Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Man Utd. Hangs On - Barely: The home crowd at Reading showed to cheer their heroes on to victory in the 5th Round FA Cup match, but they were stunned early on. Manchester broke out with three goals in the first six minutes, combining beautiful attacking play with a lot of luck. Manchester fielded a real "B" team, without Rooney, Ronaldo, Larsson and other regulars, but that didn't show early. The first goal was not really earned as Reading's backup goalie Adam Frederici let Heinze's shot squeeze through his grasp. The next goal came on a great strike by Louis Saha, that might have beaten the regular Reading keeper, U.S.A. international Marcus Hahnemann. The furious opening salvo ended with Ole Gunnar Soskjaer's perfectly slotted shot in a one-on-one situation, but a goal that probably should not have been allowed for offsides.

Still, Reading began to assert itself, controlling the play over the final 30 minutes of the first half. They were only able to gain back one goal, on a practice-perfect corner kick finished off with a header across the goal to set up Dave Kitson with an easy header for goal. Reading continued to press during much of the second half, and finally drew within a goal, when Leroy Lita drove a strong diving header that found net, in the 84th minute. Rooney found his way into the lineup, and then so did Ronaldo, as Sir Alex desperately tried to head off the Reading express. In stoppage time, Reading nearly found the tying goal as Byrnjar Gunnarson's dipping shot had beaten Edwin Van Der Sar, but ricocheted back off the crossbar.

Despite the dreadful start to the game, Reading was the better side. It was a great disappointment to see this spirited squad come up short of forcing extra time. Sometimes, you win, even when you lose...and Reading's fans will remember this game fondly, for years. In the end, though, it is United that lives to play another day in the FA Cup.

Another item worth noting: D.C. United and former striker, the great Bulgarian star Hristo Stoichkov have been named in a lawsuit, springing out of one of the most notorious exhibitions in memory. Stoichkov was a member of the team for one year, in 2003, when D.C. United played a little preseason tune-up against the American University squad. When the college boys scored, the notoriously combative Stoichkov retaliated, in short order, for this enormous offense. Moments after the restart that followed the goal, which Stoichkov had protested should have been disallowed, Stoichkov went in, studs first, diving at the planted leg of young Freddy Llerena. The assault by Stoichkov resulted in a compound fracture of Llerena's leg, requiring surgery and the insertion of a metal plate to hold the leg together. The incident caused the two teams to suspend the rest of the scrimmage, which had only begun ten minutes before.

Stoichkov offered a fairly insincere apology at the the time, calling it a "50/50 ball," while the AU coach called it "criminal." MLS responded by suspending Stoichkov for two games. The authorities, apparently didn't find it a serious matter, but Llerena has now brought suit nearly four years later.

As the article in the Washington Post points out, such cases usually turn on the question of assumption of risk, and the nature of the offensive action -- whether it is related to the play and within the foreseeable risks. The article quotes Duke University professor Paul Haagen, a sports law expert, who said "What this will turn on is expectations -- the expectations of the participants, what the game was about and whether it went beyond those level of expectations...Did the incident go beyond the normal course of the game?"

There is another threshold question concerning the filing of the suit -- whether it is beyond the normal three-year D.C. statute of limitations. I don't know the particulars of the situation -- the article states the suit was filed last year, though it would have to have been filed almost a year ago, with respect to United, anyway. This requirement would have been tolled with respect to Stoichkov, who is out of the country, but D.C. United would not be subject to suit beyond the three-year limit. Stoichkov himself would be liable for his assault only for one year, but, as I note, this would be tolled during his absence. Because the suit has not been dismissed, I assume that the suit was timely filed. If not, it would be a shame, because Llerena deserves to be compensated for this atrocious act.

Llerena alleges United was negligent in hiring Stoichkov, given his history. This is actually a fairly strong, credible argument. If Llerena is successful, it might send a powerful message to teams that they need to really think twice before bringing in talented, but notorious bad boys. Sports aren't always just games. Real life happens sometimes -- and the teams ought not operate under the illusion that they should get the same misguided, favored treatment that top athletes too often are accorded by an over-indulgent legal system.

No comments: