How Refs Handle Substitutions

By Randy Vogt

Substitutes must be standing at the halfway line, dressed and ready to play. The player exiting can leave from any part of the field. To make things easier, the exiting player generally leaves by the halfway line.

In youth soccer, we are dealing with kids -- in many cases, young children. I have seen refs get themselves in trouble by insisting that the player leaving the field be absolutely, completely off the field before the sub comes in, often to the point of yelling at kids who entered the field a couple of steps too soon.

Let’s not make this more complicated than it is. Sub enters field as the player leaves it. The officials count -- one player off, one player on ... two players off, two players on.

For many years, youth soccer in the United States only allowed substitutions on a team’s own throw-in plus on either team’s goal kick, goal or injury plus at halftime. This rule worked fine with the exception of the opposing team not being allowed to sub when the team with the throw-in was doing so, plus coaches not being able to immediately sub a cautioned player to calm down him or her.

College and high school soccer use a somewhat similar limitation on when a team can substitute. Teams can sub on either team’s goal kick, goal, caution, injury or equipment change plus on a team’s own corner kick or throw-in. If the team with the corner kick or throw-in subs, the opposing team can sub as well. College and high school teams can obviously sub at halftime as well. There are subtle differences on substitution opportunities between both college and high school rules as well but I will not get into this for the purposes of this article.

The former youth soccer rule regarding substitutions plus the current college and high school rules work well as teams should have the opportunity to sub every couple of minutes and do not disrupt the flow of play by these rules.

In pro soccer, teams can substitute at any stoppage of play. Approximately a decade ago, American youth soccer adopted the current rule that teams can sub at any stoppage. I was not in favor of the rule change then and I am still not in favor of it as my worst fears have been realized in a few games.

Obviously, pro soccer teams can only sub three players per game with no re-entry. Youth soccer teams have no such limitation. I have seen coaches and trainers whose teams are leading take advantage of inexperienced refs by substituting at every opportunity.

I was watching a boys U-13 game last summer being played in a tournament. It was the last game of the round-robin and the white team needed to win while the red squad only needed to tie to advance to the final.

After a scoreless first half, white scored. The coach then subbed a player at every stoppage of play. Nearly every player he subbed for was on the far side of the field, causing the player going off as well as coming on to jog across the field to take his position. When the player left the field, the coach told him to stay at the halfway line as he would be going back into the game. I would say that four minutes of play was erased by the coach’s gamesmanship.

With several minutes left, red scored and white immediately stopped subbing. When the ball went out over the white team’s bench, the coach sprinted after it so that it could be put back into play as soon as possible. The final score was 1-1 with red advancing to the championship game.

After the match, I asked the ref if he was going to add time at the end of the second half if white was still leading. He said no and that he did not realize that white was trying to kill as much time as possible.

In games that I ref, if the winning team starts substituting a good deal, I tell the coach that time is being added for their substitution (as long as the other squad is not subbing). In nearly all cases, the winning team stops subbing as much. In a game several years ago where the coach continued subbing, I added four minutes of stoppage time to the second half. And when the team subbed during stoppage time, I added another minute.

(Randy Vogt has officiated over 8,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to 6-year-olds being cheered on by very enthusiastic parents. In "Preventive Officiating," he shares his wisdom gleaned from thousands of games and hundreds of clinics to help referees not only survive but thrive on the soccer field. You can visit the book’s website at
10 comments about "How Refs Handle Substitutions ".
  1. David Miller, July 31, 2013 at 6:26 p.m.

    I agree with adding time in Youth league matches. However in the summer at most youth tourneys the games are scheduled back-back and every tourney I have worked (in WA) has a running clock rule. Meaning you cannot add any extra time no matter what happens during the match. Some coaches read the rules and know this and try to take advantage when possible. Some coaches don't know this and have gotten upset with me when I blew my whistle at exactly 30 min.

    In a tourney when I feel that a coach is just subbing to waste time I will pretend not to hear or see and sometimes even deny the request especially if it is the opposing teams restart. Usually it works out that the coach only gets to sub on every other opportunity which helps alleviate the time waste factor a little.

  2. Billy theLimpet, July 31, 2013 at 6:33 p.m.

    Hi Randy,
    As usual another good incite full article. To add to your comments, from my 37+ years of officiating, 15 years instructing, and 10 years assessing I have yet to meet a referee who stepped on the park with the intention of doing a bad job. Failure and problems occurred because they simply failed to set a level of expectation from the onset. So as a recommendation coming from a grade 13, I would recommend all referees develop a pre- match canned speech when checking in the players. Good referees set a level of expectation when interfacing with fellow officials, so why not do the same when the opportunity is there while checking player equipment and player passes? This is an opportune time while the coaches are still present, for the referee to avail themselves to any questions while announcing how substitutions will be made at the midfield, with those players ready to enter, but only doing so after the player they are replacing has left the field of play. Afterwards, it is recommended the referee then ask the players if they understand what was said. This way after the first opportunity for substitution occurs and the substitutes come running on the field as the coach is still yelling, "Sub!", the referee can simply approach the midfield area with hand up, giving the whistle a couple of sharp tweets, and asking the players,"How did we agree to substitute today?"

