How I would fix outdoor soccer

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am an American (in my mid 40s at the time this article was written) who grew up playing just as much indoor as outdoor soccer—also watching more indoor soccer than outdoor.

I grew up in the ‘80s in Northeast Ohio. The team to watch there wasn’t the NY Cosmos, Manchester United, or Juventus. We watched the Major Indoor Soccer League’s (MISL) Cleveland Force: a six on six rock-em, sock-em contest that had similar qualities to ice hockey (including the boards). I loved it.

For soccer purists, what I’ve just shared might disqualify my opinion without any further consideration. Before you do that, let me share that I’ve played both indoor and outdoor soccer at respectable competitive levels: invite-only club teams, my high school outdoor team, on the University of Akron’s Soccer Team (1993-1995), and I did have a pro tryout with the Canton Invaders indoor soccer team in 1992 (honestly, I wasn’t close to making that team though). The bottom line—I’ve played a lot of soccer in my life.

While my playing days are long over now, I can say that I’ve broadened my appreciation of soccer beyond the professional indoor and college outdoor game—watching the Major Soccer League (MLS), La Liga, Bundesliga, women’s NCAA, World Cup/international play, and of course, the English Premier League (EPL).

While I can safely say that the quality of players in the EPL, Bundesliga, and other international leagues far exceeds the talent in the defunct MISL, I can’t say the same for the quality of the games. I often (which means I don’t always) find outdoor games, no matter how impressive the talent is, sluggish, mundane, and chock full of cheating, archaic rules, and childish behavior.

With that in mind, I took to my keyboard to take on the task of hypothetically fixing “the beautiful game,” a sport I’ve played for more than half of my life.

Before you dive into the ideas, I recognize some suggestions below are more reasonable than others—some will never be changed. That’s okay. I wanted to share with you how I would improve the game—regardless if a governing body, like FIFA, would ever consider such an idea. Now that’s out of the way, let’s get at it…

Penalize throwing, kicking, or holding the ball in an effort to slow the game or to show frustration

Some referees are enforcing this already—kudos to them. This type of behavior, like diving, shouldn’t be a part of the game. It’s unsportsmanlike conduct.

Players who intentionally throw, kick, or hold the ball (including goalies laying on the ground for loads of time after a save) in an effort to prohibit the opposing team from restarting play should be penalized (an immediate yellow card). If a restart happens to quickly, the referee may blow the whistle and ask for a restart–let the referee control the pace of the game–not the players.

Pros: This speeds the game up, and it eliminates what often looks like petulant behavior.

Cons: None.

Penalize diving (some officials already do)

No, it’s not gamesmanship or part of the game. It’s unsportsmanlike conduct, and it’s cheating. Players intentionally embellishing contact in the hopes that a stricter punishment will be levied against an opponent. Yep, that’s cheating.

Under this suggestion, on-field officials, and the three off-field officials in the booth, have the ability to penalize players for diving. Players are given a warning for their first infraction; shown a yellow card on their second infraction. Additionally, players who have shown a history of diving can be dealt with more severely–perhaps their second dive in a game may result in a red card.

Dives that result in a stoppage of play are reviewed immediately by the off-field officials in the booth. Those officials also have the ability to review and penalize a dive even though play has resumed. If they deem a player to have taken a dive, they can radio down to the referee on the field and render their decision during the first stoppage in play. The referee can then communicate the charge with the offending player and the team’s captain.

Pros: I recognize a large contingent of fans feel that diving is part of the game. Respectfully, I disagree. It’s intentionally trying to deceive officials. That’s cheating where I come from, so lessening its effect on the game is a positive step.

Cons: I do like it when players get angry with divers, and I do often get a good laugh from players who are habitual divers (some of the performances are hysterical). I would miss diving to a small degree. Last, the system of having dives reviewed in the booth needs to be tested. Having it affect the game more than diving itself is not an option.

Video review all officials’ calls regarding yellow/red cards, goals, and awarded penalty kicks (pro only)

How many times have you screamed at your television in frustration at a blatantly poor call?

“That’s the worst call I’ve ever seen!”
“Oh, this ref was definitely paid off!”
“Are you fricken blind?!”

Officials aren’t blind, but they do miss calls (and trust me, the game moves a lot slower from the comfort of a couch than when you’re on the pitch). Additionally, some officials aren’t always objective. So when their calls have the power to change the course of an entire game, let’s make sure they get them right.

Admittedly, slowing down the game to review a play isn’t ideal, but it’s the lesser of two evils–at least the call would have been correct. There’s a fine line here, but I’d be willing to sacrifice game momentum for accuracy and fairness.

Taking a page from American football, three officials in a booth would review the call and video game footage while play is stopped on the field. These off-field officials would have two minutes or less to render a decision (communicated to the on-field officials via headset). And again like American football, there must be conclusive evidence to change the initial ruling on the field.

