Editor's Note: Originally drafted by FC Dallas in the first round of the 2011 SuperDraft, Bobby Warshaw spent more than two years in Major League Soccer and currently plays for the Harrisburg City Islanders in USL. A former academic standout at Stanford University, he has also written for Deadspin.com and PennLive.com. His viewpoints do not necessarily represent that of the editorial staff of MLSsoccer.com.
On March 20 at Children's Mercy Park, 54 minutes into a nationally televised match on FS1, Michael Bradley got in Brad Davis’ face like the Sporting Kansas City midfielder had kicked the Bradley family dog. Players swarmed, fingers were pointed, accusations were leveled and the amateur lip-readers among us blushed a little bit.
Yet all the hubbub began after Davis made a perfectly legal play.
You can watch the sequence that led to the confrontation above, but here’s the gist: Toronto FC’s Benoit Cheyrou went down and stayed down after being sandwiched between Davis and Graham Zusi. Sporting’s Nuno Coelho collected the ball, and play slowed as both teams anticipated the ball being played out of bounds, presumably so Cheyrou could receive attention.
But referee Baldomero Toledo never blew his whistle, and Brad Davis took advantage, controlling a pass that Coelho may have intended for the sideline before playing Dom Dwyer in on goal. When the ball was finally cleared, Bradley and TFC took offense and all hell broke loose.
Fair or foul from Davis? What should a player do when an opponent goes to ground?
The rulebook says it’s the referee’s job to stop the game. If the referee doesn’t – and officials are only required to in the case of a head injury – the players should play on. Here it is, spelled out in the Laws of the Game:
- The referee stops the match if, in his opinion, a player is seriously injured and ensures that he is removed from the field of play. The referee allows play to continue until the ball is out of play if a player is, in his opinion, only slightly injured.
Davis played within the laws of the game, but did he violate the unwritten rules? Written rules get a you a whistle; unwritten rules get you a lonely dinner table. It’s clear Bradley believed his former US national team teammate ignored the latter.
Then again, not all unwritten rules are universally agreed upon or understood. Spit in someone’s face, and you’re blackballed. Seems pretty clear. But playing the ball out when there’s no guarantee your opponent isn’t pulling a fast one? It’s as hard for the guys on the field to distinguish as it is for you watching from home.
“I don’t know what’s right and wrong,” LA Galaxy forward and 15-year MLS veteran Mike Magee told me. “I’ve done both, where I’ve kicked out of bounds when I shouldn’t have and when I’ve kept playing when I shouldn’t have.”
Not exactly clear, is it? So much for my attempt to chisel this unwritten rule in stone.
“The ambiguity of the play is so important,” Portland Timbers defender Nat Borchers, a 13-year vet himself, explained. “There’s so many different factors. Who’s doing it? Who went down? What part of the field is he in? What kind of game is it?”
There’s no real consensus – it’s case-by-case for most – and therein lies the issue. Some players feel you should always play on, “especially if guys are flopping,” as one Eastern Conference midfielder put it. To others, there's no definitive rule; it depends on the specific situation. If it’s in the final third, for example, you can’t reasonably expect the attacking team to play the ball out. But if the game slows down, then you should probably knock it aside.
For a separate chunk of guys, respect comes into play. If you have bad blood or if your opponent has a history of ignoring the unwritten rules themselves, then you don’t owe them anything. If they’ve played fair in the past, you kick it out. Reciprocity matters. Old-fashioned playground rules apply.
Borchers put it more elegantly: “In this league, we all know each other. We are all aware of which guys are guys that are going down with a reason to go down and which guys go down just to go down. That goes into the decision to kick the ball out.”
No professional wants to play on when a peer is hurt or at risk, but how do you balance that responsibility when players go down in histrionics, only to pop up seconds later as if nothing happened? The only thing worse than playing on when you shouldn’t have is kicking it out, only to find out you’ve been duped.
Borchers and Magee both, independently, offered a straightforward solution: Leave the decision to the referee.
“The ref has to be the one to stop the game,” Borchers said. “Guys are competitive. You just want to play on. You don’t want to stop the game. It’s not on you to stop the game. It’s on the ref.”
“You want to win, it’s a chippy game. It should be the ref’s discretion,” Magee echoed. “If you leave it to the players, it’s always going to end bad.”
Sounds simple enough. After all, there’s no doubt players use the camaraderie of the profession to slow the tempo of the game or to stop a counter attack. From professional fouls to over-the-line trash-talking to playing on in the face of possible injury, as long as players need to win to keep their jobs, there will be gray areas – and plenty of posturing.
“I’ve never found myself ever actually caring,” Magee admitted. “I’ve probably shown it was the most important thing in the world. You want to stand up for your teammate. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.”
Smoke and mirrors is right. Logic and on-field ethics can go out the window when competitive adrenaline is running through the veins. Players lose sleep over winning and losing, not ambiguous mores. Ultimately, when deciding whether to kick it out or play on, I agree with Magee, a guy who’s seen a lot of soccer in his life:
“Karma’s got a funny way of working against teams.”