Author's Note: Let me preface this entire blog post with the declaration that I love MLS. It's wild, weird, and crazy, but I absolute love it. There is one thing I hate about the league and this is it.
There lay Darlington Nagbe on the StubHub Center field screaming in agony. Victim of yet another Nigel de Jong hatchet job. As the Portland Timbers medical staff carried him off the field you could do nothing but think about all the countless times that he'd been hacked down in his career only to pop back up and carry on. Unfortunately this was the blow that finally got the deed done.
The 25-year-old midfielder is in his sixth season in MLS and is by far the most fouled player in the league during that time frame. Small and agile, Nagbe uses his deceptive movement and sharp dribbling skills to succeed in a league of predominant physicality. The only chance defenders have of him slowing down is by taking him out.
Nagbe isn't alone in this plight. A look at the most fouled players over the past five seasons quickly reveals a trend. Javier Morales, Lee Nguyen, and Nagbe are all skillful attacking midfielders who operate in tight spaces with their superb technical quality. When that quality is shown in a league like MLS where skillful players are few and far between, the inferior players have no choice but to use brute force, their only available weapon, to try and slow them down.
Much like Nigel de Jong has a reputation for being one of the dirtiest players in the world, MLS has developed a reputation for being a violent league. To their credit, they are trying their best to crackdown on bad tackles. However, the lines of what constitute a bad tackle by law are so blurred that the referees charged with this reform project are confused.
Years and years of established violent conduct cannot be washed away suddenly by reformation. It takes time, patience, and effort, but it can be done. The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one and MLS has finally done that.
Red cards are piling up at an alarming rate this season because the same brute force tackles keep happening and players aren't acclimating to the stiffer guidelines. Pundits and fans alike were questioning the referees over the amount of red cards being handed out before the Nigel de Jong incident. Even though only a measly yellow was issued for the brutal challenge, it should open everyone's eyes to the constant recklessness displayed throughout the league.
The drawback of the abnormal amount of red cards is that it ruins matches by making the playing field lopsided. To be upset about this is very nearsighted. Everyone that is involved with MLS and is passionate about it's on-field product must be willing to sacrifice in the short term to ensure the betterment of the game for the long term. Giving skillful players a fair chance on the field is the equivalent of giving a brilliant artist a blank canvas. Currently MLS is currently giving their artists coloring books and hoping they turn it into something worthy of the Louvre.
MLS is not a safe place for skilled players to ply their trade. They risk breaking bones, tearing ligaments, and possibly losing their livelihoods in a worst case scenario. Obviously money always talks, but any players who rely on their quickness or elusiveness should think twice about signing with MLS until the violent climate within the league is improved.
The league has built up this huge promotional idea of becoming one of the best in the world by 2022. To do this it must attract some of the best talent in the world. The league's number one priority must be to protect its most talented players to further the growth of the league as a whole.
Many leagues around the world have players like Nigel de Jong who make reckless challenges. The problem is that in MLS, the Nigel de Jong types vastly outnumber the Darlington Nagbe types and this results in a very unsafe playing field week in and week out. MLS is doing the right thing in giving out more red cards, it's up to them to remain consistent and persistent to ensure the safety of their skillful players no matter what type of outside criticism they receive.