Does Clint Dempsey have a point about his recent on-field treatment?

Clint Dempsey thinks he - and every other player in MLS, for that matter - deserves more protection. He might be right.

Steven Bisig/Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle forward Clint Dempsey isn’t happy with the MLS Disciplinary Committee’s decision to suspend him two matches for an incident earlier this month.

U.S. international captain Dempsey received a two-game ban from the Disciplinary Committee in the wake of an off-the-ball imbroglio with Toronto FC fullback Mark Bloom. Dempsey lashed out at Bloom and hit him in the lower midsection during the first half of Toronto FC’s 2-1 victory at CenturyLink Field on March 15.

After reviewing the incident last week, the Disciplinary Committee deemed the incident violent conduct and meted out its punishment. Dempsey and the MLS Players Union lodged an appeal, but it did not yield a reduction in his sentence.

Dempsey served the first game of his two-match suspension in Sounders FC’s 2-0 victory at Montreal on Sunday. He will also miss Seattle’s match against Columbus on Saturday before linking up with the U.S. national team for the friendly against Mexico in Glendale, Ariz. on Wednesday.

 “Disappointed,” Dempsey told the Seattle Times. “I don’t agree with it. It is what it is and move on.”

Dempsey’s frustration-induced suspension inflamed the debate surrounding the level of protection afforded to him and his teammates since his return to the league last year. Seattle currently sits atop the collective (61) and individual (Osvaldo Alonso with 13) fouls suffered list after three weeks. Dempsey withstood six separate fouls during the defeat to TFC after sustaining 23 fouls in just 651 regular-season minutes last season.

Persistent fouling is not a problem confined to Dempsey, though. Skilled players around the league must navigate through harsh treatment week after week with varying levels of protection. The top three finishers in fouls suffered in 2013 – Portland forward Darlington Nagbe (83), Real Salt Lake playmaker Javier Morales (78) and former FC Dallas schemer David Ferreira (76) – combined to prompt a whistle every half-hour or so of live match action. Dempsey somehow managed to beat that pace by provoking a whistle every 28 minutes after his summer arrival.

U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann spoke out on behalf of Dempsey last week and noted the robust treatment afforded to the former Fulham and Tottenham star since his return to the league last year. Dempsey said he appreciated Klinsmann’s words, but he indicated he wanted stronger protection across the board.

“I think lots of players get fouled,” Dempsey told the Times. “I think maybe giving cards earlier in games and maybe you won’t see as many fouls and you’ll see more of a rhythm to the game for spectators to watch. I think it’s important to protect every player. The sooner you start getting cards for reckless fouls, then it cuts down on a lot of things and it makes the game more exciting to watch, because there is more free flow to it.”

There are no like-for-like comparisons among leagues (every group of officials has its own preferred enforcement methods, after all), but the comparable leaders in fouls suffered statistics for the top five leagues in Europe during the current 2013-14 campaign offer some food for thought. MLS, as you’d expect, lands on the lenient end of the spectrum.

Fouls Suffered – MLS vs. Top Five European Leagues

 

PLAYER MINUTES PLAYED FOULS SUFFERED MINUTES PER FOUL SUFFERED
D. Nagbe (Portland) 2848 (34 appearances) 83 34.3
J. Morales (Real Salt Lake) 2281 (28 appearances) 78 29.2
D. Ferreira (FC Dallas) 2419 (30 appearances) 76 31.8
C. Dempsey (Seattle – 2013) 651 (9 appearances) 23 28.3
C. Dempsey (Seattle – 2014) 123 (2 appearances) 8 15.4
       
A. Diamanti (Bologna)* 1688 (19 appearances) 86 19.6
C. Vela (Real Sociedad) 2305 (28 appearances) 99 23.3
M. Valbuena (Marseille) 2166 (27 appearances) 84 25.8
R. Lewandowski (Dortmund) 2235 (26 appearances) 74 30.2
E. Hazard (Chelsea) 2640 (31 appearances) 83 31.8
      * left club during 2013-14 season

MLS has taken steps to stamp out some of this behavior by increasing the mandatory suspension for violent conduct to two matches. The edict snared Dempsey after he acted rashly against TFC, but it could comprise a part of the solution to afford him more operational latitude.

The real question at this point surrounds whether MLS and its referees wish to follow the same path in terms of game management or tighten the decisions accordingly to cede to the demands of Dempsey, Klinsmann and other critics as the league continues to grow. The current balance – though it may not feel that way at some points – falls within the general boundaries set forth elsewhere, but the strictures may not suit the league at this stage of its development. There are no easy answers to the predicament. It is simply a situation worth monitoring once Dempsey returns from his suspension and as this season unfolds.