Top 5 Rule Changes MLS Should Adopt Now

Patrick McDermott

Ok, Ok. Soccer has laws, not rules. But whatever you call them, occasionally they should be updated to improve the game. And maybe even make life easier for the referees who really do have a brutally tough job.

Soccer is a sport that doesn't make rule changes lightly. It's a sport of great tradition, one in which famous matches of the past are still played by the same general rules that are used today. But, even soccer's rules are changed from time to time to modernize the game. For example, when I played in a previous millennium, an attacking player had to be behind the second to the last defender to be onside (all other elements of the offside rule aside)--if the attacking player was level, he/she was offside. Also, defenders could pass the ball back to the goalie (who was allowed pick it up), and teams could play passing games to move their keeper around the box since the goalie was limited to only four steps with the ball. Finally, winning teams also used to only get two points in a tournament for a victory rather than the three they get today.

So, what changes could MLS make now to improve the game without fundamentally changing its historic nature? While I'll advocate that Major League Soccer should take the lead in instituting these rule changes, I fully understand that they probably have to get permission from all sorts of organizations to make this happen: their sanctioning body, US Soccer; the International Football Association Board, composed of FIFA and Great Britain's four constituent soccer associations (England's FA, Scottish FA, FA of Wales, and Northern Ireland's FA). Yes, Northern Ireland gets a direct vote on soccer's Laws of the Game, but Brazil doesn't! And maybe even CONCACAF, just because.

Also, we live in an amazing age of technology. Why resist using it when it can help determine the correct outcome of a match? For me, the entire purpose of having referees officiate a soccer match is to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that two teams play within the laws of the game while determining the result. We don't trust two teams to play each other and stay within the laws, so neutral referees who are dedicated to enforcing the laws are assigned to officiate. But, referees make mistakes from time to time that prevent the laws from being correctly enforced. Why not use technology to help them enforce the laws (which is of course why we have referees)? Of course, the use of technology shouldn't detract from the flow of the game, but I think the recommendations below can be implemented without interfering with the game's celebrated fluidity.

With all that said, here are the Top 5 rule changes I'd like to see adopted in MLS (and around the world, or at least in the world's biggest leagues and tournaments):

1. Institute goal-line technology now. In the last World Cup, England was famously robbed of a clear goal against Germany. Although Frank Lampard's shot visibly crossed the line, the goal was not awarded. It was a huge embarrassment to FIFA since it was immediately clear to everyone watching that the referees had missed a clear goal. I'm sure it was horribly embarrassing to the referees as well.

Frank Lampard's Disallowed Goal v Germany 2010 + Post Match. (via ClassicEngland)

While England went on to lose this game 4-1, who knows the impact of not being awarded the tying goal in the first half? Fortunately, goal line technology isn't often needed, but when it is called into action, it has the potential to keep the gravest of soccer injustices from occurring, namely a legitimate goal not being awarded. And, as professional tennis has shown, this type of technology can be used both quickly and definitively to make the right call. Fortunately, FIFA will start using goal line technology at next summer's World Cup, and the English Premier League is using it now. When will MLS follow?

[Note: The US Men's National Team almost certainly would have been awarded a goal in their friendly against Austria yesterday if goal line technology had been in use (see sequence starting at 1:35.]

2. Every time the referee calls back a goal, review the call using video replay. Goals are precious in soccer, and just one can mean the difference between a championship and failure (with all the career ramifications that failure can have for coaches, front office types, and players). So, any time the referee is calling back a goal (i.e. the ball is in the back of the net and the referee is waiving it off), that call should be reviewed using video technology. To overturn the referee's call and restore the goal, use the standard we hear in gridiron football all the time, "incontrovertible visual evidence." This still may result in some deserved goals not being allowed, but at least it will afford the opportunity to avoid absolutely horrible calls that are immediately evident to everyone watching that they are wrong. Plus, the replay can occur during a natural stoppage in play while the ball is being retrieved from the net and the aggrieved team is inevitably protesting to the referee and the assistant referees (more about that below). Adopt the procedures Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League use by centralizing reviews at MLS HQ to improve the consistency of replay calls. An example of when to apply this procedure was the clear goal Sporting Kansas City scored against D.C. United at RFK back in May that was disallowed in route to a 1-1 draw. The goal was good, and should have been awarded.

