Substitution Rules and Playing Time
What’s Ailing D-III Soccer: Substitution Rules
Soccer is called the beautiful game for many reasons, but one is that it offers a unique combination of simplicity and complexity. The complex: scoring is hard, it’s tactically demanding (offsides, formation), and you play with your feet. The simple: 11-versus-11, interchangeable positions, one halftime, no time-outs, and three substitutions—except in college. The college substitution rules have always bugged me, so I spoke with a number of coaches and players to get their opinion and figure out potential changes. Today, I’m going to outline the rules and explain why I think we need to change them. In Part 2, I’ll present the argument in favor of liberal substitution rules, detail how some elite programs leverage them to their advantage, and suggest a change I think will fix the system.
The Current Rules
In professional soccer, each team has three substitutions, and once a player has been substituted, he cannot reenter. NCAA rules are completely different. Teams can make unlimited substitutions in the first half. Once a player exits, they cannot return until the second half. In the second half, teams again have unlimited substitutions, but if a player is substituted, he can re-enter once. If the game goes to overtime, a substituted player cannot re-enter during a period, but can re-enter in the second overtime if substituted in the first. Here’s an example of what this might look like for one player:
Minute 1: Starts the game
Minute 35: Substituted – must sit the rest of the half
Minute 46: Starts the second half
Minute 60: Substituted
Minute 75: Re-enters
First Overtime: Starts, substituted after five minutes
Second Overtime: Re-enters with five minutes remaining
That doesn’t seem so bad, does it? A few substitutions over the course of a 90- or 110-minute game might seem like minimal fuss, but I believe it hurts the game in several ways.
Critique # 1: Excessive Substitutions Lower the Quality of Play
I’m a soccer purist; I prefer to see passes on the ground, building from the back, and goals from the run of play. I disdain strategies based on long throw-ins and free kicks, and I dislike kickball. I can’t deny the effectiveness of those tactics, but they are becoming more and more widespread, and the substitution rules provide the foundation for that style of play.
In a normal game, teams and players can’t press non-stop. Forwards and midfielders would need to sprint for 90 minutes, and it’s almost impossible to defend with complete intensity for that long. That’s why many games start slow and “open up” later on, as players tire and space is easier to find, especially in the second half. Teams that can’t possess the ball are in an even tougher position, because it takes more energy, both mental and physical, to defend. So teams value possession and pick opportune moments to press, allowing games to ebb and flow and find a rhythm. You see fascinating tactical battles in every game, as teams fight for possession, adjust to defend when they lose it, and then either counter-attack quickly or build methodically once they gain possession. In the second half, players find more space and teams often counter-attack back and forth, allowing the game to crescendo as it reaches the final stages.
Not so in college soccer. Rather than rhythm, the college game is chaos. Any team—even one that’s outmatched or unable to maintain possession—can press non-stop. While players can’t run for 90 minutes straight, they can run for 25, take a break, and then do it again. They can defend without worrying about fatigue. Instead of space opening up in the 60th or 75th minute to encourage attacks, teams just bring in a fresh wave of subs. College players run more in games than professionals for this very reason. They don’t learn how to conserve energy, or how to use space, they just fly around the field. It can be exhilarating at times, don’t get me wrong, but more often than not it results in a game that’s painful to watch.
The Division III game magnifies the problem. I always thought Division I games were too direct because players’ athletic abilities were so much greater than their soccer abilities. Division III was different, because there was a smaller gap between skill and athletic ability. With more and more soccer players in this country, however, the D-III game has seen increased athleticism and depth without the requisite increase in skill. Now we have a ton of athletic players and substitution rules that allow teams to rotate them in with no concern for fatigue. Few teams have the skill to combat such tactics, and that means we see more direct play and less good, attacking soccer.
Critique #2: Excessive Substitutions Kill the Flow of the Game.
A soccer game is 90 minutes, but teams don’t come close to 90 minutes of actual playing time. In many professional leagues, between throw-ins, free kicks, etc., the average “effective playing time” is less than 55 minutes. That’s with only three substitutions, and the problem is exponentially greater in the college game. Assume each substitution takes 20 seconds, and each team subs five times in the first half and ten in the second (due to re-entry). With these modest numbers, you’re looking at thirty substitutions—one every three minutes—or ten minutes of game time. That number is higher in many games.