Pros: No more winning/losing games on botched calls. Embellishments (diving) will decrease.

Cons: Slows the game down. Technology failures in the booth are possible. Having cards, etc. reviewed in the booth needs to be tested.

Move the penalty kick (PK) dot back

With a 71% of penalty kicks success rate (Wikipedia), and games often ending with two goals or less, a penalty shot feels like a divine blessing or a death sentence, depending on which side you’re on.

Putting that much control and influence over a game in the hands of a non-player (the referee) doesn’t seem fair to the players or the officials. Players, and not referees, should decide the outcome of the game. Suggestion, move the penalty kick spot back two or three feet.

You’ve heard that the “punishment should fit the crime,” but if you watch enough soccer, you’ll also notice that some awarded penalty kicks weren’t even from the defense taking away a legitimate scoring chance. Teams / defenses are often harshly punished over a “small” crime.

Pros: Losing a game because of a penalty kick feels like losing a football (American) game off a field goal. It sucks. It’s as if the game was gifted to the other team. Penalty kicks will occur, and that’s fine, but let’s not make them an almost automatic death sentence for the offending team.

We’ve all seen some extremely poor penalty kicks go in because the keeper felt like they had to guess the shooter’s direction. The shooter scored not because the PK was good–they just got lucky. By moving that PK dot back, more goalies will guess less and react more to the shooter, and that means when a goal does occur, it’s because the PK shooter legitimately beat the goalkeeper and not because the keeper just guessed the wrong direction to dive.  

Last, it annoys me to see a player who is credited with 16 goals in a season, only to learn 12 were off a PK. I know that’s how they’re scored, but come on. Is it harder to score 16 goals from the field or 16 goals from the PK dot?

Cons: Not many. I think this is a solid idea that will improve the game. However, comparing teams, scorers, and goalies to past PK statistics wouldn’t be possible.

Lessen the number of players on the field (9 or 10)

Outside of soccer purists, there’s nothing more frustrating than a team dropping into a defensive shell–either to protect a lead or to mask a lack of skill. Clog the 18-yard box with everyone so even skilled players have difficulty finding space / opportunities in there. Is it legal, yes, but it sucks for fans.

I accept this idea would never be implemented (there’s far too much history in soccer). However, I believe it would make it a better game.

Pros: More scoring. Opens the field up. Allows skilled players more freedom and chances to create, which is one of the main reasons why fans show up: they want to see skilled players have the opportunity to do something great. When the defensive area is intentionally flooded with players, it makes it difficult for even the best to create something magical.

Cons: Players would tire out faster, so the number of substitutions might have to be extended to five and not three players. This rule would affect the game in a major way (I think for the better). However, comparing teams, scorers, and goalies to past statistics wouldn’t be possible–the game would be different.

30-second substitutions

Enough with the time wasting, acknowledging the crowd (clapping), shaking hands with the referee, and “hobbling” off when you’re not really injured.

Get off the pitch and let the game continue.

This time wasting technique isn’t theater or “gamesmanship.”  It’s unsportsmanlike conduct: intentionally killing momentum and slowing the game down to give your team (who is winning at the time) an unfair advantage.

I’d suggest this is more a of guideline, at the referee’s discretion, than a strict rule (that is actually timed by the fourth official on the field). Timing 30 seconds seems a bit unnecessary and harsh. However, substituted players who really are guilty of time wasting while leaving the pitch will be assessed a yellow card…to be enforced the next game.  

Pros: Keep the game moving. 30 seconds is easily enough time to get off the pitch and give a nod to the fans (which can also be done on the sideline before taking a seat on the bench). There’s also plenty of time to shake everyone’s hand after the game.

Cons: Placing a timer on this seems overkill. At the same time, I’d hope that the referee would use objective judgement in assessing whether a yellow card penalty is warranted.

Raise the goal crossbar a foot (college and pro ranks only)

Admittedly, in middle and high school, this bar was difficult to reach for a short player like me, but by college, I could easily reach it—despite not having an impressive vertical leap. Conversely, goalkeepers who are “vertically gifted,” a.k.a. tall, and most of them in college and pro are, can touch the bar without even jumping. Most of these keepers have wingspans that would make an albatross jealous, which makes scoring (even when you strike the ball well) a tall order.

Let’s make things a little more challenging for the keepers by literally raising the bar (it’s 8ft now—let’s elevate it to 9ft.)

Pros: More scoring.

Cons: Having goals mouths at different sizes would be impractical for facilities. For example, a soccer field that hosted both HS and college games would have to goal sizes, and that’s no good.

Wrap up and thanks

Whether you made this far in the article because you were intrigued or you thought my ideas were infuriating, thank you. We might not agree on everything…or even anything I’ve shared here, but I appreciate you considering someone else’s opinion, and it’s good to get a conversation going.

If my suggestions have sparked some thoughts, feel free to share them with me—whether you agree with my position or not.