By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Oct 4, 2017) US Soccer Players - Major League Soccer has a problem on its hands, one that may lead to a resolution without precedent in the modern history of top level professional sports in America. How the league handles the problem could have a major impact on the playoff race in both conferences. That's in addition to the league's reputation as a serious arbiter of the rules of the game.
On Saturday, FC Dallas played to a goalless draw against Orlando City in Florida. The match was a disappointment for two teams looking to grab points in the playoff races. Orlando left the field with more reason to feel as though they’d wasted an opportunity. The Lions were the ones playing at home in front of their usually raucous crowd, FC Dallas entered the game with only a modicum of momentum and a poor away record.
The problem MLS now has to deal with only came up later. Paul Tenorio of FourFourTwo reported on an error made by one of the teams. FC Dallas violated both FIFA and MLS rules with their player personnel choices.
Specifically, Dallas submitted a team sheet to the referee, made a change after submitting their starting lineup, then used the player removed from the starting lineup as a substitute later in the game. That's against the rules because allowing changes after a team sees an opponent's lineup would create an unfair advantage. By rule, any player removed from the lineup after the team sheets are submitted is not eligible to play and is further barred from the bench. The team making the change is reduced an available substitute for effectively substituting before kickoff.
In this situation, the player removed from the lineup was Michael Barrios. Tesho Akindele took his place as a starter, with Barrios coming on as an 84th minute substitute for Maxi Urruti. Though the MLS competition rules are not made public by the league, Tenorio confirmed that the rule is in the book given to teams before the start of the season. FC Dallas broke the rule, no equivocation.
The question before MLS is what to do about it. The simplest punishment is a match forfeiture, which would award Orlando a 3-0 victory. It doesn’t really need pointing out that such a decision would make significant waves in the playoff race. Three points would be massive for Orlando, who need to jump over several teams to make the playoffs. While losing a single point for FC Dallas wouldn’t be a big blow, the Western Conference playoff race is tight enough that the change in result could have an impact.
As far as anyone can tell, no team in MLS history has been punished with a retroactive forfeit. Despite wackiness of the early years of the league, when even fielding a full team was sometimes difficult, no result was changed because of a violation of the rules.
While allowing for the possibility that MLS competition minders ignored some small transgressions before the end of the shootout era, this means FC Dallas faces a historic penalty. It also means MLS must tread lightly with its decision. Throwing the book at FC Dallas for what seems like a small mistake might be seen as draconian. If they miss the playoffs by a point because the league nullified their result against Orlando, the punishment won’t seem commensurate with the mistake.
With that in mind, there's the problem of precedent. If the League decides to let FC Dallas slide with a slap on the wrist, it may embolden other teams to push the envelope on player eligibility rules, especially in crucial games late in the season, or when injuries and fatigue had dulled their capabilities. MLS is nothing if not slavishly devoted to matters of precedent. We’re all aware by now that Disciplinary Committee rulings for dangerous play, diving, and other infractions carry penalties that follow previously set patterns.
The smart money is on a lesser punishment for FC Dallas than the forfeit. It’s an issue of optics. While the average soccer wonk might understand a point coming off of the FC Dallas total and two more being added to Orlando City’s, the casual sports fan is less likely to follow. There’s no easy examples in other American sports to point to, especially in sports with as few games as soccer. With 34 games to determine playoff teams, handing Orlando a win while having to explain the rule could turn off fans.
MLS has always gone its own way on issues of rules and regulations. FIFA provides for some individual leeway to domestic leagues, and MLS happily takes it. It’s present in the player disciplinary precedents and in the way MLS handles internal player movement. There’s every reason to think this will be yet another example where the league decides that the best move is to use a light touch.
Rules matter. Discretion is fine, but MLS already suffers from a deficit of respect among many American soccer fans. If it’s not the referees, then it’s all the strange roster rules and the arcane alchemy it takes to put together a quality team. For a soccer competition that has trouble getting hardcore soccer fans through the door, worrying the casual sports fan seems like a distraction.
We can expect MLS to consider the optics, because MLS always does. There’s no easy answer to this issue and a guarantee that some side will be confused and angered by the decision. That's before even mentioning the responses from Orlando and Dallas.
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