Jump to content
  • Sliding tackles: a rethink


    As by now we know, Colorado Rapids defender Brian Mullan destroyed the leg – and quite possibly the career – of Seattle Sounder speedster Steve Zakuani with a horrendous tackle a week and a half ago.

    Mullan bowling-balled himself into Zakuani’s path as the gifted attackman was sprinting down the touchline with the ball. The collision sent the young Congolese import pinwheeling – with a extra joint in his shattered right leg.

    MLS responded with a ten-game suspension.


    By all accounts, Mullan is horrified by what happened. The eleven-year MLS veteran says he’s made that tackle a hundred times. But he also claims he didn’t know the full extent of Zakuani’s injury until after the match. That strains credulity a bit, as the injured Sounder was down on the turf for a long time, and no one would want a leg that looked like his.

    But let’s give the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Whatever Mullan’s intent might have been, it’s pretty clear he had no inkling his rough, rolling challenge was going to have such devastating consequence.

    I’m going to take a different approach on this, though. A deeper look at what the actual purpose of a sliding soccer tackle is – or ought to be.

    We know, of course, that soccer is a contact sport. There are limits, but there’s no shortage of crunching tackles in the world game – many of which are quite brutal, and go uncalled.

    In my very bad and brief high school playing career, I vividly remember being good at only two things – hoofing the ball the hell out of our zone … and winning the ball with a slide tackle.

    The intent was never to hurt anyone. No spike of mine ever touched another player’s leg. The idea was to slide through the ball. In a perfect world, my opponent would fall over, and I would pop up with the ball at my feet, heading the other direction, looking for an open man to pass to. Completing that pass was completely beyond my ability, but I knew how to go to ground, and come up with possession.

    In the professional game, of course, there’s a lot more going on. Zakuani is a dangerous creator in MLS, and opposing teams are going to want to lay some contact on him in hopes of slowing him down or roughing it up.

    But how does this tackle Mullan’s done a hundred times stack up against the slide-tackle ideal? Badly.

    While I don’t believe for a second the man intended major injury, what he clearly intended to do was put a low, dense, insurmountable barrier directly in the path of a sprinting man. This wasn’t a case of getting the ball. Mullan knew there was going to be an impact, and that Steve Zakuani was going to feel it.

    At this point, it’s not a question of one man’s skill against another’s. At this point, it’s a deliberate collision, which Mullan timed, initiated, and was vastly better positioned to protect himself.

    The rest was horrific bad luck. I’ve never seen a body fly quite the way Zakuani’s did. Closest thing that came to mind was a ski-jumper bouncing back up after a very bad landing.

    But while Mullan can reasonably state he got to – and through – the ball with his lead leg, it’s the positioning of the rest of his body that concerns me. I’ve got no objection whatsoever to a ball carrier getting knocked over by a good tackle. But there are degrees, and the way Mullan’s body fell in front of Zakuani didn’t give the Seattle man any chance of escaping a devastating impact.

    I think what’s happened is that the art of the sliding tackle has got buried in the mud. When it’s done right, the defender gets the ball – and instant clearance from a temporarily felled opponent. That creates a brief man advantage, and a lot of transitional options.

    The artless approach is just to clobber someone, and hope you can convince the referee you got to the ball before you got to your opponent. It’s rougher, more cynical – and way too easy.

    The basic methods of winning soccer games are scoring goals – and preventing them. Across the world, it is very, very difficult to score in soccer. It takes vast amounts of skill and creativity to pull it off at all.

    Why shouldn’t tackling be held to the same standard?

    Zakuani’s injury is an extreme case. You can’t have both main bones snap in your lower leg without additional nerve damage and trauma. Even if the leg heals and regains all its strength, there remains a distinct possibility a gifted, entertaining, marquee MLSer will never play another competitive game in his life.

    That would be a horrendous waste. That it was done so routinely, so blandly, with such dreary lack of skill – well, a ten-game suspension seems pretty mild to me.

    I would like to see a rethink of what sliding tackles are, and what they ought to be. If a soccer player has to get badly injured out there, let it at least happen with everyone playing the actual game.


  • Create New...