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How MLS Handles Similar Plays Differently Speaks Volumes

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It’s just more MLS bullshit, honestly.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Orlando City SC Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

No one is more sick and tired of both hearing and talking about officiating in Major League Soccer than I am. The problem is that MLS repeatedly doesn’t really give us any choice about that.

As someone who talks and writes about soccer in general and Orlando City in particular, me having to discuss officiating and disciplinary decisions has become commonplace. Fans around the league are sick of hearing it from us and, quite frankly, we’re sick of hearing it from ourselves, but if the talking points continue to pile up, we’re more or less required to talk about them.

Recent weeks have been quite interesting when it comes to such rulings. It’s no surprise that Dom Dwyer was sent off for his elbow against Josh Williams of Columbus. It was a violent elbow to the face that could have caused serious injury. It was also not a surprise that an additional game was tacked on to Dwyer’s suspension. I don’t really have a problem with that decision from the MLS Disciplinary Committee. Or at least I didn’t have a problem with it until Zlatan Ibrahimovic went completely unpunished for a similar play.

Ibrahimovic threw a similar elbow on former Orlando City fullback Mohamed El-Munir during El Trafico a week ago. Zlatan wasn’t sent off. He wasn’t even booked. And after subsequent review, he was merely given a “formal warning.”

Here are the two plays in question:

The similarities are certainly there for both plays. Both Ibrahimovic and Dwyer violently flashed their elbows trying to win aerial balls. Both made forcible contact with their opponent’s face.

There are also differences. Zlatan is a much larger man than El-Munir, while Dwyer is smaller than Williams. Another difference is that Williams scored a goal for Columbus over the weekend, while El-Munir is going to miss several weeks after sustaining a broken bone in his skull.

The only other difference between the two plays — aside from the fact that one player was punished two games and part of another while the other got off scot-free — is that Zlatan didn’t have his fist clenched, which apparently makes some kind of difference when an arm is swung by a professional soccer player. I’ve given it a go both ways and I assure you I can swing my elbow with just as much force with an open hand as with a fist.

Jeff Carlisle reported that PRO GM Howard Webb consulted with outside referees to get their opinion on the incident. This activity begs two different questions.

  1. Why? Why should people who are not contracted by MLS to rule on disciplinary matters be helping to decide what happens after an incident in an MLS game?
  2. Were these same outside referees consulted on Dwyer’s elbow?

As for the “cocked arm and open hand” argument, it’s, well, a cockamamie argument. It holds no water. The “meaning less force” part is garbage. I don’t have anything more scientific than my own experimentation but any difference in force is negligible. When you couple that with the fact that a 6-foot-5, 209-pound Zlatan elbowed a 5-foot-9, 154-pound fullback (as opposed to a 5-foot-9, 180-pound Dwyer elbowing a 6-foot-2, 192-pound center back), it holds even less water.

I don’t have a definitive answer to question No. 2 above, but I suspect no one outside the usual DisCo was consulted to weigh in on Dwyer’s offense. If my suspicions are correct (and, again, we don’t need outside people adjudicating our league), it illustrates the double-standard with which MLS applies rules. This is not news to us. We’ve seen Adrian Heath suspended for stepping onto the pitch while with Orlando City and then we’ve seen him get only a warning for doing the same thing a week before his Minnesota United team played at Orlando. Repeat offenders do not need warnings, so even if there was a rule change, Heath should have sat out that match against OCSC due to accumulated offenses.

We also recently saw Portland awarded seven (!) stoppage-time minutes in a game with maybe three and a half minutes total time wasted (including a goal and subs) in the second half last week. You’ll recall that Orlando’s Alex De John was kicked in the face in that match and Santiago Patino was elbowed in the face as well. James O’Connor brought up the incredible seven-minute stoppage-time total in his postgame comments after Sunday’s 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls — a match that saw several lengthy delays for obviously unhurt visiting players lying on the pitch for extended time in the second half. The five minutes given didn’t seem unduly unfair, but it certainly shows a disparity with what happened in Portland.

I get that Ibrahimovic is a marquee star who has played for some of the world’s largest teams. He brings eyes to the league that otherwise wouldn’t be looking at MLS, whereas a mere MLS-bred Designated Player of Dwyer’s caliber doesn’t. That doesn’t excuse the league for showing favoritism. It’s an absolute joke and the language given to Carlisle by Webb is a garbage piece of justification for a bad decision.

But Kaká was also a marquee star who had played for some of the world’s largest teams and he still had to serve a suspension for his playful face wash of his friend Aurelien Collin that was obviously, and quite visibly, not intended to injure or provoke a confrontation, but to alleviate and diffuse it. Just a single moment of common sense would have had that red card rescinded but MLS chose to go “letter of the law” on Orlando’s marquee star, while giving the most lenient benefit of the doubt to another — one who plays in big-market Los Angeles.

So, for you neutrals out there, maybe give Orlando City fans a bit of a break when they “whine” about officiating decisions. There’s a pattern here that’s undeniable. We’re not blaming the Lions’ overall record of wins and losses all on bad officiating, but we’d sure appreciate seeing a somewhat level playing field.

As for what Dwyer’s victim Williams thought of Zlatan skating on his elbow to El-Munir’s head: