MLS got it right with Van Damme, but flaws in appeals process were exposed
A thorough review of the facts leads to a simple conclusion: The MLS disciplinary committee's (DisCo) response to last weekend's controversial Diego Chara-Jelle Van Damme incident was correct.
But the episode, which contributed to LA Galaxy defender Van Damme's suspension for this weekend's match against Real Salt Lake and earned Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Chara a retroactive fine for diving, did expose flaws in the league's review and appeals processes -- in particular how MLS handles cases of simulation that lead to yellow cards for opponents.
It's important to point out what made the Van Damme incident, which saw him sent off 34 minutes into last Sunday's Galaxy-Timbers contest, so contentious. He wasn't initially booked for a foul because of Chara's now-infamous embellishment. Rather, his first yellow card was for his reaction to referee Baldomero Toledo's call.
"It's point of emphasis this year, of which all clubs have been notified -- the players have been notified -- about visual and verbal dissent towards officials' decisions," Peter Walton, director of the Professional Referee Organization and a former Premier League ref, told ESPN FC in a telephone interview on Friday night.
"Van Damme is clearly incensed by the decision, and maybe you could say he was justified. But it does not justify saying certain words to a referee. The player has a responsibility as well, and that's to rise above that."
Van Damme's second yellow was also controversial, as he didn't make contact with Portland midfielder David Guzman. But there doesn't have to be contact on every foul, and in his match report, Toledo wrote that the Belgian center-back "attempted [to] trip Guzman, which stopped [a] promising attack."
In other words, the Galaxy had no grounds to appeal either decision after the 1-0 defeat that left the five-time MLS Cup champions 0-2 to start the 2017 season. Even if they did, they couldn't have, as yellow cards are not subject to review -- more on that in a minute.
While MLS took action Thursday against Chara, a suspension -- as others have pointed out -- in these situations would serve as a far more effective deterrent. All things considered, though, it's hard to argue with the outcome.
But just for the sake of argument, let's say that Van Damme had been cautioned for the phantom foul from which Chara hit the deck.
As the rules stand now, that sort of yellow would be upheld even after the DisCo ruled that it was the result of an official being hoodwinked. Walton argues that reconsidering cautions is a slippery slope.
"What we don't want to do is re-referee the game," he said. "We'll look at red-card offenses because they are so egregious and they are so punitive in terms of their consequences. But for yellow cards, the majority of the time they are subjective calls. That's the beauty of the game. Once you go down that road, it's 'Was that throw-in correctly given?' or 'Should that have been a corner kick?' Where do you draw the line?"
Walton's point is well taken. But in the case of a player being sent off for a second bookable offense, both of those yellow cards should be eligible either to review or appeal, since they are effectively the same as reds. (MLS teams are allowed up to two unsuccessful appeals per season.)
And in instances where it's clear upon video analysis that the only reason a player received a booking was because his opponent cheated, the league should automatically eliminate that yellow. The one-game suspension that results from a double booking should not stand, nor should that card count towards any ban for accumulation later in the campaign. That's not re-refereeing the game. It's common sense.
"I don't disagree," Walton said, adding that any such tweaks would fall under the purview of MLS's competition committee.
"But of course, Van Damme's first yellow card wasn't given for a foul. In this particular incident, I think that has clouded the view of many who don't realize what the first card was for and see it as unfair."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.