Don Garber is not the most dictatorial of professional sports commissioners, but he is prepared to smack Major League Soccer's "head hunters" with an iron fist.
The Don's reaction last week to FC Dallas defender Adrian Serioux's recent hideous tackle on David Beckham sent a clear message that the MLS hierarchy will not tolerate over-the-top targeting of key players and will clamp down on offenders.
Serioux was fined $1,000 for the dreadful lunge that the Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder claimed "could have broken my leg," but Garber's punishment was more for the Canadian's comments 15 months earlier, when Serioux said he was "going for" Beckham.
MLS has hitched its future to the coattails of international superstars such as Beckham and the Chicago Fire's Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and it is hoped that many more, including the likes of Barcelona's Thierry Henry and Chelsea's Andriy Shevchenko, will soon follow.
For that to happen, Garber knows his league must ensure MLS does not get a reputation as a league where talented individuals are targeted by lower-paid opponents who want to prove a point and make a name for themselves. In this sense, soccer can learn a lesson from the National Football League, where rules have been altered over the years to protect players at its most important (and highest-paid) position: quarterback.
In soccer, combative and high-tempo play is an integral part of the game. However, that must not spill over into foul and dangerous tactics.
BECKHAM … A 'BASTARD'?
Los Angeles Galaxy president Alexi Lalas says David Beckham is prepared to behave like one to protect himself from Major League Soccer’s hit men.
Beckham has been on the receiving end of tough tactics from opponents this season, but Lalas insisted the England midfielder can look after himself.
“People talk about the grace and skill and technical ability of David but he can get down and dirty when he needs to,” Lalas said. “He can be a bastard, and I say that in a very loving way. Some of the greatest players ever have had that bit of bastard in their game.”
On several occasions this year, Beckham has lost his temper, most notably against FC Dallas when he waved goodbye and blew sarcastic kisses at red-carded defender Adrian Serioux following a two-footed tackle from behind.
“At times he is going to get fired up and react with emotion,” Lalas said of Beckham. “We want that. I was pleased to see it and pleased to see the way his teammates have come to his aid.
“No one on the Galaxy is going to cry but at times you do have to defend yourself. People must understand it can not be open season on the stars of this league.”
By singling out Serioux for a fine – and spelling out that "words or actions … that improperly target any player for physical aggression" were unacceptable and liable to incur more serious sanctions in the future – Garber made an important statement that will not be lost on those considering a studs-up approach.
It comes as no surprise that there would be some who are keen to leave an imprint on Beckham, Blanco or the New York Red Bulls' Juan Pablo Angel. After all, Serioux makes $113,400 per season, while Beckham's salary is nearly 50 times that amount. Also, more than 50 players earn the league minimum of $12,900.
However, there is a general level of understanding among MLS players that the extra exposure prompted by Beckham can only benefit them in the long term.
"Foul play is not something David has had a tremendous amount of and that says a lot about the respect people have for him and what he is doing for the league," Galaxy president Alexi Lalas said. "You don't want to kill your golden goose, or break his leg."
League protection can only go so far, though, and having made its point, MLS will not risk accusations of favoritism by pushing the issue – unless it is necessary.
Beckham was right to be upset about the Serioux tackle, but he must expect tough tackling and tight marking and accept it as a symbol of respect rather than a reason to get irate. He lost his cool last month against the Red Bulls and Dave van den Bergh, whose close attention negatively affected Beckham's performance in a 2-1 Galaxy defeat.
"There is a fine line between 'targeting' a player like Beckham, or just giving him extra attention because of his abilities," said one MLS player who asked not to be named. "Sure, I have heard our defenders and midfielders talking about how they want to stop him and give him a tough time, but whether that constitutes 'targeting' is a matter of opinion."
It is a line that players might think twice about crossing following Garber's signal of intent. For those brave or foolish enough to follow Serioux's example, they risk the wrath of an unshakeable commissioner.