Penalize the goons
The U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame announcements this week went as expected, with three icons of American soccer earning bids. Watching Tab Ramos, John Harkes and Marcelo Balboa be honored, they looked as if they hadn't aged a bit and could take still take the field today.
It was a nice thought until I remembered how Ramos' career ended. The diminutive winger who could terrorize opponents with his fearlessness and lightning first step had his career cut short by the brutality that was, and still is, MLS defending. If there ever was a poster boy for what could happen to a skillful player if defenders were allowed to chop away, Tab was it.
It might not seem like a time to dwell on such a sad aspect of Ramos' glorious career, but after a week that saw Freddy Adu manhandled and Youri Djorkaeff pummeled for trying to be creative, there doesn't seem to be a better time to address the fact that defenders get away with murder as they stifle the type of attractive, creative soccer that fans are craving.
No player suffered more from the back-line butcher than Ramos, who spent more time in the injured list than on the field during his seven seasons with the MetroStars. Watching him play, when he was healthy, was equal parts entertaining and frightening. You never knew when he might put a move on somebody but you also never knew when some unskilled or overzealous defender might decide to take him out.
You couldn't help but think of Ramos while watching last week's D.C. United-Columbus Crew match. Freddy Adu tried on several occasions to make something happen, to be the entertainer MLS needs him to be. Instead of being able to run and create, Adu spent more time on the ground.
You could find a similar scene at the MetroStars-Kansas City game. Djorkaeff made his Metros debut and on two occasions he faced two defenders with the ball at his feet. On both occasions Djorkaeff attempted to split the defenders with a clever move. Both times, Djorkaeff was flattened. Both times, referee Kevin Stott ignored the foul and continued play. Apparently nobody told Djorkaeff that if he's fouled by two defenders then play continues.
To be fair to Major League Soccer, things aren't as bad as they once were. In the league's formative years, defenders fouled attacking players at will, often times without even drawing a whistle. Referees blow the whistle these days, but do little more to discourage defenders from intentionally taking down offensive minded players. The creation of the persistent infringement yellow basically let defenders know that they could get away with a reasonable number of fouls before having to face a card.
The problem is that most of the league's referees would rather avoid issuing tone-setting yellow cards to dissuade sloppy defending. Unfortunately, the few who might pull out an early card fall into the 'card happy' category. There is no happy medium. The sad thing is that it seems as if players are more likely to be carded for dissent than for delivering a dangerous tackle. Is it just the case of goons taking over the game? Not really. The scary part is that the relaxed approach to fouling has even turned some of the league's best attacking players into fouling machines. Can you blame them? If you get taken down enough times, after a while you realize that fouling isn't exactly punished.
Are we asking for yellow cards for breathing on a skill player? No, but the most important thing should be the development of entertaining and attacking soccer. Fans want to see quality build-ups and goals. They want to see stars be stars. Other sports in this country have figured out long ago how to protect the creative. Whether it is calling stiff penalties for late hits on the quarterbacks and interfering with receivers in football, or calling hand-check fouls in the NBA to keep defenders from slowing down the league's stars, there are enough examples for MLS to follow.
What is the solution? Being more stern and consistent when it comes to issuing yellow cards for bad tackles would be a good start. Issuing red cards for blatant fouls, which happen way too often, wouldn't hurt either. Fines for bad tackles might also force defenders to think twice about a clumsy challenge.
Given the relative lack of depth in MLS, teams would have to eventually shy away from the hacking and preach more fundamentally sound defensive techniques. Doing these things would make the game more entertaining and could also cut down on injuries to the league's attacking players. Hopefully, it would also keep MLS fans from being cheated out of seeing greatness the way they were cheated out of seeing Tab Ramos work his magic.
Chicago Fire at MetroStars
Can you just see it now? Chris Armas and Jesse Marsch against Amado Guevara and Youri Djorkaeff in a battle for the ages? Sure, there will be 18 other players on the field but these four will determine the outcome of this match. If Andy Herron doesn't play (he missed last week's game with an ankle injury) the Fire will struggle to generate the necessary chances to keep the Metros honest. Bob Bradley wouldn't say whether Eddie Gaven is starting but if he does come back from finger surgery the Metros might have too many weapons for even Chicago's tough defense to handle.
MetroStars 2, Fire 1.
New England at D.C. United
These teams will look to pick up where they left off last year, when they settled the Eastern Conference title via penalty kicks. New England is rested off a bye week while D.C. has gotten past the brutal part of its schedule, which included CONCACAF Champions Cup matches. The key here will be the Revs forwards and how United's back-line holds up against them. Rookie central defender Bobby Boswell has done well since emerging as an undrafted rookie but D.C. hasn't faced an offense as loaded with stars as New England's. Throw in the fact that starting defender Brian Namoff is out with a broken rib and you have a match that could get ugly. One factor that could work in United's favor is the likelihood of sloppy field conditions at RFK Stadium.
Revolution 2, D.C. 1
Real Salt Lake at FC Dallas
This match would normally be written off as a blowout waiting to happen but the fact that Jason Kreis is returning to Dallas could make things interesting. Dallas has played a relatively weak schedule that has left its defense untested. You can bet Kreis will put some pressure on his former club. Eddie Johnson vs. Eddie Pope will be worth the price of admission but Richard Mulrooney's match-up with Clint Mathis in central midfield will be the key to whether this game gets ugly or not. Expect Carlos Ruiz to take advantage of the attention paid to Johnson and score at least one goal.
FC Dallas 2, Real Salt Lake 0.
Columbus Crew at Colorado Rapids
The Rapids have their fingers crossed that Haitian striker Jean-Philippe Peguero will return from an ankle injury because, after being shut out for the second straight week, they are desperate for some sort of attacking punch. The problem is that even if Peguero returns Colorado will struggle to generate chances against a stingy Columbus defense. The Crew might not have the midfield creativity to create chances for forwards Edson Buddle and Ante Razov, but Columbus can certainly shut down Colorado's punchless attack.
Columbus 1, Colorado 0.
CD Chivas at Los Angeles Galaxy
It is a bit of a shame that the first true derby in MLS history is very likely to be an ugly massacre. Chivas might be thinking about trying an all-out attack against Los Angeles but all that will do is expose its shaky defense and goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who has been truly dreadful in his rookie season. Landon Donovan should have a monster game as he looks to do a little better than the last time he played in front of Mexican fans. The question isn't whether the Galaxy will roll. The question is whether the few CD Chivas fans will ever return after watching their team routed in the first installment of this rivalry.
Galaxy 3, CD Chivas 1.
Kansas City Wizards at San Jose Earthquakes
Considering how bad both of these teams have been at holding leads and ties, could we see an intentional own goal to get things started? All jokes aside, both these teams have surely worked on eliminating the defensive lapses that have cost each of them precious points in the standings. The Wizards are too good to keep making these types of mistakes. Speedy forwards Josh Wolff and Davy Arnaud are going to give fits to an Earthquake back-line with some limitations that should be exposed. The small field at Spartan Stadium might help some but the Wizards should still hold the edge. That said, San Jose must be thinking that if Sergio Galvan Rey can net a pair of goals against the Wizards then Brian Ching and Dwayne DeRosario should be able to find the net. One of them should, but it won't be enough.
Wizards 2, Earthquakes 1.
Ives Galarcep covers soccer for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (NJ). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com