Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The mysterious injury dossiers of The Three

Hard to swallow.
I call Steve Zakuani, David Ferreira and Javier Morales The Three.

I'm sure nobody else does this, categorizes them in this way, but then I'm strange. They are three players on three different teams with a seemingly nominal connection. Injuries. But they are intertwined, these three creative midfielders, in a way that's intrigued me since all three went out with major injuries within a tight window last year. It often takes catastrophic events to focus attention on comparatively minute detail. A war that costs millions of lives to pare down the focus to a single madman. Marches, sit-ins and protests to change the wording of a law. Or in our case, an awful rash of injuries to retain focus on the simple idea that persistent infringement continues to haunt MLS.

This is topical because Zakuani just completed a successful reserve team stint against Gonzaga and appears closer than ever to returning to the pitch. Meanwhile, news reached us this week that Ferreira will require surgery in his right foot thanks to a completely unrelated injury he suffered against foul-happy Orlando. PI at its worst, though not against an MLS side. Morales is the only one of the three to have put that devastating month of 2011 behind him, though mentally, this isn't liable to leave somebody without the long passage of time.


On Friday, April 22, 2011, Zakuani's tibia and fibula were splintered in half. His leg resembled a limp sock holding in a handful of nails. The YouTube video, which I've showed to unsuspecting friends and acquaintances with some trepidation, haunts me still. There is the crack of spike on bone, the sheer terror in Zakuani's face, Kyle Martino's inability to comprehend the gravity of events and then Brian Mullan's shameful protest of the foul. In the same weekend, Ferreira's ankle snapped in two places in a game against Vancouver. Johnny Leathers escaped the foul call, but Ferreira writhed in pain and left the field only with assistance. Just weeks later, Marcos Mondaini cracked Morales' leg on a reckless challenge, breaking it and jerking Morales' foot violently askew. A period of weeks that changed the way I looked at harsh challenges in MLS, a physical league that briefly lost its head.

Of course, it's more than just these three. Brian Mullan, Marcos Mondaini and Johnny Leathers have each dealt with their tackles in their own ways. Mullan, the most vilified of the three, has fought off death threats. Mondaini served his suspension and dished out a fine, and Leathers has toiled in moderate obscurity.

What to make of these breaks? Three seemingly unrelated injuries in the vast vacuum of sports they are not.

In the NISOA by-laws, persistent infringement is explained thusly:
“A player, coach, or bench personnel shall be cautioned for persistent infringement of the rules of the game.” NCAA states that: “A player shall be cautioned by the Referee if the player persistently infringes upon any of the rules of the game.”
MLS defines it similarly. It is a rule with a checkered history in a league that struggles with refereeing consistency still. Poor bedfellows, those facts make. A number of years ago, MLS took a stab at transparency by opening up MLS referees for postgame Q&A meetings with local officials. If the media couldn't get in words with the game official, at least he could be of use to referees on lower tiers. But with notoriously media-shy refs opened up for direct questioning for the first time, the results were not always beneficial for the league's image. An MLS referee after a particular DC United game was questioned on persistent infringement. The topic at hand was Fred, who'd been whistled six times for fouls that day. The referee's reply was sickening in its frankness:
"I don't keep track of the number of fouls during the match. Too many other things to keep track of."
Even if this referee was an outlier — and sample size stretching even to this season suggests he is not — it was a shocking statement.

In 2010, the last year Morales and Ferreira put in full seasons, Morales was fouled 76 times, many of those intentional. At 84, Ferreira's number was even higher. Had Zakuani developed into the threat many expected, his legs would've been hacked at with similar intention. Every preseason, MLS shows each team a video that emphasizes a particular teaching point MLS brass have deemed topical that year. The video preceding the 2011 season featured a brief take-down of persistent infringement. Ironically, Javier Morales was the example in the video, shown being mugged by Philadelphia the year before without ever drawing a card.
"It's only a matter of time until one of those intentional fouls leads to a broken leg. Something needs to be done about that," Will Johnson told the Deseret News last year. "It's not a coincidence that's he's a guy in the video and now he's the guy with the broken leg."
The league is not haphazardly ignoring the problem. Indeed, with last year on the forefront, visions of broken ankles to the league's superstars played on the minds of Don Garber & Co. The following excerpt is from a article last August detailing the suspension of Alvaro Saborio, Morales' teammate, just months after the injury bug bit the league like a thirsty vampire.
(MLS director of communications Will) Kuhns was also quick to point out that the crackdown on diving is not without a counterpart on the opposite side. He noted MLS has also spotlighted persistent infringement by individual players, as well as clutching and grabbing by defenders on free kicks and corner kicks as points of emphasis.
“Part of this is that the referees need to protect the offensive players as well. You can't do one without the other, otherwise all you're doing is rewarding the physical defenders,” Kuhns said.
My worry is this: sport is a backlash arena. As Zakuani's injury goes from life threatening to career threatening to season threatening to a fading nuisance, I fear this issue will disappear onto the backburner again, replaced by the league's next great problem. Be that further expansion, the push for more SSS's or whatever else. PI has settled on MLS like a plague since its early days, drifting in and out of the national consciousness as fouls warrant. It is no coincidence that three of the league's brightest stars were waylaid by miserably cynical challenges (that they were clustered so closely together was obviously not by design, but serves to drive in the point), and it is no coincidence that attention is being paid more to their recoveries — or, in Ferreira's unfortunate case, to his second surgery in as many years — than to the incidents that led them there.

Somebody needs to be championing this cause full time until the hit man ethos subsides to manageable proportions. I worry for Zakuani's return if it does not. Of course Mullan didn't intend to put Zakuani in intensive care. But then intentions are the paving stones to a place I'd rather never visit, if you get my drift. And one cannot deny that Mullan and his hard-charging ilk certainly intend to dispossess in the harshest terms possible. Whether or not he has a reputation as a dirty player (which he does not, in so many words) is beside the point.

This tugs at a yarn that would unravel a lot more than just PI infringements, but it has to start there. It is a purposely vague rule that allows referees to make judgement calls in the heat of battle. That's good. But if referees never pull the trigger, especially in cases like those Ferreira was forced to endure against Orlando City, when those players targeted his Achilles and ankle in the second game, what's the point? Ferreira's resulting injury is not related to the first in medical terms, but it certainly is its brother where the spirit of the law is concerned.

I do not suggest this to be an easy issue to address. If it were, MLS officials, most of whom are smarter than I, would have done so by now. But at the very least, it must be persistently addressed. See what I did there?

- Will Parchman


Jamie said...

Why did I watch the Injury video, the sound is absolutely horrendous.

Will Parchman said...

I still wonder how in the hell they picked up that crack on camera so vividly. It's just so impossibly loud.

Alex said...

I've never seen it and I refuse to watch it.