MLS got Clint Dempsey’s suspension wrong according to US Soccer’s policies

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We find ourselves yet again with another botched suspension, and in this case, it proves that the most visible league in the United States can’t read or interpret its own rules and regulations.

It can be argued a three-match suspension, which Seattle Sounders foward and USMNT captain Clint Dempsey ultimately received for tearing up the referee’s notebook in a 3-1 U.S. Open Cup loss to Portland, is the correct punishment via precedent and any other moral standing. In the English Premier League, for example, any straight red card received for “violent conduct” warrants an automatic three-match suspension, although it can be extended for particularly egregious violations.

It could also be argued it’s too short, allowing a player to get off easy due to his name, reputation on the pitch, and standing as national team captain. The debate could be made for both sides.

What cannot be debated, however, are the written rules that U.S. Soccer has implemented for its own benefit, and how MLS failed to acknowledge them.

Dempsey exploded at the end of the Seattle loss following a teammate’s questionable red card, while maybe the referee made a mistake and maybe he didn’t, there is no excuse for attacking a match official. Dempsey didn’t actually “assault” the official in the everyday feel of the word, but he absolutely did according to the U.S. Soccer definition, and yet he wasn’t suspended accordingly.

Here is Policy 202(1)(H)-2, Section 2, Article a of its Policy Manual:

(1) Any player, coach, manager, club official, or league official who commits an intentional act of physical violence at or upon a referee (“Referee Assault”) shall be suspended without pay for a period of at least six consecutive matches (the “Assault Suspension”). The Assault Suspension shall commence with the first match after which the individual has been found to have committed this act.
(2) For purposes of this subparagraph 2(a), “Referee Assault” shall include, but is not limited to: striking, kicking, choking, grabbing or bodily running into a referee; spitting on a referee with ostensible intent to do so; kicking or throwing an object at an official that could inflict injury; or damaging the referee’s uniform or personal property (e.g., car, uniform, or equipment).
(3) The Professional League Member may not provide for a penalty shorter than the Assault Suspension but may provide for a longer suspension and/or a fine.

U.S. Soccer even pointed directly to this subsection of its policies in the press release it sent out Friday morning. So, Clint Dempsey swatted the referee’s notebook out of his hand, picked it up, and tore it to shreds. That seems to pretty blatantly fall under the “damaging the referee’s uniform or personal property” portion. How can one possibly argue otherwise? Apparently, Major League Soccer did. They handed down a three-game suspension, rather than the mandated six-game suspension in the policy. Whether you agree six games is too much, too little, or just right on a moral basis, this seems impossible to argue with.

This is all very key with the Gold Cup coming up. Should he be suspended for a longer amount, his international play would be affected. As the bylaws write, “The Assault Suspension and Abuse Suspension (the ‘Suspension’) shall preclude the suspended individual from participating in any soccer competition until the suspension has expired.” A six-match Seattle suspension would have left Dempsey out of action until July 18, and would rule him ineligible to play in any other competitions – club or country – until that date. The Gold Cup begins July 7.

The PSRA, the referee’s union that represents officials in MLS and USL Pro play, is understandably quite displeased with the punishment, believing that the lack of bite to Dempsey’s punishment will fail to deter future incidents of referee assault:

U.S. Soccer as a governing body was ultimately left powerless in this decision. Despite the U.S. Open Cup being a U.S. Soccer-led tournament, the rules state that in the event of “referee abuse or assault,” the punishment is determined by the player’s league – leaving Dempsey’s fate in the hands Major League Soccer. According to the bylaws, under the referee abuse subsection, “All Professional League Members shall adopt and enforce policies,” meaning since Dempsey is a Major League Soccer player, MLS was in charge of determining the outcome of his punishment.

As a U.S. Soccer spokesperson told me, the reason for this is because while it leaves them powerless in high-profile cases such as this, it also relieves them of duty to punish incidents in much smaller (yet significantly more numerous) amateur leagues and competitions that would be better in the hands of the presiding league or organization.

Thus, MLS took over the decision, and they botched it. Now, Jurgen Klinsmann finds himself with an interesting decision. Having named a 35-man provisional roster, he still has not chosen his final 23-man preliminary roster. Not only does Klinsmann have to decide whether or not to include Dempsey or not, he has the interesting dilemma of whether to keep the Texan as his captain or make a change. At 32 years old, there’s no guarantee Dempsey will be a member of the first team when the 2018 World Cup comes around, and this scenario gives Klinsmann an opportunity to make a captaincy change now and work in a new leader in the next three years.

Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer told the Seattle Times following the match, “Tuesday evening, the passion piece maybe went a little bit overboard and was maybe directed in the wrong ways. That goes for players, coaches, staff, fans. Now, we need to regroup. We’ve had lots of internal conversations. We will do whatever we need to collect information on fan misconduct and dole out appropriate punishments if those are necessary. We’ll deal with all of the rest internally. But I thought it was important to acknowledge that it wasn’t our proudest moment as the Sounders organization and we’re going to do better.”

Dempsey by far came out looking the worst, at least until MLS proved they are unable to read U.S. Soccer’s rules.

UPDATE: Apparently, there may be slightly more to come from this. U.S. Soccer told Liviu Bird of Sports Illustrated that although this three-match suspension comes from Major League Soccer by requirement, there’s still a chance that U.S. Soccer will hand down its own punishment. Most likely, since any second suspension will come down from the U.S. Open Cup disciplinary committee, it would cover U.S. Open Cup play, and not affect any outside competitions, including national team play.