USL’s Discipline Disappointment

Basic Expectations

In the game of soccer there will always be fouls committed. Some are more devastating than others, some more malicious, and some just part of standard game-play. It is the duty of the league, the United Soccer League in this case, to provide clear and concise rules to all teams, players, and coaches, so that there is a consensus on what specific actions will warrant certain discipline.

The Problem

During the 2018 regular season, however, there has a been a lack of consistency in both on the field calls and follow-up league suspensions between comparable actions. Certain players are regularly receiving smaller suspensions, while others are receiving larger suspensions for similar or even lesser violations.

In a telling video compilation, we find a plethora of similar fouls all receiving various penalties that directly contradict the consistency the league commits itself to:

Let’s focus on the most prominent example highlighted above: the case of Jack McInerney.

Consistently non-called for his blatant assaults on other players, he’s regularly received minimal post-game suspensions as well. A closer look at his multiple fouls show his actions are retaliation based. Usually, the league interprets retaliation-based penalties as “violent conduct”. This is a higher-level penalty supposedly warranting a 3-game suspension. Yet he only received a 1-game suspension in each case. Notably, his direct elbow foul on FC Cincinnati’s Kenney Walker left Walker with a concussion – this injury kept Kenney out multiple weeks.

Compare this to the recent 3-game suspension handed down to Emery Welshman:

After being pulled and prodded for more than a few seconds, the ref fails to acknowledge the foul committed on Emery. So, Emery unfortunately decides to throw his elbow into the opposing player to bring him down. That is retaliation, no question. Emery received a fair punishment. That’s not the issue.

The issue, as previously mentioned, is that Jack McInerney and others are not receiving the same level of suspension for the same level of foul. I believe it’s also important to note that both Welshman and McInerney were fouled shortly before their respective retaliations. That’s why they retaliated in the first place. It is the referee’s duty to prevent retaliation penalties by being proactive to discourage violent game-play. They failed to do that here. But that’s an argument for another day. I’m focusing on the questionable follow-up sanctions by the USL. So what has the league done to adapt to these issues?

Disappointing Solution

What is perhaps most controversial is the league’s process for determining which fouls are worthy of further review. That is, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive measure in place at all.

Regressing in the off-season, they’ve even eliminated the appeals process for player discipline. Therefore all penalties handed down by the league are final; there is no chance to state your case. The only side that is heard is the team making a claim that they were in some way undermined without penalty compensation by the ref. An obvious red-flag for any judge is only listening to one side of the story. This action has become the foundation the USL built their discipline system on.

Along with this, the USL according to their online discipline statements (see example below) has deferred decision-making to an “Independent Discipline Panel”. What is this panel? Who does it consist of? What are the parameters that determine their decision making?

These are very reasonable questions to ask when such a group possesses absolute power in determining your penalty – and I do not have an answer for them. But an anonymous group acting as judge, jury, and executioner at the very least opens up possibilities of collusion. In fact, Pat Brennan of the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote an article where he notices “an increasingly long line of heavy-handed decisions levied against FC Cincinnati.” No matter who you support, no club should be subject to more scrutiny than others without just cause.

Now let’s go back Jack McInerney’s penalty. The day after the game I posted a Tweet (seen below) pointing out the referee’s and the USL’s lack of instigating a punishment for such a violent foul. Like I said, that foul wasn’t called in game and only earned a 1-game suspension from the USL afterwards. Kenney Walker didn’t play for weeks.

Now if I may be so bold… given the USL doesn’t have a clear and accessible measure for review, if I hadn’t posted that Tweet, or if the Tweet didn’t garner enough attention, would there be any action from the USL? Well, we simply cannot be sure. However, in the disappointing reality that it’s possible, I’d much rather be a supporter of a team with a large fan-base to make sure my voice is heard.

Nonetheless, to rely on individual teams and their supporters as a means to call out a lack of judiciating at all is alarming. It is the league’s duty to prevent further violent fouls by punishing those who commit them, and to not do so is a blatant disregard by the league and its officials for fair play, and even more importantly, player safety. The result is a de-legitimized game of soccer when brought to you by the United Soccer League.

A Better Way

I cannot tell you for certain the correct way to handle post-game player discipline. But, at the very least we can be skeptical of any system to find fatal flaws. From those flaws the league can learn and grow. The USL’s public Discipline Report is a good start.

Based on what I’ve observed so far, here are a few changes to the USL’s discipline system I support going forward:

  1. Re-introduce an appeals process to ensure full understanding of a foul’s context before a verdict is reached.
  2. Create a transparent review board for teams to submit claims of violent fouls to.
  3. Ensure all procedures are made public and that the final verdict fully explains why an individual received the judgement they did.
  4. Acknowledge when referee’s make mistakes.
  5. Increase punishments for repeat offenders.
  6. Apply the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in future seasons

Like many others, I support the United Soccer League. But, their ignoring the major problems that plague their discipline system cannot be understated. Changes need to happen. If this leagues wants to help make soccer a major sport in America, they need to take the game seriously themselves. As of now, they are not. But the ball is on their side of the pitch; let’s see what they do.

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