Many Orlando City fans have long held that there is an anti-Lions bias and this news isn’t going to change anyone’s mind to the contrary. The MLS Disciplinary Committee has announced — just a smidge over 24 hours before the Lions are set to host Toronto FC — that Orlando City captain Nani has been suspended for two matches for “unwanted physical contact with a match official.” He will miss Saturday’s match against Toronto and next weekend’s match at the New York Red Bulls.
The incident, which took place in second-half stoppage time in Orlando’s 1-0 win at D.C. United on Sunday, consisted of Nani pushing referee Alex Chilowicz between some D.C. players converging on teammate Andres Perea, who had just been fouled in the corner while trying to see out the final moments of the game.
The play was reviewed under MLS Disciplinary Committee Parameter No. 3, where the match officials see an incident, and do not issue a red card. Under Parameter No. 3, the MLS Disciplinary Committee shall issue either a one-match suspension on incidents in which PRO acknowledges an on-field Referee/Video Assistant Referee (VAR) error and the Committee is unanimous at red card and one match or the MLS Disciplinary Committee shall issue a two or more match suspension on incidents in which discipline warrants at least a two-match suspension.
The incident in question must be, in the unanimous opinion of the Committee from all available evidence: a clear and unequivocal red card; and egregious or repeat behavior in nature, and/or such that the MLS Disciplinary Committee must act to protect player safety or the integrity of the game; and/or clear and obvious simulation/embellishment.
(Note: Bold type is for emphasis)
The MLS Players Association strongly denounced the ruling via a Twitter post shortly after the suspension was announced:
Chilowicz issued nothing to Nani at first until he consulted Video Assistant Referee Guido Gonzales Jr. and then showed Nani a yellow card. Chilowicz did not opt to go to the monitor himself and must have been satisfied with Gonzales’ decision and/or input. The MLS Disciplinary Committee, in its infinite wisdom, has punished Nani beyond that yellow card and in a severe manner that undermines Chilowicz and his VAR’s adjudication of the match and egregiously oversteps in a matter that harmed no one and indeed was intended to do just the opposite.
This isn’t the first time the league’s “DisCo” has taken an Orlando City incident out of context and punished the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law. On Aug. 12, 2017, Kaká — another Orlando City captain — was issued a red card and suspended a game for playfully running his hands across the face of friend and former teammate and then-New York Red Bulls defender Aurelien Collin in order to de-escalate tensions between the two sides in a match at Red Bull Arena that Orlando lost, 3-1. The tactic worked and the two players were seen laughing and smiling but the card was shown anyway and the suspension given to one of the more gentlemanly players in the game’s history.
Orlando City opted not to appeal that red card ruling because of the unpredictability of what the MLS Disciplinary Committee might do. After all, a failed appeal can carry with it an additional game suspension if the appeal is deemed frivolous. A strong club statement issued that week by Orlando City stated (and, again, the emphasis is mine, denoted by bold text):
“...the Club will respect the decision made by the Video Assistant Referee, the Professional Referee Organization and Major League Soccer to avoid further unjustified consequences that may come from appealing the decision made on the field.”
Not to avoid further consequences or unjustified consequences, but to avoid further unjustified consequences. That was about as close as the club will likely ever get to just putting out an official statement that the decision flat out sucked.
In the years since Kaká’s suspension, there have been many incidents of much less friendly hands to an opponent’s face — in many cases against Orlando players — that have gone unpunished in any way. No red. No suspension. Not even a yellow card. Rules do change, and interpretations of them change, but that feels a bit like an intentional thing — and it seems to be further indication, and even implied admission, that Kaká was wrongly punished.
Further, we have seen in the past Adrian Heath — then Orlando City’s coach — and midfielder Antonio Nocerino each get suspended for stepping onto the pitch. This seemingly happens all the time now and is no longer punished in the same way. In fact, Heath stepped onto the pitch the week before playing at Orlando after taking the Minnesota job and wasn’t suspended, so that rule went away even though he was a repeat offender.
It’s no wonder Orlando fans have adopted the us-against-the-world mentality and become defensive against league decisions.
