November 20, 2011
If MLS wants kids to watch ...

How do you, a youth coach, address your players when they're victims of bad fouls, brutish opponents or bad refereeing?

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America's Youth Soccer Insider)

Obviously, it’s prohibiting retaliation, clinging to your belief that skillful soccer will prevail, and zero-tolerance in ref abuse.

But youth coaches could use some help from the pros. That, in this country, would be Major League Soccer.

I’m assuming most youth coaches desperately want their players to watch good soccer as much as possible. And anyone who cares about American soccer wants MLS to succeed, so we’d like to steer youngsters toward becoming fans of the USA’s league.

But MLS should care more about what kind of soccer it’s presenting if it expects youth coaches to recommend it to their players.

The emphasis from many teams on a physical style over skillful possession, and the low-scoring are problems. You only get to see one goal every 35 minutes. The 2011 season set a record for scoreless ties. That doesn’t keep 9-year-olds glued to the screen.

More disconcerting is the tolerance of thuggish play, the behavior of some the league’s biggest stars, the disrespect shown to referees, and the TV commentators who practically condone cheating.

Who’s the player most American kids can name? David Beckham, who led the league in yellow cards. The Beckham who got into a screaming, nose-to-nose confrontation with Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis.

There’s Rafa Marquez petulantly throwing a ball at Landon Donovan, who to his credit walked away, but whose teammates turned it into a brawl. Thierry Henry was ejected twice this season.

Worse than those transgressions were the fouls that seriously injured four of MLS’s top players -- David Ferreira (broken ankle), Javier Morales (broken ankle), Steve Zakuani (broken leg) and Branko Boskovic (knee ACL). A fifth victim, Seattle’s Mauro Rosales, missed the playoffs with a knee injury inflicted from one of the many cynical fouls he’d suffered.

Hey, watch this league and see what awaits if you’re a superb dribbler.

The pool of talent in MLS isn’t deep enough for the league to lose so many players of such quality and expect to deliver soccer entertaining enough to lure young fans, who have many other options of soccer on TV to choose from.

We had New York coach Hans Backe encouraging his team to “play a bit dirty.” A Portland Timbers player offered this sage advice on how to approach a game: “You step onto the battlefield ... you've got to become that nasty person, that mean person.”

Especially disturbing is how MLS tolerates its players’ behavior towards referees – and the refs’ neglect of the rule mandating a yellow card for dissent. There should be zero tolerance on mobbing the referee after a call, but we keep seeing it and somehow the refs keep the cards in their pockets. (UEFA's head of referees, Pierluigi Collina, wants refs to show a red for such behavior and MLS should enter the next season instructing its officials to do so, and backing them up. One or two reds for a charging dissenter and that would end the practice.)

Of course, when adults play high-stake sports there’ll be some foul play and poor sportsmanship. It’s how the league, the refs, the coaches and the TV commentators react that concerns me about MLS.

The league must urge its refs get stricter with foul play, hand out longer suspensions for lethal tackles, and require players to pass a rules test to be eligible (because it's obvious that too many of these pros have no clue of what constitutes a foul).

And something must be done about the TV commentators who often display their ignorance of the rules – intent is only a factor on handball! – and are constantly defending thuggish play.

When Brian Mullan’s brutal foul broke Zakuani’s leg, more sympathy for Mullan seemed to come out of the Fox Soccer booth than for the player with the cracked bones.

Instead of denouncing the cheating, TV commentators are constantly reacting with euphemisms that virtually celebrate fouls.

They actually say things like “good foul,” “smart foul,” “intelligent foul” and “he had no option but to foul.” (Yes, he had another option! Not to foul, and remember there’s a goalkeeper back there who will most likely make the save.)

A rookie gets hammered and we get an enthusiastic, “Welcome to the big leagues!” from the booth. A defender gets lavishly praised because if he “has the ability to get a piece of you he absolutely will.” A player throws a punch and gets described as “feisty.”

When TV commentators stop excusing foul play and start getting the rules right, youth coaches will feel more comfortable about having their players tune in.

And if MLS cracks down on violent play and better protects its talented, attacking players, its games will be higher scoring, more entertaining, and more likely to turn youngsters into fans.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)