Can MLS afford to ignore physical play?

Two harsh tackles, two broken legs and one weekend to forget in Major League Soccer.

MLS lost two of its best and most exciting players to long-term injuries this past weekend, and the league is left to determine just what it will do to try and keep such ugly scenes from happening again.

Yes, it’s a bit unfair to group Jon Leathers’ challenge on reigning MLS MVP David Ferreira with Brian Mullan’s hot-headed and reckless leg-snapping challenge on Steve Zakuani, but both tackles led to similar injuries and raised the same questions: What can be done to cut down on such physical and potentially dangerous challenges? And can MLS really afford not to do something significant?

Spare me the talk of precedents and past punishments. MLS is a far different league than it was 10 or even five years ago, and the league has made it very clear what it would like to be. MLS commissioner Don Garber has said repeatedly that protecting stars and cutting down on overly physical play is a priority, but he’s also reminded us plenty of times that MLS does not hire or train its own referees (that task falks to U.S. Soccer).

That being the case, Garber and MLS now have an opportunity to do something about the rough play sneaking its way back into the league. Mullan is considered a model professional, but his tackle was reprehensible and his lack of remorse after Friday’s match – when Mullan all but said he’d likely commit a challenge like that again – making a lengthy suspension more than justified.

Just how long? Seattle general manager Adrian Haunauer suggested Mullan be suspended as long as Zakuani is unable to play. As much as that seems like justice, it would be overboard to go to the extreme of ending Mullan’s season. Still, MLS would be well within its rights to make an example out of Mullan and slap him with a record-setting suspension – a suspension that would send a very clear message to the league’s players that MLS was no longer going to tolerate such ugly tackles.

No, a long suspension won’t bring Zakuani back this season, or Ferreira, but if it makes players think twice about flying in studs up or slows down a hot-headed player bent on retribution, then it will be worth every game Mullan is forced to sit.

Powers starting to roll

Before the season began, Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls were seen as the three clear-cut title contenders. After this past weekend, all three have done enough to show they’re worthy of those labels.

Real Salt Lake sports a perfect record and is on the verge of history in the CONCACAF Champions League, but both Los Angeles and New York needed some more time to really get rolling. Both squads recorded their second straight wins in emphatic fashion to serve notice that they are indeed amongst the class of the league.

Landon Donovan returned from a sore knee to play his best match of the young season, while Thierry Henry continued his own resurgence to lead the Red Bulls to its first blowout win at RFK Stadium. Both the Galaxy and Red Bulls played attractive attacking soccer while also providing disciplined and skillful defending.

The Galaxy and Red Bulls won’t have to wait too long to face very good tests. They meet each other on May 7th at the Home Depot Center in a clash that should determine just which team can be considered Real Salt Lake’s toughest competition for the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup.

Feilhaber’s impressive debut

Benny Feilhaber didn’t wait long to show just what sort of impact he could make for the New England Revolution. The U.S. national team midfielder delivered a sharp assist and provided patience and skill in midfield in the Revs’ 3-2 Saturday victory against Sporting Kansas City.

Feilhaber’s passing and patience helped provide a different gear and more possession for a New England offense that had its best game of the season. Another example of Feilhaber’s impact was Shalrie Joseph’s performance, which was among the best in MLS last weekend.

It wasn’t a perfect debut for Feilhaber, who came away looking pretty silly getting involved in a sequence that led to KC defender Aurelien Collin being unjustly sent off. Feilhaber helped exacerbate a touchy scene and his dive after being touched by Sporting KC’s Birahim Diop fooled referee Edwin Jurisevic into ejecting Collin. The antics should lead to a fine for Feilhaber, though the MLS Disciplinary Committee already has a full plate.

Those antics aside, Feilhaber showed his class and made it even more puzzling that Chivas USA passed on him in the Allocation Order. Chivas USA will get an even closer look at the player it could have had this weekend when New England takes on the Rojiblancos. It’s safe to say Feilhaber will be eager to show Chivas USA what it’s missing.

MLS Player of the Week

Landon Donovan came back from an extended rest to heal a sore knee, and the time off clearly helped as he played his best game of the season in Los Angeles’ 3-0 win against Portland last Saturday.

Donovan scored two goals and set up another as the Galaxy thrashed the Timbers at Home Depot Center.

Donovan’s performance helped him earn the official MLS Player of the Week honor. He edged out New England midfielder Shalrie Joseph and New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry for our honors.

MLS Rookie of the Week

It was a quiet week for MLS rookies, with none scoring goals or assists, but Houston rookie Will Bruin continued to impress as a starting striker on a Houston team that took a road point in a 1-1 draw versus Chicago.

Bruin’s combination of strength and deceptive speed continues to be a handful for defenders, and he came close yet again to finding the net, this time having a goal-bound chance cleared off the line.

New England’s A.J. Soares and Sporting Kansas City’s C.J. Sapong played 90 minutes in the Revs’ 3-2 win against KC, while Vancouver rookies Michael Boxhall and Jeb Brovsky started in the Whitecaps 2-1 loss to FC Dallas. D.C. United centerback Perry Kitchen had to endure a rough 90 minutes in a 4-0 loss to New York while Portland rookie Darlington Nagbe played 32 minutes as a sub.

It’s early in the season but Bruin, Soares and Sapong are the early front-runners for the Rookie of the Year award, while D.C. teammates Kitchen and Ethan White are on the radar.

MLS Team of the Week

The New York Red Bulls had never beaten D.C. United by more than two goals at RFK Stadium in a rivalry that has been severely one-sided in D.C.’s favor over the years, but Thursday’s 4-0 thrashing was easily the Red Bulls best showing at RFK in the club’s history.

The L.A. Galaxy’s 3-0 win against Portland was impressive, but for the Red Bulls to go into RFK and dismantle a promising D.C. side coming off a 3-0 win against Toronto was the most impressive showing of the past week’s games.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.