Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has stated that MLS has a goal to become ‘one of the top leagues in the world.' Lofty ambitions, no doubt, but when over 55,000 fans turn up to watch the Seattle Sounders play host to the Vancouver Whitecaps, as they did this past weekend, the commissioner might just be on to something.
Supporters will only turn out in those numbers if the product on the field entertains them. While Sounders fans had reason to celebrate on the day – their team claimed a precious 2-0 win over their Cascadia rival – Whitecaps fans had reason to grumble about the circumstances leading up to the game on Saturday.
Vancouver's recently signed designated player, Barry Robson, was charged with ‘aggravated dissent' for striking a ball at the referee's assistant towards the end of his team's 2-0 defeat to FC Dallas three days prior. While there is little debate to be had over the legitimacy of Robson's suspension – his behaviour warranted a suspension – there is plenty to say about the timing of the decision.
The Whitecaps were informed that they would be without the services of Robson on Friday evening, less than 24 hours before their game against Seattle. The fans, on the other hand, were not informed of the suspension until the morning of the game.
MLS Executive Vice President Nelson Rodriguez, who oversees the league's Disciplinary Committee, released this statement on Saturday morning:
“Vancouver was made aware that the incident was under review on Thursday morning. All of the gathered evidence was only available to the Disciplinary Committee as of mid-day on Friday. Logistical and personal issues kept the Committee from convening in its normal manner, which unfortunately delayed the final decision.
Though Vancouver was informed of the suspension yesterday (Friday) evening, the Whitecaps were kept apprised of the situation and the possibility of a suspension throughout the process.
We intend to work with the MLS Players Union to see if an expedited process can be agreed upon in similar circumstances in the future.”
The points raised by Rodriguez are all legitimate ones. The league must do its due diligence when investigating incidents before reaching a decision regarding suspension. However, MLS lowers its credibility when those decisions are rendered within hours of a team's next competitive fixture.
Here is a suggestion for MLS that will alleviate the angst of teams and their supporters – make suspensions effective seven days after the offence.
This allows the league the time needed to overcome logistical issues while at the same time gives teams – and importantly, the fans - the knowledge that there is a clearly defined disciplinary protocol in place.
One of the biggest obstacles that MLS has to overcome is the notion that the league makes its rules up as it goes along. This perception was underlined recently, when the league announced its new playoff tie-breaking rules, where goals scored will be the first tie-breaker. The announcement drew criticism because supporters were informed of the change mid-season, rather than before the season got underway, which is when the teams learned of the change.
There are numerous obscure rules and protocols in MLS – such as allocation money - that are kept from fans and media. The league's disciplinary process should not be one of them. If MLS is ever to fulfill its ambition and enter the debate over the top leagues in the world, it not only needs to continue to improve the on-field product, but it also must improve its off-field protocols.