Jackson’s lack of discipline a concern for TFC

TFC's Jackson (second from right). (Ted S. Warren/AP)

It’s not as though Toronto FC newcomer Jackson is a bad player—far from it.

The Brazilian winger has been a solid addition to TFC’s roster this season, adding genuine width to the attack with his dangerous pace and deft touch on the ball. Jackson has underlined his importance to Toronto by playing 179 minutes over the course of the Reds’ first two games, tallying three shots (one on target) and endearing himself to TFC’s fans with his exemplary work ethic.

And it’s not just in the final third of the field that Jackson has contributed to the cause. The 25-year-old has also proven to be an asset on the other side of the ball, tracking back to help out the defence, harassing and harrying opposing players as they attempt to dribble down the flanks towards Toronto’s goal.

It’s interesting to note that Jackson was the first major off-season addition by TFC last December, preceding the arrivals of Gilberto, Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Dwayne De Rosario. At the end of the 2013 season, coach Ryan Nelsen and Tim Bezbatchenko talked about the need to retool the roster with MLS-experienced veterans—players who have been in the league for a while and can play a number of positions. Jackson fit that bill, being able to slot in on either flank, and play as either a winger of fullback.

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He came pretty cheap, too. All TFC had to give up in the trade with FC Dallas was a conditional second-round pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft and an unspecified amount of allocation money. That’s a small price to pay for a utility player of Jackson’s calibre who Bezbatchenko at the time of the trade called a highly skilled and dynamic midfielder who was “about to enter the prime years of his career.”

But there was a catch. For all the good that Jackson offered on the offensive and defensive ends, he also came to Toronto with a poor disciplinary record. During his four seasons with FC Dallas from 2010 to 2013, Jackson accumulated 17 yellow cards and three red cards against just 11 goals and 13 assists. He was also fined last year for “unprofessional conduct detrimental to the image of the league” after getting into an on-field dust-up with former teammate David Ferreira.

Any possibility that he would turn over a new leaf in Toronto was quickly quashed. In the Reds’ season-opening game in Seattle, Jackson clipped Sounders forward Clint Dempsey with a dirty tackle. It was an infraction worthy of a red card and would have reduced Toronto to 10 men after only six minutes. Lucky for TFC the incident went unnoticed by the referee and Toronto went on to win 2–1.

Then this past weekend in the Reds’ home opener, Jackson elbowed D.C. United midfielder Davy Arnaud in the chest in an off-the-ball incident during TFC’s 1–0 win. Jackson was yellow carded for the infraction, but the league’s disciplinary committee reviewed the incident and took further action, handing the Brazilian a one-game suspension. He’ll miss this Saturday’s road game versus Real Salt Lake, and he should consider himself lucky that he wasn’t suspended longer.

Not surprisingly, Nelsen leapt to Jackson’s defence.

“I felt really bad for him because he was getting pushed and shoved. If you watched it, Davy Arnaud was pushing his chest into (Jackson’s) back and aggravating him. (Jackson) shouldn’t have retaliated but I can understand it,” Nelsen told reporters after Tuesday’s practice.

Nelsen’s use of the word “aggravating” is interesting. As Bradley lined up to take a TFC free kick in the match, Arnaud bumped into Jackson from behind as part of the typical penalty-area jostling that always seems to take place on a set piece. It wasn’t malicious and didn’t warrant a word from the referee. But Jackson over-reacted and retaliated by planting an elbow in Arnaud’s chest. Without doubt, the D.C. United midfielder sold it and dropped to the ground far too easily, but Jackson was clearly in the wrong and there was no mistaking his intent.

Jackson said, “It was just something that happened in the spur of the moment,” and maybe it was. Maybe Jackson just let his emotions get the better of him. Maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

Despite his track record at Dallas, and the incidents with Arnaud and Dempsey, Nelsen doesn’t feel Jackson poses a disciplinary problem for TFC going forward.

“Not at all. Absolutely not at all. He just wants to win,” Nelsen offered. “He’ll learn from experience that there’s better ways to deal with it, but I’d rather have guys who are willing to win than who are little sheep out there. There’s a fire in Jackson that I really like and appreciate. He brings a lot of energy to the club.”

Having fire is fine. Bringing energy is good, too. Jackson seems to have trouble controlling himself, though. He’s played two games for TFC so far, committing egregious fouls in both contests and earning a one-match suspension—all of this on the heels of his spotty disciplinary record at Dallas. It would seem that, contrary to Nelsen’s protestations, Jackson hasn’t learnt from experience.

In the short-term, Toronto will be robbed of the services of one of its key starters Saturday against Real Salt Lake, one of the best teams in MLS, especially when playing at home. Nelsen will likely play De Rosario (who’s looked pretty average so far this year) in place of the suspended Jackson, exposing the team’s lack of depth and making a very tough game even tougher for the Reds.

In the long-term, if history is any indication, this won’t be the last time that Jackson will run afoul of the rules this season. Will Jackson learn from this experience? Don’t count on it.

John Molinaro is Sporsnet’s chief soccer reporter. Follow him on Twitter.

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