In its 16-year history, MLS has handed down some hefty penalties. Ricardo Clark was once suspended 10 games in 2007 for kicking Carlos Ruiz in the shoulder. Jon Conway and Jeff Parke were each suspended 10 games in 2008 for using a banned substance. Edwin Gorter was fined $20,000 in 1999 for his involvement in a racially charged fight with a teammate.
For the most part, though, the league's heftiest penalties were reserved for incidents that happened outside the run of play. When Tyrone Marshall broke Kenny Cooper's leg in a 2007 incident, that drew just a three-game suspension. The 10-game suspension handed down to Brian Mullan for his leg-breaking tackle of Steve Zakuani marked a significant shift in precedent.
Say what you will about Mullan's tackle, but unlike the other most heavily penalized incidents in league history, it was an actual soccer play. You can argue the tackle was reckless and ill-conceived, but reasonable people can disagree about what Mullan's intentions may have been and whether or not he was simply trying to win the ball.
Partly because of that, the suspension was seen as being a not-so-subtle message to both players in the league and outside observers: MLS does not condone this kind of play.
"We’re cognizant that the decision and the precedent that it sets suggests that there’s a message behind it," said Nelson Rodriguez, MLS executive vice president of competition, technical and game operations and spokesperson for the disciplinary committee. "We feel it’s consistent with the messaging we put out at the start of the year and what we want in our league as acceptable behavior and what we don’t want as unacceptable behavior."
The preseason messaging Rodriguez speaks of is probably the key component to understanding the heft of the suspension. Prior to the season, MLS officials released their latest "points of emphasis" in which they explained to players, coaches and officials how they wanted the game played. Among other things, it was made clear that the severity of an injury resulting from a red-cardable offense would be taken into account when handing down punishments.
At the same time, the league also communicated that just because no injury occurred or no card was handed out at the time that players could expect retroactive punishments if a play was considered particularly dangerous. So far, the league has followed through in at least one instance, handing out a retroactive red card to Seattle Sounders midfielder Servando Carrasco for a dangerous tackle he made on Chicago Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko in Week 4.
On the flip side, the league has also avoided handing out suspensions for physical play simply because an injury occurred. The same week Zakuani broke his leg, reigning MVP David Ferreira broke his ankle after being tackled from behind. No foul was called on the play and in reviewing the incident, the disciplinary committee did not feel any further action was warranted.
"Fair, physical play is very much part of the game and very much a part of competition," Rodriguez said. "Watching a team score a great goal is only possible taken in relation to someone making an earnest effort to keep it from happening. That’s one of the true beauties of our sport. So we can’t take that out nor should we try."
As clear as that messaging may be -- and the players I talked to for this story seemed to feel they had been adequately briefed on what kind of punishments to expect during these kinds of incidents -- the actual line between "fair, physical play" and recklessness is much more blurred. With red cards flying around a record pace -- currently at a rate of more than one every third match -- the ability for players to live on that edge is becoming increasingly important.
"The game is now trying to find that line, going and taking that risk and going into tackles hard," said Jay DeMerit, a Vancouver Whitecaps defender and United States national team stalwart. "If you get it wrong, you’re going to get punished for it.
"Maybe MLS seemed a bit harsh at the beginning, but I don’t know if it is. You take risks by behaving like that and if you get it wrong, you should be punished for it. I think that’s right. But should (hard tackles) be taken out of the game? Good hard tackles? If the timing is right, no. I’m a defender and I tackle for a living. That’s what I do for a living. That’s what separates the good defenders and guys that are sometimes known as bullies."
Unfortunately, getting rid of those bullies, or the style of play that defines them, is going to take a lot more than a few long suspensions and some hefty fines. For every player who takes a good, hard look at the way they play and determines they need to clean up their act, there are probably 10 more who think the league is talking about someone else.
"Maybe if you’re a dirty player and freely admit that to yourself, maybe you say I should tone it down," said Chris Wingert, a Real Salt Lake defender. "But I don’t think too many people admit that to themselves.
"I think, maybe, (the threat of fines and suspensions) enters into your thought process. But most guys continue to do what they are good at and if that’s being intense, you don’t want to change your game."
Of course, it's perfectly possible for a player to be both intense and manage not to risk ending another player's career. Whether it's a slight midfielder like Osvaldo Alonso or a hulking center back like Jamison Olave, there is no shortage of MLS players who fit this description.
In talking to players around the league, I did not get a sense that this punishment is going to change the way many of them play. Maybe the injury itself will serve as a reminder that reckless tackles can go horribly wrong, but the punishment seems to be more for us, the people who are watching the league.
And maybe that's OK. Mullan was fined $5,000, which is not an insignificant amount of money, but hardly the kind of thing that is going to be taking food off his family's table. The suspension keeps him off the field, renders him incapable of helping his team and will keep him out of the public's eye for a couple months. More importantly, it sends a message to us that MLS does not condone this kind of play.
As hard as it may be for some to believe, the suspension also sends a message that MLS might even take a harder stance on this kind of play than just about any other league in the world. It was only last year, for instance, that Stoke City's Ryan Shawcross received only a three-game ban for his very similar leg-breaking tackle of Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey.
There's no question that MLS still has a ways to go before it is considered a league as highly skilled as others in Mexico, South America or Europe, but a suspension like this one is just the latest sign that it does not want to be seen as league of brutes and thugs. And that's a message we can all get behind.
Jeremiah Oshan is SB Nation soccer's MLS editor. This was the second of a two-part series. Part 1 dealt with how players walk the fine line between "reckless" and "physical."