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Major League Soccer has a lot going for it at the moment; a Pacific Northwest rivalry that has energised the league, two marquee franchises (LA and NY) that are sitting at the top of their respective Conferences, and the general feeling that the game as a whole is gradually creeping into the consciousness of the sporting public.

Yet a series of horrific injuries has cast a dark shadow across these bright sunlit uplands, and the league must know that unless it finds a way of dealing with this crisis then the growing development of the league could be stunted forever.

In the last few weeks three of the sport’s most entertaining players have been sidelined for months thanks to a series of tackles that have garnered far more media attention than any individual goal or game this season.

Seattle’s Steve Zakuani, Carlos Ferreira of FC Dallas and, on Saturday, Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales have all been condemned to spending more time in hospital corridors than on the playing field in 2011.

Each tackle was different in character, but perhaps Morales was the most sinned against of all. He had broken away from Chivas USA’s Marcos Mondaini who then proceeded to tackle him from behind with no intent, or chance, of getting the ball.

The angle of the challenge (directly from behind) meant that an injury was more likely than not and Mondaini must now wait to see if his punishment matches that of Zakuani’s nemesis, Brian Mullan, who was suspended for ten games.

That suspension was seen as the deployment of the “nuclear option” by MLS who were clearly hoping that such a draconian measure would have an immediate impact on the field. No such luck.

Mondaini demonstrated that certain types of challenges have become endemic in MLS and that their elimination won’t happen overnight, and they won’t happen at all without the additional input of coaches and referees.

A coach sets the tone for how his team will play, and against Real Salt Lake it was clear from the start that Chivas USA were prepared to foul their way to a result against a superior team (they were already down to ten men when Mondaini was red carded). That wasn’t a decision that the players took in isolation, they were almost certainly acting on specific orders from their manager.

An additional spark to the tinder was added by a match official who seemed all too reluctant to punish overly physical play with anything more than a routine whistle, and sometimes not even that.

Indeed Mondaini could well claim that what he did wasn’t an aberration. It was an athlete adapting to the particular circumstances of the game, and if his challenge hadn’t injured Morales so severely then he wouldn’t have been sent off. Certainly video evidence seems to suggest that the referee had originally produced a yellow card, only changing it to red when he saw the extent of the damage caused.

So what does MLS do now? Another lengthy player suspension seems inevitable, but if these fail to produce tangible results maybe the clubs themselves should be targeted. Financial, or even points penalties, against repeat offenders may concentrate minds more than losing a journeyman player for a few weeks.

Major League Soccer hopes to eventually challenge the European leagues in terms of quality and entertainment, but persuading players with skill and guile to ply their trade in North America has suddenly become a lot more challenging. How those in charge of MLS react now could define their product for years to come.

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