While it’s true that Nani shouldn’t have put his hands on a match official, a close, hard-fought game was winding down, tempers were flaring, and Nani was not attacking the referee or otherwise threatening him in any manner, but rather trying to put an official and himself between the two sides to keep them separated. At least this is how two analysts employed by Major League Soccer ruled it this week.
Charlie Davies: “There is NO WAY that this is a red card. There is no malice or violent conduct. He’s simply saying ‘hey, my man is hot, let me clear the room. Let me clear the air. I’m going to push the referee — just a little nudge — and get myself in between my hot teammate (and keep him) from making a bad decision.”
Andrew Wiebe: “You’re right Charlie, that’s what Nani does here and Alex Chilowicz is smart enough to see it. It’s great game management. He brings out the yellow card. He sends the message, ‘Don’t mess with me. I know what happened right there.’ But he doesn’t take the nuclear option.’”
D.C. United’s announcer said on the air what we all thought: that Nani was playing peacekeeper.
So, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s all three members of DisCo saying to an MLS referee, an MLS VAR, two MLS-employed analysts, and D.C. United’s announcer that none of them know what they’re talking about. In fact, Wiebe calls Chilowicz’s decision smart, whereas today the league basically called it dumb.
Let’s look at the criteria again. The incident in question must be:
- in the unanimous opinion of the Committee from all available evidence — OK, the vote was unanimous or there would be no suspension. All three members saw it the same way from the same video we all saw, or at least another video showing the same thing from a different angle (not that another angle is needed in this case...Nani’s facial expression, the push, and the referee are all clearly visible).
- a clear and unequivocal red card; and egregious or repeat behavior in nature — We’re already in the gray here. Is this a clear and unequivocal red card? Perhaps only by the strictest application of the exact letter of the law. Is it egregious behavior? No. Is it repeat behavior? Well...that’s probably where Nani doesn’t get any help, as he’s usually right on that edge.
- and/or such that the MLS Disciplinary Committee must act to protect player safety or the integrity of the game — There is no player safety issue, no referee safety issue, and certainly no need to protect the integrity of the game here.
- and/or clear and obvious simulation/embellishment — This one isn’t even applicable.
Given how the incident stacks up against the criteria, it’s no wonder that the MLSPA condemned this decision. The extra game is punitive in nature, likely stemming from an appeal we didn’t even know was happening. Washington Post writer Steven Goff reported the appeal earlier this evening.
Orlando City’s Nani being suspended two matches by MLS disciplinary committee for making contact with referee last Sunday in Washington, two sources tell me. Appeal was rejected. OCSC hosts Toronto on Saturday and visits Red Bulls next weekend.— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) May 21, 2021
It is an absolute garbage move to tack on a second game (sorry fellas, our hands are tied, it’s the rule!). MLS is trying to discourage frivolous appeals that teams know aren’t going to succeed, and that’s commendable and worthwhile, but this doesn’t fit that category in the slightest.
The bottom line is that Orlando will be without its captain and leading goal scorer for the next two games against conference opponents.
I am not here to tell you that the league has it out for Orlando. However, if the league did have an axe to grind against Orlando, it might look something like this at times. These two separate suspensions involving the team’s captain over the past few years are, to anyone with a lick of sense, the dumbest suspensions of all time. The fact that Kaká’s infraction often goes completely unpunished even when done with bad intent seems personal, as does the suspension that Heath endured and then got away with when it benefitted a team playing against Orlando City, even though he’d committed the infraction before and was therefore a repeat offender.
What it Means for Orlando City
The Lions will play Toronto FC without Nani, without their top two strikers, and perhaps without a right back that can impact the game in the attack. Someone will have to step up. The captain’s armband will likely go to Junior Urso or Mauricio Pereyra. Oscar Pareja will not use the suspension as an excuse. He’ll game plan around it. That might mean Silvester van der Water getting his first MLS start opposite Chris Mueller, or it could mean Alexander Alvarado steps into the gap left by Nani. It’s even possible that Matheus Aias could start up top with Tesho Akindele or Benji Michel could stay in the starting lineup. I expect a more defensive approach than what Orlando would normally play at home.
Whatever the shape or lineup looks like, we’ll find out Saturday night.