Major League Soccer's Clint Dempsey suspension raises more questions
It's good to be a big-name star like Clint Dempsey in Major League Soccer.
What other conclusion can possibly be drawn after the league suspended the Seattle Sounders forward on Friday for only three games?
The ruling, which was condemned in a statement by the Professional Soccer Referees Association, came despite the fact that U.S. Soccer Federation's policy manual, to which MLS is required to adhere, clearly and unambiguously stipulates that by ripping up referee Daniel Radford's notepad during extra time of Tuesday's U.S Open Cup fourth-round match vs. the Portland Timbers, Dempsey committed an act of assault. That is supposed to trigger an immediate and automatic suspension of no fewer than six matches.
Such a punishment might seem harsh under these particular circumstances and the rule might need a rewrite. It's hard to argue, for instance, that what Dempsey did warrants the same penalty D.C. United's Fabian Espindola received for shoving an official after a playoff match last season.
However, that's a separate debate and there's no leeway in the language, which is found in Policy 202, Section 2(a) of the 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.
MLS interpreted the rules differently, even though they clearly state that damaging a piece of the referee's "personal property," which includes "uniform" and "equipment," is to be considered an act of physical violence.
"The definition of referee assault includes language that requires it was an act of physical violence," MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbot told ESPNFC.com on Tuesday afternoon. "We did not find that here."
On one hand, the league could be commended for allowing common sense to prevail, for adhering to the spirit of the law rather than the letter of it.
But because the perpetrator in this case happens to be the U.S. national team captain, the marquee player on one of the league's marquee teams, the perception that Dempsey got preferential treatment will be hard to shake no matter how much the league might deny that was the case.
A six-game ban would have almost certainly have ruled Dempsey out of next month's CONCACF Gold Cup, the most important event on the national team's calendar this year.
While roster changes are allowed after the competition's group stage, that suspension would have rendered Dempsey unavailable until the semifinals. His match fitness would be in question after not playing a match in over a month, even if he was added to the squad mid-tournament.
Friday's ruling, however, will allow Dempsey to play in the Gold Cup right from the start. Question is: Will he?
While MLS showed leniency with Dempsey, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann might not be so forgiving.
There was already some degree of tension between player and coach after Dempsey arrived at national team camp in January out of shape, even if the rangy Texan's hot start to the MLS season -- his seven goals are second-most by an American so far in 2015 -- seemed to ensure that the 32-year-old would continue to play a key role for Klinsmann at least through this summer, if not through the 2016 Copa America Centenario he has identified as a personal target.
Then again, the U.S. just beat Germany and the Netherlands on the road without Dempsey, who stayed in Seattle awaiting the birth of his fourth child (Injury kept him out of the three U.S. games before that).
Now Dempsey won't play another league match before the U.S. convenes later this month. And Klinsmann has a history of jettisoning veterans on the eve of major competitions: Carlos Bocanegra was dropped before the final round of World Cup qualifying in 2013; Landon Donovan, famously, was cut prior to the main event in Brazil last summer.
The German also has little tolerance for indiscipline; he left Brek Shea off a qualifying roster in 2012 following an altercation with an assistant referee in MLS play despite having started Shea eight of the previous 10 U.S. games.
At the very least, Dempsey's actions make you wonder if he'll keep the captaincy he inherited from Bocanegra -- especially with Michael Bradley, a shoo-in to captain the team in 2018, having worn the armband in five straight matches while Dempsey was out.
After all Dempsey has accomplished, it would be a shame if this incident signals the beginning of the end of his long, decorated national team career. But it also wouldn't be impossible for Klinsmann to justify.
The same can't be said for MLS' decision, no matter how they try to spin it.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.