USSF got it wrong – violation of substitution procedure is no trifling offense.

In this blog, we are writing about remarks that were included in the Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game issued by the United States Soccer Federation (the “USSF”) in 2011. Specifically, we express our disappointment and dismay over the advice offered by the USSF, which appears to direct referees to disregard specific provisions of the Laws of the Game, dealing with the substitution and changing of goalkeepers. Indeed, we direct your attention to the following paragraph in section 8.3 titled “THE START OF PLAY” and, in particular, to the sentence that we underlined below:

The referee’s whistle to start the second half is a tacit acknowledgment that the persons on the field are players and the persons wearing a goalkeeper jersey are the goalkeepers-so long as the persons themselves are not illegal and the team is fielding the proper number of players. If a substitution has occurred and/or a goalkeeper has been swapped during the halftime interval without the referee being properly notified, the penalties specified in Law 3 must be applied. However, in youth play where the substitution or goalkeeper switching process is less formal, the intelligent referee will recognize that the offense is usually trifling and will allow play to continue with perhaps only a word of warning to the players involved. (Emphasis added.)

As you can see, the underlined sentence attempts to carve an exception to Law 3 for youth level games. It advises the referees to issue only “a word of warning” to the players involved for infringements of Law 3. The USSF’s stated justification for this newly fashioned exception is that the substitution process is usually less formal in youth play and that “the intelligent referee will recognize that the offense is usually trifling.”

First, the Laws of the Game, and specifically Law 3 – The Numbers of Players, states that “if a substitute or substituted player enters the field of play without the referee’s permission” or “if a player changes places with the goalkeeper without the referee’s permission before the change is made” the referee must caution the players concerned. Ironically, in the same paragraph, the USSF specifically acknowledges that the penalties specified in Law 3 must be applied if the substitution or the swap occurred without “the referee being properly notified.” Despite the acknowledgement that Caution is required under such circumstances, however, in the sentence that follows, the USSF carves out an exception for “youth” level games and advises the referees to issue “a word of warning to the players involved” instead. However, we found no provision in the Laws of the Game or the Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees issued by the International Football Association Board (the “Board”) under which such modification of Law 3 is allowed.

Second, we believe that the stated justification for this attempted modification to the Laws of the Game is wrong. To begin with, Law 3 does not categorize the infringements of Law 3 into “trifling” and “non-trifling” offenses. Law 3 unequivocally states that the referee must caution players who infringe Law 3. There is no ifs, ands or butts. Therefore, purported classification of the infringement into a “trifling” category provides no proper basis for the proposed modification to Law 3.

Third, careful analysis of the offence and of the potential consequences stemming from the offense actually shows that the offense is not “trifling” at all. Consider, for example, the following fact scenario that was addressed by the USSF on the “Ask A Soccer Referee” website:

While the ball was in play, a substitute replaced a goalkeeper without informing the referee. The now new substitute goalkeeper then blocks the shot from the opposing team with his hands that, but for this intervention, would have made its way into the goal. Only after the new substitute goalkeeper blocked the shot, the referee realized that the “substitution” took place. In response, the USSF stated that:

two players have committed five acts of misconduct. The substitute (1) entered the field illegally, (2) illegally changed places with the goalkeeper, and (3) prevented an obvious goal scoring opportunity by handling the ball. The original goalkeeper (4) illegally changed places with the substitute and (5) illegally left the field. The Interpretation tells us, however, that the restart is determined by the illegal entry of the substitute onto the field, no matter what other offenses that substitute may commit thereafter. We also know that, although it would technically be correct to issue a caution for (1) or (2) to the substitute, the real (and most serious offense) was the prevention of the goal. So, send off the substitute for DGH and include a description of his other misconducts in your game report. Caution the original goalkeeper for the illegal exchange of places with the goalkeeper and, as above, decide whether a second caution for the illegal departure from the field would be in the best interests of the game as it would result of course in a red card.

This example, and the USSF’s answer, clearly demonstrates that a failure to follow the substitution procedure can result in multiple violations of the Laws of the Game and, importantly, result in grave consequences to the offending players and their team. Surely, these consequences are not characteristics of a “trifling” offense. Indeed, in another section of the Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game, USSF warned that those “referees who deviate from the formal process by which a substitute becomes a player – whether in the interest of saving time or because the steps are thought to be too complex and cumbersome – do so at their own peril and will eventually discover that the Laws of the Game specify the procedure for very good reasons. Deviations may lead to situations that the referee cannot settle within the Law.” (See Section 3.4 Substitution Procedure.)

This brings us to our fourth point. Namely, contrary to the USSF’s statement, the intelligent referee would actually be expected to follow specific provisions of Law 3 and issue appropriate sanctions to the players infringing Law 3, because the intelligent referee would like to be completely consistent with the substitution procedure set out in the Laws of the Game and avoid “deviations [from the laws] that may lead to situations that the referee cannot settle within the Law.”

Fifth, we believe that it is especially important that referees consistently enforce all of the Laws of the Game in youth level games. It is at this young stage that most of the educating takes place and when young players learn about the Laws of the Game and all proper procedures. Young players are especially impressionable and once referees allow for their bad habits to develop, they are unlikely to change when they become older. Indeed, there is a saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

This so-called exception for “youth” level games is sure to lead to sporadic and/or inconsistent enforcement of the Laws of the Games. This, in turn, may cause players and spectators to believe that the referee favors one side over the other, that he is unfair or that he is lackadaisical in his approach to the game. Therefore, we believe that the USSF’s above-referenced comment is misguided and should be retracted. Let us know what you think.

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