MLS Disciplinary Committee Lacks Spine In Clint Dempsey Suspension Decision

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SEATTLE, WA - FEBRUARY 23: Clint Dempsey of the Seattle Sounders during the CONCACAF Champions League match between Seattle Sounders and Club America at CenturyLink Field on February 23, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)

Editorial (October 25, 2017)Clint Dempsey was given a straight red card last Sunday in a 3-0 win after a VAR review of an elbow he gave to Colorado Rapids defender Mike da Fonte. After reviewing the play, the MLS Disciplinary Committee elected not to suspend Dempsey further.

MLS Disciplinary Committee Lacks Spine In Clint Dempsey Suspension Decision

Dempsey will be unavailable for Seattle Sounders FC‘s first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals. This incident will not prevent in from taking part in the rest of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs. He was however fined an undisclosed amount for “failing to leave the field in an orderly manner.”

Here’s the play:

As the video shows, Dempsey and Da Fonte are jockeying for position as the Sounders are trying to move the ball into the box. In trying to shake Da Fonte and make a run, Dempsey throws out an elbow that connects with Da Fonte’s head.

Head Official Chris Penso elects to review the play with the help of VAR and gives Dempsey a straight red card for violent conduct. Deuce went on to clapback at the official, then confronted Da Fonte before taking his time to exit the field of play.

In His Defense:

Dempsey isn’t a violent player (chippy and a games-man like, yes, but not malicious). This is just his second red card in his MLS career. He averages less than one yellow card every five games in league play. Unless I’m missing something, he’s never tried to destroy Darlington Nagbe’s ankle. This play was very much out of character for him.

His first straight red card came in 2016 in a match against FC Dallas. Deuce was sent off for a light slap to the face of Juan Esteban Ortiz. Like his red card on Sunday, this was partially in retaliation. Head Coach at the time, Sigi Schmid defended Dempsey, saying he plays with a target on his back and sticks up for himself (see the last link).

After the match, Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer defended Deuce but said he has to take responsibility for his actions. He’ll miss a playoff game because of this and that hurts his team. Here’s Schmetzer’s full statement:

He’s one of the most fouled players in MLS and he has a right to stick up for himself. Da Fonte has some CONCACAF in him. That said, there are healthier and more effective ways to defend yourself than elbows to face and disrespecting the official.

Why It’s A Slap On The Wrist:

There’s a couple variables at play here. It’s the whole sequence that is bothersome, not just each individual part. Dempsey throwing his elbow is absolutely violent conduct and a red card offense. Good call by Penso with the help of VAR.

We don’t have audio on what Dempsey said to the official. Given the context and the look on his face, I’m sure it wasn’t complementary. The clapping was clearly sarcastic. Let’s give Deuce the benefit of the doubt and assume there wasn’t excessive profanity in that exchange.

Then there was the confrontation with Da Fonte. They seemed to exchange some words and butted heads. The game had gotten a bit heated to that point and the meeting was quickly diffused. I don’t think there needed to be any punishment as a result of that exchange. Dempsey did then take his time exiting the field, and was fined for it by the DISCO.

The foul on its own could have warranted a multi-game suspension, as Sounders Color Commentator Kasey Keller said on the broadcast immediately after seeing the replay. Tack on his response to the red card, and there isn’t much question for me. We saw Dempsey disrespect officials before, an U.S. Soccer responded by throwing the proverbial book at him in the context of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Slapping a star player on the wrist sets a precedent. It suggests that MLS, PRO, and the Disciplinary Committee tolerate this behavior (the violent conduct and showing up the ref afterwards) on some level. MLS has done a great job in 2017 in cracking down on referee dissent and general unprofessional conduct towards officials. This was not good however.

All of this suggests that like other recent decisions by the league, MLS is a bit toothless, and thus harder to take seriously, especially by casual fans.

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