At the 2:48 mark of the Colorado Rapids' match against the Seattle Sounders on April 23, 2011, Brian Mullan's career had been largely defined by his five MLS Cups. All four of the MLS teams on which he has played have won a title within the first two years of his arrival. People called him a winner.
At 2:49, Brian Mullan was known as a hard-working player, who did the the little things that helped teams win. The 5-foot-7, 150-pounder had scored 26 goals and compiled 48 assists, but had never made an All-Star team or been named to a MLS Best XI. People called the fourth-round draft pick a great teammate.
At 2:50, Brian Mullan was still known as a physical player, but not necessarily a dirty one. The 33-year-old midfielder had received three red cards, 34 yellows and accumulated 407 fouls during his 262-game career that spanned 11 seasons. People called the product of Regis Jesuit High School one of the league's "good guys."
At 2:52, Brian Mullan committed his 408th foul and picked up his fourth red card when he tackled Steve Zakuani. The tackle was unquestionably late. The tackle was unquestionably harsh, and even reckless. The tackle redefined Mullan's career.
At 2:53, Brian Mullan was simply "the guy who broke Steve Zakuani's leg."
Whether that is fair or unfair is not my concern. Mullan is a MLS veteran who must have known what he was doing when he went in for that tackle. He may not have intended to even hurt Zakuani, as several people I talked to for this story suggested, but he was definitely trying to send a message. Do not mess with me. Get ready for a physical game. Expect every ball to be contested. Those were the kind of messages Mullan tried to send virtually every game, and up until April 23, 2011 they had served him well.
More importantly, they are the kind of messages players all around the soccer world are trying to send virtually every match. How effectively they send that message, and how well they avoid catastrophic results like there were in this incident, is largely how a player becomes defined as "physical" or "dirty."
"Every player, whether they want to admit it, but if you woke them up in the middle of the night when we are at our most honest, they have both given and taken in similar fashion," said Alexi Lalas, the former U.S. National Team defender and current ESPN commentator. "That’s what makes it so difficult.
"Stuff happens in a split second and emotions and all of these other things are combined and firing at 100 miles per hour and you can be on either end of that situation. And maybe you have been with just other results. And if it happens 100 times, you probably have 100 different results."
In the less than two weeks since Zakuani's injury, there have been many similar tackles, none of them with nearly as disastrous results. Friday's match between the Houston Dynamo and DC United, for instance, featured a tackle by Dejan Jakovic on Cam Weaver that looked eerily similar. Like Mullan, Jakovic came in late and took out his opponent with a hard tackle. The biggest difference was the Jakovic got a huge helping of the ball and Weaver's leg was not planted when he was hit. The referee issued a yellow card, but Weaver walked away after getting some cursory treatment.
Jay DeMerit, a Vancouver Whitecaps defender, acknowledged that Mullan's tackle was probably too much for what the situation called for -- it was early in the game and not in a particularly dangerous part of the field -- but didn't seem particularly bothered by the play in general.
"The difference between a really nasty challenge and a great tackle is timing," said DeMerit, a veteran of eight professional seasons in England and a regular on the U.S. national team. "The only thing is that guys get the timing wrong. The ones that continuously get into tackles like that, then you go to the next level and ask is it a dirty player."
Injuries like Zakuani's are, of course, much more the exception than the rule. As often as they are the result of an ill-timed or poorly executed tackle, they can just as well be the product of a freak accident.
Last year, Dane Richards of the New York Red Bulls collided with New England Revolution goalkeeper Preston Burpo while chasing down a ball in the box. Burpo suffered one of the most graphic injuries in league history and has not played since, but it was almost universally recognized that Richards was not to blame. In 2004, then reigning MVP Preki severely broke his leg and ankle while trying to avoid a tackle during a preseason game.
"You can’t play the game with that kind of thought in your mind," said Davy Arnaud, a Sporting Kansas City midfielder who was Preki's teammate in 2004. "You don’t think about it when you’re playing, but when you see something like that happen you realize it can happen on a freak play like that. You’ve seen so many circumstances where it could happen. Just one awkward challenge."
None of that is meant to say that Mullan, or others like him, are without blame. Every person I spoke to for this story felt that regardless of Mullan's intentions, he shouldered a heavy responsibility for what happened. That responsibility is carried by every player every time they go in for a tackle.
Lalas, who has received a fair amount of criticism for what some viewed as his defending of Mullan, likened Mullan's actions to those of a drunk-driver. At the same time, he refused to entirely condemn the kind of play that Mullan made.
"Unfortunately we know it happens, people get away with it and nothing happens thankfully, but at one point it will happen, and you can hurt somebody," he said. "Having responsibility for yourself and your actions and your body on the field is something I do believe in.
"But I also think that the the aggression a player shows, even within a split second on a tackle, does not necessarily equate a desire to hurt. You can have a desire to send a message on a soccer field without going into foul somebody.
"I know I have been in tackles where I have tackled with more aggression than maybe I needed to but it wasn’t that 'Oh I’m going to get a foul on this.' It was that I’m not just going to tackle, but with force and, once again, with aggression that does send a message. While doing that and recognizing that for instance if that player like in Steve Zakuani’s case, the leg can get caught or he doesn’t see me coming, there is the potential to have happen what happened with Brian Mullan."
Based on my conversations, it would seem that players understand and even embrace this responsibility. The trick, and part of what makes these players elite athletes, is accepting the responsibility and finding a way to still play aggressively.
"You can’t stop guys from playing the game," Arnaud said. "It is a contact sport and you can’t take that away from the game. You can’t take that side away from players. A lot of players are raised to play the game that way. It's not a matter of trying to hurt people. Guys play with instincts. It’s a fine line when talking about wanting to protect players. It can be too much sometimes."
Let's not forget, though, that Mullan was not the victim in this situation. The injury Zakuani suffered probably ended his season and could very well impact the 23-year-old's career. Although his public statements have asked for his supporters not to direct their ire at Mullan, Zakuani's injury was not some freak accident. It may have been totally unintended, but it was not an accident.
"Guys need to think about that more when they’re playing," said Patrick Ianni, a Sounders defender who is also one of Zakuani's best friends on the team. "I think there are some guys that are very aware of that line, maybe almost too aware of it for their coaches, but there are guys that aren’t aware of it enough. You should go onto the field for your fellow players; we’re not enemies. They are an opponent, but they are a human being. There needs to be that awareness that you’re playing against human beings and you can end a career."
Jeremiah Oshan is SB Nation Soccer's Major League Soccer editor. In Part 2, he looks at the league's decision to give Mullan a 10-game suspension and how that decision affects the game.