Change and the end of the red card/penalty combo
The non-conference season has ended, and we're edging ever closer to the regional rankings and the contender-pretender portion of the season. But today, I want to discuss rule changes. Why change at all?
1. Why not? We try to improve everything else, from our phones and computers to our jobs and our diet. You see it in football and basketball with instant replay, or tennis with player challenges. You even see it in soccer. Now, using shaving cream to mark ten yards is not a big change, but it's better than watching walls scoot up a full five yards before a free kick. My rule of thumb: if the only reason to not change is "that's the way it's always been," then a change is worth a look.
2. Soccer is simple. No timeouts, no plays, and so on. Beyond offside, it boils down to (1) don't use your hands and (2) put the ball in the goal. So, in my view, any change that keeps the game in its natural, free-flowing state is an improvement. For example, you can now kick the ball backwards on kickoffs. There was no rational reason to keep forcing teams to have one player tap the ball to another before passing back to start a game.
3. Rules have exceptions, and systems have loopholes. Soccer is no different. Goalies take 90 seconds on goal kicks to waste time, or players take a yellow card to stop a counterattack. You know the drill. But I'd look at any rule change that makes the college game more like pure soccer.
4. However, two counterpoints. One: college soccer is not pro soccer. The goal is not to put on the best product, but to have the right rules for student-athletes. Any rule change requires a look at whether it fits with college soccer's "ethos." Two: my view of pure soccer may not (likely does not) match everyone else's.
The Red Card/Penalty Combo
Rather than pitch a rule change, let's look at a new rule already on the books this season: the red-card/penalty combo. In the past, if a defender committed a foul that denied a clear goal-scoring opportunity, he received a red card. If he committed that foul in the box, the other team also received a penalty kick. So teams would often find themselves down a goal and a man.
No more. Now, if a player makes a legitimate attempt to play the ball, they receive only a yellow card when the foul occurs inside the box. Here are some pros, cons, and a possible alternative.
Pro: The old rule involved double punishment. A team would get a penalty kick, which they convert at about a 75% rate-quite likely higher than the scoring rate on breakaways. They would also get to play a man up for the rest of the game. But the attacking team only lost out on a goal-scoring chance, so the penalty itself puts them back on equal footing (if not more so). The punishment was disproportionate to the crime, so to speak.
Con: The new rule may give referees too much discretion. They now have to decide whether someone tried to make a legitimate play or if they were just grabbing or tackling them to stop a goal. Refs do their best, but they often get these split-second decisions wrong. I think that might result in more yellow cards and fewer reds, even when there is no attempt to play the ball.
Pro: I've seen referees, particularly at the college level, refuse to give a red card when a player denies a clear chance. If refs were not enforcing the old rule, then changing the rule to match the way it's already enforced is the next-best thing.
Con: A red card is a guaranteed punishment. A penalty kick is not. Teams now have a higher incentive to commit these fouls within the box, because you might escape without a red or a goal against.
Pro: Red cards ruin games, especially if they come early. A team forced to play a man down for 60 or 70 minutes plays differently than one at even strength.
Alternative: Few options, but none better. You could give the attacking team a choice between a red card and a penalty kick, I suppose. Teams would probably pick the penalty, but in some early-game scenarios a team might take the red. Of course, that would undercut one of the major rationales for the rule-keeping the game 11-on-11. I think this was the best way to address the problem.
Conclusion: Thumbs up.
Ryan’s Boxscore Top 10
1. Chicago (11-0-0, D3soccer.com No. 2) – Chicago just needs to prove it in the NCAA tournament. They have the best set of forwards in the country, and they've dominated the regular season for two years. The full UAA awaits, but Chicago's top level might be better than anyone else's.
2. Calvin (11-0-0, No. 1) – Those wins over Ohio Wesleyan, Case Western, and Oberlin don't look nearly as strong as they did a few weeks ago. But Calvin has shown, for the better part of a decade, that a weak conference does not matter. I'm not sure if the Knights are quite as good this year, but they've earned the benefit of the doubt.
3. Messiah (11-1-0, No. 5) – The Falcons are far from invincible, but they are very good and gaining momentum. Yesterday's win over Johns Hopkins and a come-from-behind win at Rowan in September show Messiah is more than ready to get back to the Final Four.
4. Johns Hopkins (11-1-0, No. 3) – Hard to fault the Blue Jays too much for losing on a late goal at Messiah in an even game. If anything, the game improved my opinion. They are not the most dynamic team, but they've only conceded three goals in twelve games. As the last few years have shown, defense wins championships.
5. Cortland State (10-1-0, No. 6) – The Scranton loss does not say much, as Cortland controlled that game. The Red Dragons are tearing through the SUNYAC and already dispatched Brandeis and Oneonta State, the two toughest teams on their schedule.
6. Amherst (5-1-1, No. 9) – Like Calvin, I'm not sure if Amherst has reached the level of the last few years. But the team is steadily improving and just took out Tufts and Rutgers-Newark back-to-back. Nobody else has two top-ten wins. The Mammoths could be scary come November.
7. Rutgers-Newark (13-1-0, No. 8) – Like Johns Hopkins, a road loss to a top-ten team (Amherst) is no reason to sound the alarm. Any team with Fabio DeSousa (13g, 4a) can compete.
8. Lycoming (11-1-0, No. 11) – The loss at Case Western was disappointing, but Lycoming has also won at Rowan, Dickinson, and Scranton. We're only ten days away from a showdown with Messiah.
9. Drew (11-0-1, No. 17) – Time to reward some up-and-comers. Drew did fine last year, but the 2017 edition has been rolling. Aside from a zero-zero draw at Elmherst, the Rangers have scored multiple goals in every game. They've also handily beaten Elizabethtown (6-0) and Scranton (2-0), the two teams that finished above them in the Landmark last year.
10. Heidelberg (9-0-0, No. 20) – The Student Princes seem to have taken a page from Leicester's Premier League title run. After going just 7-10-1 last year, Heidelberg is on a tear. In games again Kenyon and John Carroll, they conceded the majority of possession, but on turnovers they transitioned with complete ruthlessness and scored three goals in each game. I don't know if you can win a national title playing defend-and-counter, but Heidelberg has the playbook.
On the Bubble: Tufts (7-1-1), Trinity (Texas) (10-1-0), Carnegie Mellon (8-1-1), St. Thomas (10-1-0)
Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Ryan Harmanis.