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A More Beautiful Game: Can Soccer Eliminate Diving?

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MLS wants less diving and faking, but does the current approach work?

MLS: Playoffs-FC Dallas at Seattle Sounders Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

They’re some of the most frustrating scenes in soccer: players unjustly winning penalty kicks or getting another player booked by embellishing phantom contact. It’s frustrating unless it’s “your guy” who wins the penalty or gets an opponent into the referee’s book.

We’re quick to defend our player who is only “implementing some savvy gamesmanship.” But if we’re honest, we want a game free of this silliness. Sadly, dives — or its official moniker, simulation — are a part of the modern game. But does it have to be this way?

Governing bodies, like the English FA and FIFA, have attempted crackdowns, but those initiatives have yet to prove effective — you only need to watch a few minutes of play from a top league to see not much has changed. MLS, on the other hand, seems to be leading the charge to kick the diving habit. Maybe it’s the American spirit of innovation, like the old shoot-outs, or maybe MLS sees diving as a deterrent for new soccer fans?

MLS is tasked with selling the game to new viewers, even as the game continues to grow in this country. And it may be true that American fans new to soccer in the U.S. are less likely to embrace a game they see as silly or wimpy because grown men roll around on the ground faking injuries.

Have you ever tried to explain diving to a new or non-soccer fan? It’s like trying to teach Shakespeare to high school students. “No, wait, it’s hard to explain . . . but you’ll really like it. Give it a chance.” And I cringe when I watch a game with a soccer novice and broadcasters show six angles of slo-mo, highlighting eight inches of clear blue sky between a player’s trailing leg and a defender. It’s embarrassing.

The English and other soccer nations around the world don’t have this problem. Soccer is ingrained in the culture and isn’t losing attention because of simulation and embellishment. The locals understand diving in established soccer countries, even if they begrudge it.

So What is MLS Doing About It?

MLS started reviewing simulation in the 2012 season. The Disciplinary Committee (DisCo) reviews incidents in question. The five-man committee must come to a unanimous decision that the player is guilty of embellishment or simulation before fining or suspending a player. The committee is made up of three retired MLS players, a former MLS coach, and a former MLS referee. The current guidelines are as follows under point 7:

7. In obvious examples of simulation/embellishment: In the event a player engages in simulation and/or embellishment, he will be fined. However, if such act has a material impact in the match the player will then be suspended and fined. Those instances of simulation and/or embellishment which, by definition, have a material impact on the match are as follows:

  • Opposing player receives a red card (player will be suspended regardless of the Independent Panel Red Card review decision)
  • Opposing player receives a yellow card, provided the caution:

- Is the player’s second yellow card in the match

- Triggers the player’s yellow card accumulation threshold

  • Opposing Team is awarded a penalty kick (player will be suspended regardless of penalty kick conversion)

Take the latest culprits from last week’s game in Los Angeles. Jelle Van Damme received two yellow cards after two separate dives from Portland’s Diego Chara and David Guzman. Van Damme received his first yellow for dissent after arguing with the referee after Chara embellished contact. He was then cautioned and sent off for reaching in on Guzman. Both players’ embellishment is clear in the replays.

Whether you agree that Van Damme deserved a yellow for dissent in the first, or for breaking up play for the second card, we can agree that simulation influenced the decision of the referee in both incidents.

Despite the video evidence, DisCo decided that only Chara deserved punishment. He was fined an undisclosed amount but not banned since his farce role only led to the first yellow card and not the expulsion. The five-member DisCo didn’t arrive at a unanimous decision about the intent of Guzman’s actions, so he escaped without a fine or ban. As for Van Damme, he’ll still serve his suspension this weekend.

There appears to be a flaw in stamping out diving in MLS. The current consequences are not strong enough. Many players would take the risk of a game suspension and a fine. A one-game suspension is a small price to pay for conning the referee into giving a penalty kick, especially if it leads to the winning goal. With the current guidelines, the league has not done enough to remove the incentive to dive.

And what about Van Damme’s suspension? Whatever your feelings are about an imposing player like Van Damme, his suspension is harsh in light of the evidence. He should be on the field this weekend. Instead, Guzman and Chara are available to play this weekend while Van Damme is a spectator.

I realize I’m seeking perfect justice. And yes, judging a dive can be difficult and subjective. But if the league wants to curb diving, it needs harsher penalties for the guilty and restitution for the innocent.