, said in a phone interview. “Maybe players are fouling less because they feel they’re getting away with less.”
Even a candid commentator such as Galaxy coach Bruce Arena agrees: “I think fouls are controlled by referees and players, and over the years, the league has gotten better in both of those areas.”
Player-turned-exec-turned-broadcaster Alexi Lalas has seen an evolution.
“I think the refereeing has improved and what is an ‘MLS foul’ has become a little more clear and consistent,” Lalas said by e-mail. “I also think the continued parity, and maybe even the increased parity, means teams aren’t necessarily relying on fouling to keep up (the way some teams did in the Wild West days of MLS).”
Even in those days, Rodriguez said, the physicality was more speed than brawn.
“I think back when Lothar Matthaeus came,” Rodriguez said. “Matthaeus has just literally come off of playing in the Champions League. He found the pace of our game a bit unsettling – his words, not mine.”
And adjusting to MLS referees is an ongoing process for foreign players and Americans alike. Spanish refs are Spanish and English refs are English, but “American” refs aren’t so homogeneous.
“We’re the only league in the world that I know of that has such a diverse mixture of referees,” Tamberino said. ”In our country, they’re all American, but the backgrounds go from Polish-American, Croatian-American, African-American, Nigerian-American, Hispanic-American. They all bring a different flavor to the table. I think that’s why we get a different variety of decision-making in our game.”
From his position on the back line in MLS and World Cups, Pope didn’t see that much of a difference.
“If someone backed into me, whether it was a German player or someone from the Columbus Crew, I responded the same way,” Pope said. “And I got grabbed the same way.”
Berhalter can name at least one league that’s rougher and tougher than MLS.
“England’s First Division (now the Championship) was very tough, very physical,” Berhalter said. “It wasn’t much soccer involved at times, it was an up-and-down game with a lot of physical forwards.”
The league has seen a rash of concussions in recent years, forcing players such as Eskandarian, Bryan Namoff and Josh Gros to put their playing careers on hold. Yet Pope sees this trend as a result of greater awareness of concussions in sports, and many of those concussions are the results of simple accidents.
“You have a 50-50 ball with two guys trying to head it, and they head each other by accident,” Pope said. “We’re just now picking up on it a little bit more and taking care of the players, as the NFL and other sports are doing.”
The other question on physicality: Do attacking players get the freedom they need? Freddie Ljungberg, writing for ESPN before the season, didn’t think so: “Defenders are allowed to push and hold and get away with much more than I have ever experienced before.”
Schmid, Ljungberg’s coach at the time, sympathizes: “I think we need to do a better job of allowing the players who can bring creativity and dribbling ability into the game to allow them to show their craft and put that upon the game. There’s been times where I think the calls have not necessarily been made.”
Eskandarian concedes that teams are chasing results, not style points:
“It definitely makes some of the games painful to watch, but teams are out there fighting for points and their jobs, so they will do whatever is necessary to give their team the best chance to win.”
Scoring is indeed down in MLS. The league averaged more than three goals a game for six of its first seven years, then dropped into the high 2s from 2003 to 2008.
But “physical” play is only one of the factors in scoring. Coaches could be more conservative in their tactics. A league of enforced parity also has few 5-0 blowouts to pad the average, as in the English Premier League, which averaged 2.78 goals per game and is roughly matching that pace this season. The second-tier English Championship, which doesn’t have such a dominant group of top teams, averaged 2.58 goals last season.
Count Landon Donovan among those who isn’t complaining about his treatment on the field, even as a few new welts were visible in the Galaxy locker room after a game in Washington.
“I can handle it,” Donovan said with a wry smile.
That’s what a coach loves to hear from a player. Whether fans are as willing to be patient with the odd bit of clumsiness is something league officials, coaches and referees must always ask themselves.