MLS players gone wild

STEVEN SANDOR, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:36 PM ET

Major League Soccer players are embarrassing themselves when it comes to their lack of discipline.

That’s the opinion of Piotr Nowak, the manager of the expansion Philadelphia Union. Nowak’s comments carry a lot of weight, he has won MLS Cups as both player and coach and spent three seasons on the staff of the U.S. national team. And, he’s a former Bundesliga star and captain of the Polish national side.

Nowak has seen a heck of a lot of MLS games in his life, and he isn’t seeing any improvement when it comes to players keeping their heads on straight.

Pre-season numbers only help Nowak’s argument. On Sunday, his Union team had three players red-carded in a dirty, chippy game against FC Dallas.

Toronto FC has had its share of ugly incidents in pre-season; on Saturday, Gabe Gala saw red in a pre-season tilt with the lower-division Charleston Battery; earlier, Nick Garcia lashed out at opponents and complained to the referee, and got a deserved sending off.

Then, Julian de Guzman unleashed a malicious, ill-advised tackle on New York Red Bulls star Juan Pablo Angel. Had that tackle been unleashed in the regular season, the suspension wouldn’t have been light. Red cards? In pre-season? Embarrassing.

MLS itself has taken notice of the dirty fouls and trash talking that are commonplace in the pre-season games and it is investigating.

“Certainly we do not want MLS to be characterized by frequent violent conduct or serious foul play,” said Nelson Rodriguez, the league’s executive vice-president of competition, technical and game operations. “We are examining whether the cards being issued this pre-season are an anomaly or a pattern that we need to address.”

Nowak said that MLS players have created a culture of dissent, where referees’ decisions aren’t respected, and that there’s a constant sense of frustration on the field and on the benches. He thinks it’s time that league commissioner Don Garber come down with an iron fist.

“Players are complaining for the sake of complaining,” he said. “It’s like kindergarten, little kids playing in the sandbox.”

Nowak said it’s not just players, but coaches and even equipment managers and trainers on the benches. It’s rare to see benches accept referees’ decisions and move on. Players know better in European leagues because suspensions for disrespecting referees are heavy.

Inter Milan manager Jose Mourinho was fined 40,000 euros and suspended three games in February for making gestures to the referee from the bench.

Nowak thinks MLS should adopt similar penalties. You would imagine that players and coaches would shut up quickly, if there were fines out there that would eat up almost half their annual salaries.

“This game is out of hand, it’s out of control,” lamented Nowak, who admitted he went to the referee after the FC Dallas debacle and asked if there were any of his own players that needed to be disciplined.

“At some of these games it’s like a freak show and a circus.”

Former Toronto FC coach John Carver, who resigned in 2009, was a prime example of a coach who didn’t set a disciplinary example for his players.

Not only did he have a history of suspensions and fines but he once went on a tirade about MLS offices distributing a DVD to referees that warned of his antics on the sideline. Of course, the problem was with the refs, not with Carver.

But TFC never reined in its vagabond coach.

Yes, referees make mistakes. And, as proven by basketball official Tim Donaghy and the German soccer gambling scandal, some are corrupt. But, until proven guilty, they have to be treated with respect, or the game breaks down. As Nowak said, players need to put their heads down and get on with things after bad calls; they can’t let the frustration build. They can’t let the games get out of hand. Discipline is a key part of being a soccer pro.

“Are the players playing the game or is the bench playing the game?” wondered Nowak out loud. “Is the bench calling the game for referees?”

Rodriguez needs to act after a pre-season filled with hatchet tackles and back-talk. He needs to have the power to suspend players in the season for the stuff that went on in the pre-season.

De Guzman should have no complaints about missing the first couple of TFC games for his attempt to injure Angel.

Toronto FC faces D.C. United Wednesday night in the pre-season Carolina Challenge Cup.

steven.sandor@sunmedia.ca


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