Soccer's Only Complicated Rule: Offside

By Randy Vogt

I was an assistant referee and yellow was up 1-0 in the closing seconds of a Boys High School Summer League semifinal game. A maroon attacker was at the top of the penalty arc and he played the ball to a teammate a half-yard offside on my near side of the field, inside the penalty area.

Years ago, with a different wording and interpretation of offside, I would have raised the flag then as he was the only other attacker around, and there would have probably been no issues with dissent. But in order to increase scoring chances, the AR has to delay raising the flag now to see if the attacker touches the ball (offside) or interferes with an opponent (offside) or if a defender deliberately plays the ball first instead (not offside) or if the ball goes untouched over the goal line (not offside), etc., before the flag should be raised. Consequently, with this delay, I am raising the flag for offside a good deal less often than years ago.

Also, the AR needs to continue his/her run and not stop, as in the past, when the attacker is offside, as the indirect kick is now taken where the attacker became involved in the play.

The ref said to me after the game that he could tell when the ball was passed that the attacker was in an offside position.

So the attacker runs on to the ball and his first touch is an angled shot from eight yards, which is when I raised the flag. The ref blew his whistle as the ball entered the goal. All these complaints from maroon as the offside decision determined the outcome of the game so I wish there was a video as they could have clearly seen the player was offside.

From "Laws of the Game 2017/18," IFAB.

Law 11 on offside is soccer’s only complex rule and it has become more complicated of late as the AR must delay raising the flag as many things could occur before the attacker in an offside position becomes involved in the play. He becomes involved by interfering with play (touching the ball), or interfering with an opponent (such as challenging for the ball with a defender right there or being in the visual path of the goalkeeper when a shot is taken), or gaining an advantage (the attacker is in an offside position when a teammate takes a shot and the ball rebounds off the crossbar or upright to that attacker or comes to the attacker from a deliberate save). The only time with the offside decision that the flag should be raised quickly is if the attacker in an offside position could collide with the opposing team’s keeper.

A typical scenario for dissent is the attacker is in an offside position at the time the ball is played. I run and a few seconds later, I raise my flag when the attacker touches the ball. The dissent often is “Offside is determined when the ball is passed,” and “The flag was late,” both of which I heard in that high school game.

So some officials are resistant and want to raise the flag earlier, as in the past. Others have not gotten into the habit yet of running, instead of stopping, with the player in an offside position not yet becoming involved in active play.

Raise the flag quickly and you will encounter all sorts of issues if the ref blows the whistle when an attacker in an onside position plays the ball first with the offside attacker not interfering with an opponent. Raise the flag quickly and you will encounter other issues if, in the same scenario above, the ref correctly overrules the AR and players stop, even though they have been told to play the whistle and not the AR’s flag.

With the indirect kick now being taken from where the attacker becomes involved in play, an odd scenario could occur that happened to me recently in a boys U-14 game. As AR, I was positioned at the halfway line as only the keeper and one attacker of the opposing team were in my half of the field. The attacking team passed the ball from their defensive half to the attacker in my half of the field. He crossed the halfway line, I did not as the AR does not do so, and I raised the flag when he touched the ball in his defensive half of the field.

The ref correctly gave the indirect kick for offside in the defensive half of the field where he played the ball. We explained why and the teams seemed to accept our explanation although a few players might have thought the officials were a little crazy.

(Randy Vogt, the author of "Preventive Officiating," has officiated more than 10,000 games.)

29 comments about "Soccer's Only Complicated Rule: Offside".
  1. James Madison, September 25, 2017 at 4:40 p.m.

    Au contraire, Randy. Offside is a simple rule. It provides that a player is not eligible to play when the player is off, i.e., not on, the player's side, i.e., when the player is not part of the player's team. The "new interpretation" simply clarifies that the law is violated only when the player does something, i.e., plays the ball or plays otherwise by interfering with play, that the player is not entitled to do. The IFK is logically taken where the violation occurs.

  2. :: SilverRey :: replied, September 25, 2017 at 7 p.m.

    The current version of Offside is probably one of the few rules (only?) in any sport that has a time component to it. Multiple things have to happen for the foul to be called. It is easily one of the most convoluted rules out there.

  3. Bob Ashpole, September 25, 2017 at 6:52 p.m.

    Well the law is simple from a players perspective. I think what causes the most problem is that fans/parents/coaches think they can learn the LOTG by watching matches. If they are not aware of advantage and trifling, they get confused or the wrong idea about foul recognition. That is what is going on with offsides. No whistle equals legal play in their minds. Walking back advantage confuses them too. The solution is that they should read the LOTG.

  4. Georges Carraha, September 25, 2017 at 7:25 p.m.

    Correct me I am wrong!
    A player can be in an offside position but is not offside until he plays the ball.
    I think this is where parents and Coaches miss the point. Even if you are the only player, if you do not touch the ball you should not be called offside because if the defense stops and another offensive player makes a run for the ball, play should continue.

