When the word got to the Union that Atlanta United midfielder Julian Gressel wouldn’t be suspended for slapping Orlando City’s Nani in the face last Friday, there was quite a bit of angst.
Nobody in Chester would go on the record about it, out of fear of reprisal. But as the news got out, a source with experience on the subject offered some choice words for MLS headquarters.
"I don't want to just keep quiet, but at the same time, you know how the league is reacting" to matters like this, the source said, insisting on anonymity as a condition of commenting. "Nobody knows who is sitting inside and doing the decisions."
That last part isn’t quite true: people behind the scenes know. But it’s certainly true that the public doesn’t. MLS only formally identifies one of the five members of its often-derided Disciplinary Committee: league office technical director Alfonso Mondelo.
The remaining members are three former players and a former referee who is not appointed by the Professional Referees Organization, which assigns and oversees officials who work MLS games.
Four of the five members are appointed by MLS commissioner Don Garber, and one of the players is appointed by the MLS Players Association. The league consults with the MLSPA on any changes to the group. All of that is governed by the league's CBA with the players' union.
“Everybody is totally [annoyed] about it, but you don’t have much leverage on MLS,” the source said. “Even if we say something, they acknowledge it, and then they say, ‘Ah, that’s something to discuss’ … but they never do anything.”
If the source's complaints sound like sour grapes — and they surely will to Atlanta fans — there's also some actual news. PRO acknowledged to The Inquirer on Friday that the video replay crew missed the play, and that miss was flagged in the review of the officials' performance.
By the letter of the law, Gressel's slap should have drawn a red card. Had the replay crew seen the footage, Gressel would have been sent off.
MLS doesn't always suspend players retroactively for hands-to-the-face incidents. There's a substantial track record of handing out fines instead of suspensions.
But there's also a track record of suspicion that the league office plays favorites with big teams from time to time. Atlanta, the reigning MLS champion and league leader in attendance and spending, is certainly one of them. The Union are not, with 10 years of mediocrity (at best) outweighing Philadelphia's status as the nation's No. 4 TV market.
“That would never have happened [to] us or a minor team,” the source said. “It’s a [way] to do things the way they want to.”
Union sporting director Ernst Tanner has already gone on record once this year to air complaints about MLS referees and the Disciplinary Committee. When Marco Fabián was sent off and further suspended for an unavoidable studs-first landing on Sporting Kansas City’s Johnny Russell in March, Tanner gave his view to the Union’s website. That sort of thing doesn’t happen often in MLS.
The league as a whole took notice when MLS rescinded a yellow card assessed to Los Angeles Galaxy star Zlatan Ibrahimović that got him out of a suspension for yellow card accumulation. It conveniently came just before a nationally televised showcase against crosstown rival LAFC. In that game, Ibrahimović threw an elbow into LAFC’s Mohamed El-Munir that caused a facial fracture.
“Is everybody treated the same way [by] the Disciplinary Commitee?” the source asked. “Is marketing more important than the good of the game? … If it turns out Designated Players or top stars are treated differently, that is a disaster for everybody.”
Unfortunately, the source wasn’t the first person to say that, privately or publicly.