Mullan horror tackle underlines MLS identity crisis

Americans love an athletic hard-worker. Perhaps, thinks Zac Lee Rigg, a little too much...

Brian Mullan is perhaps the prototypical MLS player. The 11-year veteran makes up for natural ability with grit and graft. Never fast, he out-hustles; hardly brilliant on the ball, he keeps it simple; far from top class, he has won a record-tying five MLS Cups.

As the US still struggles to develop naturally gifted players who can compete in Europe's top leagues, Mullan represents the all-around athlete who grinds out a successful domestic career thanks to an oversized heart and some good old-fashioned Yankee competitive spirit. Stick him anywhere in the attack, and he'll do a job. He's the American Dirk Kuyt – slow and steady (and puffy-cheeked) wins the race.

However, just a few months after he won an unlikely MLS Cup with the Colorado Rapids, no one is talking about Mullan's career in the light it should be remembered. Instead he's the  the victim of scathing op-eds the country over, and the subject of an MLS-record 10-match ban, after a rather nasty tackle which snapped Steve Zakuani's shin in half.

Like celebrity deaths, the injuries came in three. Zakuani's, the first, was the most high-profile. Seattle Sounders FC is the best supported club in MLS, and within a few minutes the league's official site posted video footage of the former Arsenal winger's leg dangling sickeningly askew.

A day later, Colombian playmaker David Ferreira broke his ankle, which will rule him out of several months. Then, midweek, DC United's designated player Branko Boskovic suffered a tackle from behind during US Open Cup play, which tore his anterior cruciate ligament and fractured his left knee.

All three are bright attacking players. Ferreira is the reigning MLS MVP and assisted 13 goals last season. Boskovic is the captain of Montenegro, which is tied with England at the top of their group in Euro 2012 qualifying. As an Arsenal reject Zakuani once crashed a stolen moped and busted his knee, but recovered to perform as a zippy winger who scored a team-high 10 goals last year. If he recovers fully, the Congo international probably has a career in Europe ahead of him. 

FC Dallas investor/operator Clark Hunt, who also chairs the league's Competition Committee, thinks more needs to be done to protect the league's creative players.

“It raises the whole issue on the league focusing on giving our attacking players an opportunity to do what they do best,” Hunt told Goal.com's Kyle McCarthy. “I think they really need to go beyond that and focus on the teams that tend to play physical.”

MLS attempted to address the issue by slapping Mullan with a 10-match ban and $5,000 fine. The punishment is even more severe than that earned by Ricardo Clark for his vicious assault on Carlos Ruiz, when the US international midfielder was banned for nine games after kicking Ruiz in the torso off the ball.

Even now, though, MLS punishments tend to waver schizophrenically. Jonathan Leathers, who injured Ferreira, escaped retribution entirely, even evading a yellow or foul in the run of play. Alan Koger, who injured Boskovic, only picked up a booking. Mullan seems to have attracted the reaction for all three.

The tackle itself was poor. Just three minutes into the game, Mullan wasn't given what he thought should have been a foul in his favour. In his haste to win the ball back, the 33-year-old lunged a full 10 yards at Zakuani. But it wasn't a malicious or brutal attack, like Clark's was, and Mullan's intention probably wasn't to injure anyone.

“It's a tackle that I've done hundreds of times and would probably do again,” Mullan admitted after the match, though he did leave in tears, clearly upset by the injury he had caused.

His quote hints at the heart of the issue. For over a decade, Mullan has rushed into similar challenges. Much of his success has come because of his work rate and high pressure, and, yes, physicality. In the early years, especially, that's all MLS was – just an overly physical league with limited skill. Go down a division or two in England and you've got something close.

But MLS is evolving. Players like Ferreira add a bit of flair; those like Boskovic provide years of European experience and organisation. Eventually, MLS will blend all the contrasting influences – Latin flair, European nous, and American physicality – into one well-balanced whole.

Right now, however, the teething process is excruciatingly painful. 

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