This hurts the game in multiple ways. First, players cannot get into a rhythm. A player has the ball for two or three minutes, maximum, in a 90-minute game. In fifteen minutes, you might get 20 seconds. That makes it difficult for one sub to settle into a game, let alone three or five or seven. Teams lose momentum and any familiarity and comfort they’d been building throughout the game. Second, the game itself becomes choppy. Soccer is ever-moving, from start to finish. That doesn’t happen when you see ten substitutions in a five-minute span, and you will see that during conference and NCAA tournament play. Third, unlimited substitutions allow teams to waste time. A team winning by one or two might start early in the second half, substituting one player at a time instead of three or four, just to kill the clock. It’s effective and within the rules, but it’s bad for the game.
Finally, excessive subbing negatively affects the viewing experience. Soccer is growing in popularity for three reasons: (1) an improvement in the on-the-field product; (2) an increase in the number of people who played the sport growing up; and (3) game efficiency. (FIFA soccer would be a sentimental fourth reason). Football and baseball games take three or four hours. Basketball games have too many timeouts, and hockey has multiple long intermissions. Soccer is the exception, but allowing so many substitutions makes it just another sport with too many interruptions.
Critique #3: Overactive Coaching
My college coach always commented that soccer was “the last player’s game.” If your team is struggling, you can’t call a time out. You can’t wait for the end of the quarter or inning, or talk to the offense while the defense is out there. You don’t get a line change and you (mostly) can’t call plays. The only things a soccer coach can really do are (1) set the team to start, (2) make adjustments at halftime, and (3) make substitutions. In college, the last one takes on an inflated and disproportional importance.
I found the player’s-game view appealing, because we had to adjust and manage the game on our own. But that’s becoming less true as more coaches use the liberal substitution rules to have a greater impact on games. Coaches can make wholesale lineup changes, they can adjust the style of play more often and with greater ease, and they can correct almost any mistake with minimal consequences. I’d prefer games be decided by players, not coaches, yet the rules allow a coach to have an out-sized impact on the outcome.
Critique #4: The Pros Have it Right
At the ripe old age of 28, this is my first “get off my lawn” moment, but I simply don’t like watching teams mass substitute eight players at a time. I always wanted to play 90 minutes and the idea of coming off the field (or pulling your best players) doesn’t sit well with me. I also like to see teams rewarded for fitness levels, not a coach’s ability to nail his substitutions. Finally, I love the point where professional games catch fire, when teams become tired and the game is stretched. Instead, I watch too many Division III games that sputter and crawl toward the end, with an endless run of substitutions and disjointed play.
We need to change the substitution system. The current rules negatively affect the level of play, make games less entertaining, and lead to intermittent, oft-interrupted play. Still, there are two sides to every story, and in Part 2 I'll look at some of the benefits of liberal substitution rules. In particular, allowing more substitutions gives more student-athletes the opportunity to play, something (as you'll see below) I've come to appreciate. Luckily, I think we have an idea that solves many of the problems detailed above without gutting the positives of the current system. I’ll explain that, and more, once we get into the NCAA tournament.
Words of Encouragement for Players Struggling for Playing Time
College soccer can be a trying experience. Most incoming freshmen were the best players on their high school and club teams, and they expect to play. They go from being at the top of the totem pole to the bottom, and many go to practice and games early on knowing they probably won’t see the field. The only silver lining is the hope that one day they’ll get to be the guy on the field. But it’s difficult to wait your turn, to put in the effort knowing there’s a chance it’ll never happen.
I have good news: if you put in the time and effort, you will get there, and I’ve seen it first hand. I never went through the experience I described above. But my younger brother did. He’s a junior at Ohio Wesleyan, and when he got there, some people said (never to him, or to me) that he would never be good enough to play. They said he was too slow, and too awkward, and that he wasn’t as good as me, or as good as any of the other centerbacks on the roster. He didn’t dress the first few games and didn’t play a single minute as a freshman.
Still, he showed up an hour early to every practice, he was a great teammate, he never skipped an offseason workout, and he took care of business in the classroom. The summer going into his sophomore year, we played every day, working on passing, dribbling, defending, you name it. He kept getting better and more confident, but the season started, and he saw nothing but mop-up duty. It was hard to put in dozens of hours a week and never play a meaningful minute. But he kept working, thinking that this would be the year. He had a good spring, and had a good chance to start this fall.