  5. Randy Vogt replied, September 25, 2017 at 8:28 p.m.

    From George above: Even if you are the only player, if you do not touch the ball you should not be called offside because if the defense stops and another offensive player makes a run for the ball, play should continue. That's correct.

  6. Randy Vogt replied, September 25, 2017 at 8:31 p.m.

    From George above: A player can be in an offside position but is not offside until he plays the ball. This is not necessarily correct as a player in an offside position, not touching the ball, could be flagged and whistled offside. It happened in a college game that I did yesterday in New Jersey. The pass went to a defender who was challenged by the player in the offside position. That player interfered with an opponent so offside was called.

  7. Gil Weber, September 25, 2017 at 9:28 p.m.

    Randy, I disagree with your advice in the scenario you described -- to hold the flag until the player in offside position touches the ball. In my opinion your use of illustration number 2 (page 193 LOTG) is not the best one to explain your game scenario -- that of a ball played to a teammate in offside position being out on his own with no other teammates anywhere nearby. Instead illustration number 4 (page 194 LOTG) better illustrates your game situation. And in such circumstances the flag can and should go up before the player in offside position runs toward and eventually touches the ball. No need to wait until the ball is touched if it's reasonable to decide that he/she is the on attacker with an opportunity to play the ball.
    Your mileage may vary.

  8. Randy Vogt, September 25, 2017 at 10:03 p.m.

    Gil, thanks for your response but in the diagram you mention, the attacker in the offside position is going to the ball. If the attacker in the offside position does not play the ball but an onside attacker does, even running from 20 yards away, the play is onside as long as the offside attacker did not interfere with an opponent. The subtleties here are part of the reason why the rule can be rather complex.

  9. Gil Weber, September 25, 2017 at 10:47 p.m.

    Randy, the diagram 4 is **exactly** the game scenario you described -- player in offside position is out on his/her own with no teammates anywhere close to being able to come from an onside position to play the ball, and he/she goes after the ball. Illustration 4 is your game scenario, not illustration 2. The AR does not have to wait for the player in offside position to touch the ball before raising the flag. Law 11 is not complex except if one wants to make it so. With all due respect, the flag goes up without the player in offside position needing to touch the ball.

  10. Kent James replied, September 26, 2017 at 11:21 a.m.

    In amateur leagues (especially the higher age groups) players appreciate the early offside flag when it is obvious to everyone that a player is going to get the ball. Waiting until he actually touches it often means a number of players have to sprint 30 yards (and the GK may have to risk challenging the offensive player). No one enjoys sprinting or colliding unnecessarily. While I think the AR should wait if there is another (onside) player who can get to the ball, if not, the AR should be allowed to call it early.

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, September 26, 2017 at 12:40 p.m.

    Kent I disagree with you this time. Before the change, often when the flag went up the player in an offside position would realize it and then stop pursuing the play. The center then, if seeing everything, would ignore the flag and let play continue. The change IMO makes the center's job easier and that, also IMO is a good thing. While the earlier flag may cause some players to stop running, as a coach I want them engaged until the whistle blows. Stopping play in anticipation of a whistle may be common in recreational play, but it is not what I as a recreational coach wanted to see. If they are going to quit playing, they may as well rest on the bench.

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, September 26, 2017 at 12:46 p.m.

    I was going to add that this tendency to stop play (both offense and defense) in anticipation of a whistle when the flag was raised is I suspect excactly why they changed the AR's practice.

  13. Kent James replied, September 27, 2017 at 9:57 a.m.

    Bob, if offensive players stop at the flag (instead of the whistle), and therefore resolve the offside situation (taking themselves out of the play) and play continues, no harm. But I was not encouraging the players to stop (for the reason you cite), but for the ref to blow the whistle (to stop play, saving everybody that 30 yard sprint). I don't see a downside. If the offensive player realizes he's off and stops, since I'm only talking about when another (onside) offensive player cannot potentially player the same ball, we're back to the first scenario (no harm). As it is now, since there is no flag or whistle when the ball is kicked, many players think they must've been onside and go hard, and get annoyed when they are call offside when they touch the ball (after working so hard to get there, for nothing). It's a minor issue, but I don't think holding the flag down is helpful (unless an onside offensive player has a play on the ball if the offside player does not; then you have to wait and see if that happens).

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, September 27, 2017 at 11:14 a.m.

    The problem with your suggestion Kent is that the LOTG do not prohibit players from ever being in an offside position. Merely being in an offside position is not an offense.

  15. Craig Cummings, September 25, 2017 at 11:40 p.m.

    Randy, how do you get the HS rule book so fast. We in So Cal Summer leagues played the old off side rule all summer, no questions said. Thanks for your great posts.

