Brian Mullan
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MLS ramps up crackdown on reckless challenges

NEW YORK – They’re called “points of emphasis,” and the Major League Soccer Disciplinary Committee is emphatic that it will uphold their enforcement.

For the first time in league history, MLS worked with the MLS Players Union and the MLS Technical Committee (comprising league coaches, the US and Canadian soccer federations and their referees) to highlight key areas to be addressed in 2011, from reckless tackles to offside calls.

To illustrate these points of emphasis, video presentations were made to all MLS referees, head coaches, technical staffs and players before the start of the regular season.

Thus, Colorado Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan had received ample warning of the consequences of tackles like the one he was responsible for, which fractured the leg of Seattle’s Steve Zakuani last weekend and earned Mullan an unprecedented nine-match ban.

“This type of tackle was specifically highlighted as a point of emphasis and one that we need to eradicate from our game for the exact fear of what’s been realized, which is a very serious injury,” MLS executive vice president of competition, technical and game operations Nelson Rodriguez told “None of this need be a surprise to anyone.”

The fact that the Mullan tackle fit the bill as one of these points of emphasis did factor into the MLS Disciplinary Committee’s final decision to suspend him for an additional nine matches.

“Given the context of the play – the third minute of the game, 65 yards away from goal the severity of the injury, the excessive force used in the challenge and the fact that there have been these existing points of emphasis for the year, all of those factors came together in leading the committee to its ultimate decision,” Rodriguez said.

WATCH: Mullan's reckless tackle on Zakuani

The Sounders found themselves on both sides of these points of emphasis during this early part of the season. Seattle midfielder Servando Carrasco was also issued a one-game suspension for his challenge on Chicago’s Patrick Nyarko, even though only a yellow card was issued to the Sounders rookie on the play.

“Seeing that it’s a clear point of emphasis and sensing it was time for there to be a reminder of the dangerous nature of those challenges, the Committee gave [Carrasco] a one-game suspension and a fine even though there was no injury on the play,” Rodriguez said.

“We’re working on it. Like any change and with any new initiative and process, there needs to be a period of adjustment.”

The Disciplinary Committee does not disclose the names of its five members but it consists of three former MLS players – one of whom is appointed by the MLS Players Union – one ex-professional referee, and one former professional head coach.

In the case of the Mullan tackle, the Committee did not interview either of the two players, but the decision for an additional nine-game suspension was unanimous and the injury suffered by Zakuani was taken into account.

“While the Committee took its time to deliberate, the decision did not take long,” Rodriguez said.

When it came to the challenge by Vancouver’s Jonathan Leathers on FC Dallas playmaker David Ferreira last weekend, which resulted in the league MVP fracturing his ankle and went unpunished on the field, the Committee was unanimous that the tackle was not deserving of a red card. That meant no action was taken.

Rodriguez pointed out that the responsibility of enforcing the points of emphasis falls not just on the Disciplinary Committee, but on referees to “get it right the first time,” players “to be mindful of their brethren’s safety” and coaches “to recognize habits of players … and work to coach them out of it.”

“The Disciplinary Committee will step in on those instances that are so egregious to try to administer punishment that will serve as deterrent to future dangerous behavior,” Rodriguez said.

If that message did not come across clearly enough to coaches and players during preseason, there’s little doubt that it has hit home by now.