24 May ~ Earlier this month, Major League Soccer proudly announced the launch of the Castrol Index to “objectively” rank its players’ performances. As if the modern game was not already burdened with enough useless statistics, we can now enjoy the benefits of this “proprietary technology” that purports to track around 1,800 player movements per game, and then produce a league table of ranked individuals. The first monthly table told us what we possibly already knew: Thierry Henry is the best player in MLS.

The next two positions were something of an embarrassment. In second place was Steve Zakuani, the exciting young Congolese forward with the Seattle Sounders, out for the season thanks to the leg-breaking talents of Brian Mullan (Castrol Index MLS ranking 153); the Colorado Rapids midfielder was consequently banned for ten games. In third place came David Ferreira of FC Dallas, the Colombian playmaker who was last season’s league MVP and is also the league’s most fouled player. He’s out for the year too, due to a double ankle fracture suffered against Vancouver. Ferreira was injured by the Scorcheresquely named Jonny Leathers (Castrol Index MLS ranking 142) but no foul was given.

Other attacking midfielders crocked in MLS this season include Real Salt Lake’s Argentine midfielder Javier Morales (broken leg following a straight red card tackle from Chivas USA’s Marcos Mondaini – Castrol Index MLS ranking 182) and DC United’s Montenegrin playmaker Branko Boskovic, out for six months with a torn cruciate ligament following a bruising tackle in a US Open Cup match from New England’s Alan Koger (unranked in the Castrol Index – New England coach Steve Nicol fielded a team of reserves). Boskovic will not only miss most or all of the season, but also Montenegro’s crucial early June European Championship qualifier at home to Bulgaria.

The Castrol Index was first used during Euro 2008, was then modified for last year’s World Cup, and is now reportedly used by the five major European leagues, though it’s been keeping a low profile. If its rankings are anything like the MLS list, that’s no wonder. So far it has only gone to prove that two of the league’s best three players have been rendered inactive for the long term thanks to the kind of reckless foul play that should have been clamped down on years ago.

For anyone who’s been following MLS and its slack punishments of leg-breaking miscreants like Dema Kovalenko and Hristo Stoichkov this past decade, that comes as no surprise. Referees have been notoriously lax, which you can attribute to all the usual factors – the poorly monitored referee training programmes run by the US Soccer Federation, insufficiently stringent refereeing guidelines from the league, an overall gutlessness on the part of generally mediocre match officials, and the usual intimidation from players, coaches and ex-pro gantry gobs all hyperventilating when a referee has the temerity to punish fouls.

As broken legs have become commonplace, goals have become objects of rarity, down to a miserly 2.23 per game, which is even lower than the dreary French Ligue 1 at 2.32 (the Bundesliga was again Europe’s highest this season with an average of 2.92). Last weekend saw a typical MLS spectacle, when a Salt Lake team missing the creative Morales played a Dallas team minus the creative Ferreira, and the outcome was a highly foreseeable, uncreative 0-0. Yet again, it’s been highlighted in bold digital red figures on the scoreboard that while the league has been busy getting it right off the field in terms of new stadiums, expansion and better TV and sponsorship deals, its efforts to improve the actual standard of play have been thwarted by poor administration, violent play and a number of coaches who pay lip service to the concept of sporting entertainment while sending their players out to defend and enforce. Idealistic coaches less inclined to follow that line have ended up with their best players in hospital.

All leagues would be far better served by a statistical list of the negative game-killers. An index of the dullest, most crowd-alienating coaches, for example. Emphasise the most carded, most brutish players, rather than hiding those stats away. Make headlines of the worst serial foulers. Produce career lists of the most frequently suspended thugs. The league’s record ten-game ban and $5,000 fine of Mullan, Zakuani’s leg-breaker, was a first step in the right direction, but MLS must follow through on that example. Although it’s a matter of shame that so many serious injuries had to occur before heavy sanctions were triggered, it’s still not yet too late to clean up football. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (4)
Comment by Renart 2011-05-24 15:58:28

Hear, hear! What's really dispiriting, however, is that some MLS fans seem to think the league's "physicality" is something to be proud of. When a good player from another league comes to MLS, there are always certain fans who scoff, "Yeah, but he's probably too fragile for MLS" instead of worrying, "Gee, I really hope nobody breaks his leg." I think they're overcompensating after years of teasing from gridiron fans about the supposed softness of soccer.

Comment by olijoy 2011-05-24 18:06:51

Intriguing piece - I follow MLS in passing and this physical reputation had totally passed me by.

Brian Mullan received a 10 game ban for his leg-breaking effort, which at face value strikes me as a strong punishment and arguably at odds with the idea of the MLS having an overly-physical culture. I'll happily stand corrected, but I can't recall a recent similar example from England. The ban was actually increased when the MLS learned how long the injured player would be out for, plus he received a fine of $5000 while being on an annual salary of less than $200,000. I can't imagine the present authorities in this country reacting in this manner to a similar challenge.

Comment by UncleTupelo 2011-05-24 19:06:35

I think the level of physicality in the league is a little overstated, but with Zakuani, Morales and Ferreira all getting injured by bad tackles in a small window of time, it's made the matter a priority with the league.

Bryan Mullan's case wasn't helped by the terrible advice his or the club's lawyers gave him. Sad to see he's had to go in to therapy because of the incident (although some Seattle fans might not be so sorry).

Major League Soccer's problem with this, and a it's a problem they encounter with a lot of other issues, is consistency and a constant changing of the rules whenever it suits them.

Comment by Firesox 2011-05-25 03:58:36

I like to think of MLS as lower league soccer (panicking in posession and being proud of being overly physical) with La Liga refs (frustratingly inconsistent, and try to follow every little rule, even when it makes sense not to, though the players are protected more)

I think we are definitely seeing refs allowing less and less thuggish actions, and we just need to wait until we can finally get our players to embrace and understand what the reffs will and won't call

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