What do you do if you’re an MLS franchise that wants to get minutes for a suspended player? If you’re the Philadelphia Union, you send him on loan to your USL affiliate during the suspension period. That’s what happened when Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer suited up for the Harrisburg City Islanders on Saturday. The move has all the appearances of a duplicitous attempt to skirt the rules.
Pfeffer received a red card for planting his elbow into the head of FC Dallas midfielder Mauro Diaz on Saturday, March 21. The ejection came with an automatic one-game suspension. The MLS Disciplinary Committee reviewed the incident and found it to be so egregious that an additional one-game suspension and fines were added to the sanction.
When the suspension was levied, the next two matches on the Union’s schedule were against the Chicago Fire on March 29 and against Sporting Kansas City on April 5.
Instead of letting their midfielder sit idly while serving his suspension, the Union sent Pfeffer on loan to the Harrisburg City Islanders. Pfeffer was in the starting lineup for the City Islanders against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on Saturday, March 28 (one day ahead of the Union’s contest against the Fire). Pfeffer was in the starting XI, played 82 minutes, and scored a goal in a 5-2 loss.
It seems clear that the loan to Harrisburg was an attempt to mitigate the punitive effects of the suspension for Pfeffer and for the Union. This should not sit well with fans of American soccer.
It is highly unlikely that Pfeffer would have been loaned from the Union if the suspension had not been handed down. Despite being with the Union since 2011, a time before loans between the Pennsylvania teams became commonplace, Pfeffer has made only one other appearance with Harrisburg. Additionally, he has been elevated to a more prominent role with Philadelphia this season and, by all accounts, would have been in the game day lineup for the Union against Chicago if not for the suspension.
How did the loan alleviate the pain of the suspension? Obviously, Philadelphia was able to get minutes in a competitive environment for a suspended player. The MLS franchise was also able to use that suspended player to help fulfill its loan obligation to its USL affiliate, an obligation that otherwise may have been difficult to fulfill due to the number of injuries that the Union has sustained. If Philadelphia has not violated the letter of the law, the club has certainly violated the spirit of the law.
MLS seemingly recognizes that the consequences of suspensions are diminished when players are allowed to compete for other teams. The MLS Disciplinary Committee Principles and Parameters outline the steps to be taken when a suspended player is called up to a national team:
Players suspended from MLS League Season games (regular season or playoffs) that are called in for national team duty will have their suspensions held in abeyance until they return to their MLS Club. Further, MLS Clubs will be responsible for informing the League Office of a player’s selection to national team duty. Failure to provide the League Office with such notice or to withhold the use of a suspended player when appropriate is subject to sanctions.
With respect to suspension manipulation, there is no appreciable difference between a call-up to a national team and a loan to another club. Suspensions should be held in abeyance when a suspended MLS player is loaned to another club.
Scratching the Pitch attempted to contact Sal Della Monica, MLS Director of Communications and spokesperson for issues related to the Disciplinary Committee, to determine whether or not Pfeffer’s suspension would be held in abeyance and to discuss if specific rules would be added to prevent this type of maneuver in the future. Della Monica has not yet responded.
It turns out that Pfeffer’s suspension was not held in abeyance for the loan period to Harrisburg. An article on the MLS website indicates that he will be eligible to return to MLS competition on April 11 against New York City FC. This corresponds to the original return from the 2-game suspension.
USL could adopt rules of its own to prevent this sort of mischief. It would be as simple as honoring suspensions imparted by MLS. A request to discuss this possibility with someone in the USL league office has not been returned.
Since this article was first published, a few items have been brought to the attention of Scratching the Pitch.
- Montreal did the same thing with Hassoun Camara last weekend as Philly did with Pfeffer.
- The point of abeyance of suspensions for international call-ups is that those call-ups are generally planned and/or foreseeable. A player with foreknowledge that he is about to be called up could play more recklessly in league play ahead of time without fear of actually having to serve a suspension.
It would seem, then, that MLS would have very little heartburn over its clubs loaning suspended players to USL teams. There is, however, still cause for indignation from USL supporters. Sending suspended players to USL affiliates could become a trend for MLS. This could directly impact playoff qualifications and regular season championships. It is not right that the outcomes of matches could be determined by players who would be suspended with the first team.