It didn’t quite work out that way. OWU brought in a good recruiting class, and suddenly my brother, who’d put in as much work as anyone I’ve seen come through OWU, was behind some very good freshmen in the pecking order. He earned major minutes in a few early games and played well, but not well enough to start, and backup centerbacks don’t play much. Still, he kept showing up to practice early, preparing like he was going to play, and being supportive on the sidelines. He was frustrated, but he didn’t sulk and he didn’t stop working.
Then, with OWU facing a must-win game last weekend, the coaches decided to start him. And in perhaps my proudest moment as his older brother, he helped the team post a shutout in a 3-0 win. I was so nervous, and I have newfound respect and understanding for parents who freak out when their kids are playing. But he played his best game of the year, and helped contribute to a win that kept OWU’s season alive. It’s not a fairy tale, mind you. He started again this week against Kenyon and OWU lost 0-2. They might not make the NCAA tournament, or he might not start next year, or any number of things could happen. But, through pure effort, he went from not dressing, to not playing, to not starting, to suddenly playing an important role in an elite Division III program.
While I’ll admit to some big-brother pride, this is also an object lesson about the opportunities in Division III soccer. Someday my brother will sit in a job interview, and someone will ask about soccer, and he’ll be able to talk about how hard he had to work just to get on the field at OWU. Someday he’ll be in a tough spot and need to summon a little bit of extra motivation, and he’ll have this experience to draw on. There are hundreds of players in D-III soccer in the same position he was, and I hope this provides a bit of encouragement for them. As for him, he’s a well-grounded kid, a much better person than I, and he turned 21 on Tuesday. In lieu of a beer (that can wait till the offseason), I hope he won’t mind me sharing his story.
Ryan’s Boxscore Top 10
1. Chicago (15-0-0, D3soccer.com No. 1) – The Maroons are a well-oiled machine, and seem to have finally struck a balance between defense and attack. The UAA’s automatic bid is in reach.
2. Messiah (14-0-3, No. 2) – Messiah has done enough already to ensure last year was just a one-year hiatus from the NCAA tournament. With the Falcons’ defense only allowing one goal in their last 9 games, Messiah might return to the dance with a bang.
3. Rowan (13-1-1, No. 5) – Even though Rutgers-Newark took the head-to-head and NJAC crown, Rowan stays a spot ahead due to out-of-conference wins over strong teams. Here’s hoping we get a rematch in the NJAC final.
4. Rutgers-Newark (18-2-0, No. 14) – The Raiders flew under the raider early, but have come flying in with twelve straight wins to close the season. R-N has won a number of close games and the offense is not blowing teams away, but the NJAC slate and a powerful defense has them prepped for an NCAA run.
5. Kenyon (14-2-0, No. 8) – The Lords put in their best performance of the season, beating Ohio Wesleyan without allowing a shot on goal. This is the form Kenyon needs if they want to go one better than last year’s Elite Eight finish. If they can beat a surprising Wabash squad Saturday, Kenyon will finish atop the strongest NCAC in recent memory.
6. Ohio Northern (16-0-3, No. 4) – The Polar Bears went through a rough patch but rebounded with 19 goals in their last three games. No, that’s not a typo. ONU’s weak strength of schedule and lack of ranked wins puts them in a precarious position, and they might have to win the OAC on the road against a streaking John Carroll to feel safe on Selection Monday.
7. Franklin and Marshall (12-1-3, No. 7) – Impressive wins over Gettysburg and Haverford catapult Franklin and Marshall up my rankings. The Diplomats lost a good class but haven’t missed a beat, and I’m already looking ahead to a potential Messiah-F&M showdown in the NCAA tournament.
8. Amherst (11-1-1, No. 3) – The Lord Jeffs have shown real vulnerability and struggled against the best two teams on their schedule. But winning the NESCAC despite graduation losses is impressive, and nobody will want to see Amherst’s name come tourney time.
9. St. Thomas (14-0-3, No. 12) – The Tommies have been building toward this year and a stingy defense (see a theme with these teams?) has them undefeated and atop the MIAC. Fellow Buckeye Jon Lowery has done a fantastic job up in St. Paul, Minnesota.
10. Trinity (Texas) (16-1-0, No. 6), Calvin (15-2-0, No. 9) – These two teams play in weak conferences and don’t have many good wins. While that makes them hard to gauge, the same was true last year and both teams made deep tournament runs. With similar attacking styles, both are capable of doing the same this year.
Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Ryan Harmanis.