  16. R2 Dad, September 26, 2017 at 12:06 a.m.

    By relative comparison, I find two other scenarios that cause even more parent's heads to explode: 1) defender plays or attempts to play (not a deflection) a ball in from an attacker, which then falls to an attacker in an offside position, thereby negating Offside (ie attacker is still Onside), and 2) shot bounces off the goalpost OR the keeper, back to a player who started their run in an Onside position but at the time of contact with the ball is in an Offside position. I think I should create a slow-motion video of over-40 parents, soiling their shorts while losing their minds when these instances occur.

  17. Nick Daverese, September 26, 2017 at 6:30 a.m.

    When the law was changed where you can be in an offside position, but if you did not affect the play it was it was a little hard to get used to. I said at the time what if the keeper happens to look at the offside position player wouldn't that affect the play? Could not get my head around that for a long time. Then I saw a player like Jaime Moreno by using his offside position to help beat the US in a game. I said he affected the play and got away with it.

  18. Dan Phillips, September 26, 2017 at 1:38 p.m.

    it is time to get rid of the antiquated rule altogether!

  19. Bob Ashpole replied, September 26, 2017 at 5:57 p.m.

    Are you being sarcastic?

  20. Randy Vogt, September 27, 2017 at 9:01 a.m.

    One of a couple of items that can be scary to me as an AR is to raise the flag early and incorrectly. Look at this video from four years ago just after the four-minute mark. Ref Allan Chapman (a good PRO official and new to MLS at the time) played on correctly when the AR's flag was raised, then incorrectly disallowed the goal. The AR obviously needed to keep his flag down and the ref compounded the error by eventually disallowing the goal. If the AR had continued to run, there would have been a better chance of him keeping the flag down.

  21. Larry Beck, September 27, 2017 at 5:43 p.m.

    I agree with Dan Phillips to get rid of the offside rule! I am sick of seeing nice goals disallowed because someone was barely past a defender. Offside rule causes each side to bunch up and move up and down the field together. Elimination of the offside rule would allow players to spread out around the field, facilitating more scoring for both sides. Teams would have to go to more man-to-man play. Now you have so much congestion that the ball pops around like popcorn with all the headers!

  22. Bob Ashpole replied, September 28, 2017 at 9:18 a.m.

    The offside rule promotes style, skill and artistry. Soccer is a player's game and not designed for fans and TV audiences.

  23. frank schoon replied, September 29, 2017 at 9:51 a.m.

    Bob, Amen, there is a reason why the offside rule came about...

  24. Larry Beck, September 27, 2017 at 5:48 p.m.

    I might add that the time previously spent watching for offside violations could then be spent on watching for fouls, which are a major problem. They are breaking up the flow of the game and causing injuries. Players and their team need to suffer some consequences every time a foul is committed!

  25. frank schoon replied, September 29, 2017 at 9:58 a.m.

    Larry, get serious, with no disrespect to you but I can tell you don't have much of a playing background or played at a high enough level after reading your suggestions.
    Your suggestion can easily be done by adding a couple of more refs around the field whose job it is to strictly look for fouls. I would suggest to read the soccer history which is interesting and find out why the offside trap came about. Good luck to you.

  26. Kate Phillips , September 27, 2017 at 10:22 p.m.

    Lots of people (i.e., parents, fans, etc.) think that because they can spell "soccer" with any degree of accuracy, it makes them an expert on the game, even if they've never cracked open a copy of the LOTG. I was an AR (back then we were still called "linesmen," or as one parent said, "side ref"), in a U-12 playoff game, and flagged what was clearly a player offside receiving and playing the ball. The crowd (i.e. parents) went ballistic. It got so bad that one parent was "sent off" and spent the rest of the game somewhere else. I knew I had made the right call when the coach of the offside player quipped "That's okay, the other two guys were offside, too." Good times.

  27. Craig Cummings, September 28, 2017 at 10:53 p.m.

    Randy I forgot NY starts in Fall, as in So Cal we are a winter sport. I get my rule book next week.

  28. Randy Vogt replied, September 29, 2017 at 6:11 a.m.

    Yes, we play all levels in the fall in New York, including HS and college so it's a very busy time! It would be nice that instead of all these rule books, rule tests and knowing the differences while officiating, all levels could simply follow the same set of rules as the rest of the world (LOTG), but I guess that's another discussion for another time.

  29. Chris Sapien , September 29, 2017 at 2:01 p.m.

    It's interesting to me that no one here has mentioned the unenviable and nearly impossible task of determining when an attacker in an offside position truly affects the opposing Keepers ability to fairly play the ball. Depending where the attack/shot originates from, the typical scenario forces you to guess or make an otherwise presumption that the player somehow is interfering or inline with the Keepers line of sight, hence interfering with play. From sometimes 40 yards away and perpendicular to the 2nd to last defender, this is at best a 50/50 proposition.

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