    If more referees employed this practice, on a regular basis, it will help keep the beautiful game beautiful while refraining from trying to Americanize the worlds most beautiful game. Not a sermon, just a thought.

  3. Billy theLimpet, July 31, 2013 at 6:36 p.m.

    I would also add, the LotG provide substitutions are made with the referees permission. Therefore substituting is a privilege, not a right which doesn't have to be granted just because a coach yells, "Sub!"

  4. Mark Overstreet, July 31, 2013 at 6:37 p.m.

    In U8/9 games, the substitution rules make it hard to give equal time to each player, which is our goal at that level.

    It always seems like there is a drought of our throw ins when we have 4-5 players who are waiting at midfield to be subbed.

    If we have a full squad on hand, each player is only playing 25 minutes. If they miss 5-8 minutes waiting... it is a large percentage of the game.

  5. Nicholas Adams, July 31, 2013 at 6:38 p.m.

    I enjoy reading Mr Vogt's features as he provides an intuitive insight into the stresses and strains of being a ref.
    Usually tournaments are the worst for time wasting subbing, but I'm more concerned with the ref in question not realising that one team was deliberately wasting time. I unfortunately, believe there are many referees who don't have this insight into the game.
    In many of our league games last season if the other team went ahead their number of substitutions would increase even though they are only allowed to do it on their own throw ins or dead ball kicks. I asked the official if he was going to add on time for these stoppages and he said no!?
    In the pro game it's usually 30 seconds for every sub.

  6. uffe gustafsson, July 31, 2013 at 8:14 p.m.

    In our league we do not add time to any games, because all the other games scheduled after will be affected. The simple solution is to not let them substitute at every time they call out and especially not changing goalies in the end of the game. Had that happen a few times.
    I don't care much for coaches that play those games and I will certainly not be very accommodate to those coaches.
    They learn really quickly that I belive in sportsmanship.
    Not winning at all costs, that is the key problem that clubs need to face up to and start to educate the coaches and parents as well, parents do put a lot of pressure on the coach to win at all costs.
    Coaches should teach the kids the rules of the game and basics of playing soccer not the tactics that proffecional teams.

  7. Steve Greene, August 1, 2013 at 9:21 a.m.

    As usual very good advice, I do have one question though - the article said

    "After the match, I asked the ref if he was going to add time at the end of the second half if white was still leading."

    Why does it matter who was leading? If the match dictated adding time, time should be added. I don't think we as referees should decide to only add time if the time wasting team is advantaged by adding time or if ending the match without adding time disadvantages them.

  8. Alex Zarate, August 1, 2013 at 9:30 a.m.

    I know that this is not going to be popular, but this is the lawyer in me: What the coach in the white team did was just as legal as when a player dribbles to the corner to waste time. He took a chance within the rules and it backfired. If one thinks that time should be added for subs, then time should be added all the time regardless of score and it should be made a rule then, otherwise, IT WAS WITHIN THE RULES!

  9. soccer talk, August 1, 2013 at 10:51 a.m.

    The Referee grants subs at their discretion. As mentioned, an official w/ insight would be cognitive to the "time wasting" tactic by the white team coach which is legal by rule, but seen by an experienced ref as a deliberate travesty of the rule to "kill time" instead of the intention of on course substitution. As mentioned above, don't allow every sub attempt and the coach will all too soon see that his/her ploy will not be rewarded. Just result in this case!

  10. Brian Something, August 2, 2013 at 8:15 p.m.

    Our local USYS-affiliated went from the substitution rule described initially to a “sub on any stoppage” rule. I hate it. It allows a coach to completely break the flow of a game.

    Two years ago, my team was playing a team we’d beaten comfortably (but not awfully) the previous time. They were subbing on virtually every single stoppage. They even subbed literally 25 seconds after halftime. I complained to the officials about it, reminding them that substitutions were at their discretion, and they made them wait a little longer sometimes but the carousel continued. Fortunately, mid-way through the 2nd half, we took a 1-0 lead and magically, the other team was subbing less often. Funny how that works.

    I mean, it’s one thing to try to waste time in the dying moments, but in the 1st half?!

    When I complained to the league about it, they said the change was made to bring it in line with FIFA. But at pro and international levels, there is highly limited substitution. This rule doesn’t work with unlimited substitution parameters, especially refs never add enough stoppage time.

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