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Best of 2011: Controversy of the Year: Mullan suspension

The editorial staff at MLSsoccer.com is looking back over the year with our Best of 2011 awards, running Dec. 19 through Jan. 2. Each day we'll hand out an award in a variety of categories culled from the storylines of MLS and US international players, including MLS Broadcaster Call of the Year, Gaffe of the Year and, via fan vote, the Moment of the Year.

In this installment new media editor Nick Firchau offers up a look at the Controversy of the Year, given to the 10-game suspension handed down to Colorado's Brian Mullan for his tackle on Steve Zakuani in April.

Of all the words written or spoken about Brian Mullan in 2011, perhaps no one summed both sides of our choice for Controversy of the Year better than longtime soccer writer Grahame Jones.

“Sifting through the tens of thousands of words that have been spoken and written about Brian Mullan over the past week or so, two conclusions are inescapable,” Jones wrote for the Los Angeles Times on April 30, eight days after Mullan snapped the leg of Seattle Sounders star Steve Zakuani with a rash tackle. “The first is that Mullan is not the devil that he is being made out to be.

“The second,” Jones continued, “is that he should retire right now from Major League Soccer.”

Yup, that about sums it up.

No matter what camp you chose in the aftermath of the Mullan-Zakuani incident, it was impossible to avoid the issue that hung over the league for a week in April. One of the league’s largest and most vociferous fanbases was absolutely livid, a five-time MLS Cup winner was reportedly seeking counseling about his actions and a talented rising star was done for the season in a split second.

There was no controversy that Mullan’s tackle deserved some sort of punishment, but that’s where most agreement ended. The April 28 article on MLSsoccer.com that revealed Mullan’s record-setting 10-game suspension (one for the red card, another nine piled on by the league’s Disciplinary Committee) was one of the most viewed articles on the site this year, and rife with fan comments either skewering Mullan for the tackle or blasting the committee being overzealous with its ruling.

It wasn’t difficult to predict that the fans would erupt almost immediately. What was a bit stunning, however, was how even those in the front office on both sides went public with their discontent over the ruling.

Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer took his shot in the Seattle Times, echoing what most Sounders fans wanted more than anything: justice.

"I think maybe a good answer is Mullan gets to play when Steve is back on the field," Hanauer told the paper.

The Rapids fired back within hours of the ruling, as former managing director Jeff Plush stated that while the club respected the committee’s decision, it strongly disagreed that Mullan “should be punished more severely than premeditated acts in our league’s history.”

In the end, Mullan didn’t appeal the committee’s ruling, and spent nearly two months on the sideline paying his penance. Both teams paid tribute to Zakuani in matches following the incident (Sounders fans’ “11” tribute during the next match was one of our nominees for Moment of the Year), and Zakuani is hoping for a return to the fold in Seattle next season.

The incident left a mess for both teams and their fans, trying to deal with a tricky set of emotions and the realization that there were simply no winners in this one.

“It is ironic that we are supporting Brian through this just as we obviously support Steve,” Rapids captain Pablo Mastroeni told MLSsoccer.com. “There are life implications on both sides of the line.”

2. Rafa’s antics – New York Red Bulls star Rafa Márquez had an interesting first full year in MLS, to put it mildly. He drew the ire of fans and at least some of his teammates when he called out his backline brethren after a 3-1 loss to Real Salt Lake in mid-September, and then found himself in the limelight again when he chucked a ball at Landon Donovan and nearly started a postgame melee against the LA Galaxy in the postseason. We can’t wait to see what comes next.

3. Suspensions for simulation – MLS cracked down on players taking a dive in 2011, and dished out a fine and one-game suspension to two notorious floppers: D.C. United’s Charlie Davies and Real Salt Lake’s Álvaro Saborío. The league certainly didn’t catch everyone in the act this year, but the move to retroactively hit the tape room and single out players was enough to make some fans’ blood boil.

WATCH: Discussing the Controversy of the Year