Fast forward to 0:50 of the highlights, above, and you’ll quickly catch up on the issue: Chris Wingert’s “challenge” at the five-second mark of last night’s match in Utah
I put challenge in quotes not to inflame the discussion. I just don’t have a good word for what happened. We usually describe a defender’s attempt to dispossess an opponent as a challenge, and since those are some of the few times we see players coming together from opposing directions, we’re sometimes a little bit loose with the word. Any confrontation is a challenge, a rule that works most of the time.
But Wingert’s “challenge” had little to do with the ball. True, if Ike Opara doesn’t send a pass in the general vicinity of Kei Kamara, Wingert has no license to clean out the Sporting KC attacker. But Wingert’s not even moving in the direction of the ball when he makes contact. This hit looks like a free safety lighting up a tight end who’s feeling too comfortable coming over the middle.
But what purpose does that serve in a soccer match? This might be a case of Sporting’s reputation preceding them. It’s no secret Kansas City is considered one of the most physical teams in the league, and before San Jose surged to national attention last season, a lot of the discussions we have about the Earthquakes’ style of play took place in more muted tones around Peter Vermes’ team. With Roger Espinoza and Julio Cesar gone, it would be a mistake to assume the 2013 version of Sporting KC is as willing to rely on their physicality. But that doesn’t mean their reputation has died out. nor does it mean their philosophy is inherently different.
In that vein, it’s easy to see Wingert’s body block as a message-sender: We’re the home team. We’re the league leaders. You are not going to dictate the terms of this match. So if we have to take an early yellow card to send a message, so be it. One of our guys is going clean you out, and if it happens to be the veteran who will serve his accumulation suspension for our upcoming trip to Red Bull Arena, so be it.
Nobody’s going to confirm that’s what happened (I’m barely comfortable typing it out), so that scenario will remain somewhere between interesting and paranoid. But I just can’t answer this question in a way that doesn’t feed that paranoia: How does that hit happen at the point in the match, on that ball, with that intensity if it wasn’t in somebody’s mind before the opening whistle?
The big question Kansas City fans were asking post-match: Why wasn’t that a red card? Wingert launches himself, lowers his shoulder, and catches Kamara either in the upper chest or right under the jaw. Isn’t that serious foul play by use of “excessive force”? Perhaps the Disciplinary Committee will disagree with Matthew Foerster’s interpretation.
There seems little question that it’s excessive. FIFA guidelines define that as when a “player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.” Blindsided, running at near full speed into his man, and hit unsuspecting, Kamara easily could have been hurt. At least, injury became a greater possibility than should otherwise be acceptable during an MLS match. And given the defender’s alternative (like, don’t level a guy that’s 12 yards away from the ball’s landing point), there’s no question Wingert’s hit exceeded the necessary use of force.
Alas, you’re rarely going to see a red card in the fifth second of a match. Referees just don’t want to do it. They don’t want to define matches, and while the inexperience of Foerster (officiating his 15th MLS match) was brought up after the match, that critique is more applicable to how the game was controlled than an unwillingness to reduce a team to 10 moments after kickoff.
Teams shouldn’t be given a zone at the beginning of games to stretch the rules, but that’s the reality of it. Maybe if Kamara had been hurt, we’d be having a bigger discussion about this, but for now, players are still going to have license to send messages like Wingert’s. It could be a reckless slide tackle, a borderline denial of a goal scoring chance, or a body block like Wingert’s. It’s still a rare official who wants to truly enforce the rules while the match is so young.