The standard concept of any defense is “if they have the ball, take it from them.” That seems simple enough. However, actually executing that idea can be complex and obtaining the ball can be done in a myriad of ways, both clean and dirty. In light of the Darlington Nagbe/Nigel de Jong incident, there has been talk of the amount of fouls and constant knocks Nagbe takes in a game as a result of players unable to win the ball cleanly. Nagbe is fouled more than (almost) any player in MLS. Why is this? Who else is on that list? What can be done about it? Let’s take a look.
In the 2015 season, Nagbe suffered 87 fouls in 33 games played. Those are regular season games and don’t count the Timbers’ run to MLS Cup. That’s 2.5 fouls per game played in the regular season. That doesn’t count the other dings and kicks he would have taken throughout a game that either went uncalled by a referee or were just a part of a play and a natural coming together. League MVP Sebastian Giovinco led the league in 2015, as he was fouled 90 times in 33 games.
This should really come as no surprise that these two players were atop the list of most fouled players in MLS last season. Both Nagbe and Giovinco have the ball at their feet often during a game and are dangerous running at players. This causes them to get in challenges with defenders, but you didn’t need me to explain that to you. In fact, if you look at other players at the top of the list, you’ll see this trend given further credence. Matias Perez Garcia, Cristian Higuita, Juan Ramirez and Mauro Diaz made the top ten despite playing in less than 30 games. Dom Dwyer, Quincy Amarikwa, Lee Nguyen, and Octavio Rivero rounded out the ten most fouled players. A number of these players mentioned are the focal point of their team’s offense. The attack runs through them. They spend much more time with the ball at their feet and are usually the primary target when a teammate has possession. Do some of the players get the benefit of a whistle or two via simulation? Sure. But some of the most talented, skilled players in MLS are getting beat up. Can the league protect its stars?
We’ve seen early on in the 2016 how PRO, the governing body for referees in North America, has tried to cut down on studs up tackles. A number of players have gotten red cards for dangerous tackles that may have just been yellow in year’s past, until de Jong. The league, and PRO, must be consistent. If these horror tackles are going to be rid from the game they have to be punished. Retroactive suspension by the Disciplinary Committee isn’t cutting it. If de Jong is rightly shown red Sunday night, the Galaxy are less likely to equalize late on and are beaten at home by Portland. These situations hurt players and teams by forcing them into making changes where substitutions elsewhere could be more beneficial. You make teams play shorthanded and cost them points in the standings. Taking a player like Nagbe out of the game and replacing him with Ned Grabavoy - all due respect to Ned - makes a substantial difference in strategy and playstyle through the center of the midfield. It cripples the Timbers and their offensive game plan. The Galaxy were actually given a huge advantage by having a player commit an egregious challenge.
Can MLS referees call the game tighter and begin to whistle more fouls on players? I don’t think that makes for a good product, especially considering the physicality of MLS. It’s the persistent infringement that weighs on a player and that is experienced by the players mentioned above. Tactical fouling can be done to slow teams down and limit an offense. One foul turns into four and if one of those is a crunching, or even dirty tackle, that is where we begin to see injuries and a long time on the shelf for the creative players MLS markets and promotes. For a league still growing and trying to grab a foothold of the sports fans’ eyeballs in North America, this can be an issue. It shouldn’t have taken a budding star like Darlington Nagbe being injured to bring this to light and look for solutions. It’s time to take the steps to fix the problem, now.