3. Change the interpretation of the offside rule so that if any part of the attacking player (arms excluded) is level with the second to the last defender, the play is onside. Currently, the official FIFA interpretation of the offside rule, or Law 11 as FIFA regally refers to it, states the following (see page 35 and 108):

"A player is in an offside position if: he is nearer to his opponents' goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent...In the context of Law 11, the following definitions apply: "nearer to his opponents' goal line" means that any part of a player's head, body or feet is nearer to his opponents' goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent. The arms are not included in this definition"

Again, with goals being in such short supply in soccer, why be so restrictive when determining if an attacking player is in an offside position when he/she is level in some way with the second-last defender? Change the interpretation such that the attacking player need only have any part of his/her "head, body or feet" level with the "second-last opponent" to be onside, and we will probably see more attacking soccer and a few more goals (and Houston Dynamo may have a 1-0 lead on Sporting Kansas City in this year's Eastern Conference finals heading into the second leg).

4. Increase post-game reviews for simulation, and have mandatory 2-game suspensions when it is clearly detected. Soccer gets a bad rap in American sports for diving (i.e. simulation). I wish I could say it doesn't occur, but it does and it is very unattractive. No, the bad rap is because other sports also suffer from similar antics (e.g. NBA flopping, NFL faked injuries to slow down hurry-up offenses, etc...). Soccer isn't unique in this regard, but that doesn't mean diving/simulation shouldn't be harshly dealt with when detected. To MLS's credit, their Disciplinary Committee reviews for "simulation/embellishment", but the punishments should be severe to help reduce simulation's frequency and impact on the game, and make the referees' job easier. Oh, and FIFA needs to get serious about simulation. If the amateurish performance that Costa Rica's Joel Campbell used to get Matt Besler a yellow card (and subsequent suspension from the US-Mexico World Cup Qualifier) only results in a "reprimand", then the system is broken (see sequence starting at 5:40 in the video below). I say Joel Campbell should have received a 2-game suspension, minimum.

MNT vs. Costa Rica: Field Level Highlights - Sept. 6, 2013 (via U.S. Soccer)

5. Increase respect for match referees by strictly enforcing dissent rules. After making all the recommended rule changes above, MLS will have done a lot to help make the referees' jobs easier. The referees will have more tools to deal with big, controversial moments in a game. In addition, I'd give them a break from the confrontation and intimidation they frequently face by players and coaches. According to the FIFA Laws, a player should receive a yellow card for "dissent by word or action" (see page 38). In my perfect world, only team captains would be allowed to speak to the referee and no other player would be allowed to dissent directly to the referee. Additionally, head coaches would be allowed to talk to the fourth official. That's it. Anyone else who directly dissents with the referee, the assistant referees, or the fourth official should get an immediate yellow card. It's become comical and routine that a referee's decision to award a penalty kick or a red card (and at other less critical times as well) is immediately followed by angry players directly confronting the referee and other match officials in an aggressive manner leading to extended delays in the match. Again, credit to MLS for trying to tone this down by creating and enforcing its mass confrontation policy (although enforcement is somewhat opaque). Strictly enforcing the existing dissent rules would certainly require a global cultural change in the sport, but other sports enforce such a culture (hat tip to rugby) and MLS should start making the change now.

Referee Nigel Owens tells off Tobias Botes - 'This is not Soccer' (via ballsoddshaped)

If MLS makes the changes above, somewhere down the road perhaps they can make further changes to review all goals and penalty kick calls with real-time video replay to ensure they are correct, figure out how to use technology to help improve the accuracy of offside calls in real time, etc...all while protecting the character of the game.

What do you think? Should MLS institute the rule changes above? What rules would you change? Or, do you prefer that referees, like players and coaches, be allowed to make mistakes since it's part of soccer's human element?

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