When I first came to the USA and started refereeing in 1978, I came across the term “unlimited substitution." All the non-professional USSF games I refereed in those years had unlimited substitution except for the Open Cup games. This, was clearly a violation – well, may be that is too harsh let us say non-adherence to the Laws of the Game (LOTG) then, but the non-adherence was not confined to substitution. We then had a two men/women system of officiating.
Actually, you have to look at the history of the LOTG to understand the changes in substitution. Before mid-1960s, there was no such thing as substitution in official games. So if a player got injured then the team had to play short-handed. Then International Football Association Board (IFAB) decided to allow substitution of the goal-keeper and then eventually every team was allowed to have three substitutions without returning to play in games that were not categorized as “friendly.” For a while the English Professional Leagues did not allow substitution even though the LOTG allowed it. In those days, the English referees loved to run the “odd” diagonal in their local league competitions. Maybe that was British Exceptionalism!
Very recently IFAB made some important changes to Law 3. The new change says: For official competitions: “The number of substitutes, up to a maximum of five, which may be used in any match played in an official competition will be determined by FIFA, the confederation or the national football association except for men and women competitions involving the 1st teams of clubs in the top division or senior ‘A’ international teams, where the maximum is three substitutes.” What this says is that National Associations can allow five substitutions in their official competitions except for men and women top division. What that means for the USA is that both MLS and NWSL has to use three substitutes and all the other official competitions can use up to five substitutions. With another change this year, IFAB allowed for a fourth substitute which might be used when the match goes into extra time.
A few years ago IFA realized the benefits of “unlimited substitution” for the recreational game. Hence LOTG now has “return substitution”: “The use of return substitutions is only permitted in youth, veterans, disability and grassroots football, subject to the agreement of the national football association, confederation or FIFA.” Now we adhere to the LOTG as far as unlimited substitution is concerned.
One might ask: Why do we need substitution for? In competitive games with limited substitution the first obvious answer is for injuries. Coaches do substitute players for not doing their assigned jobs properly, for getting tired or for tactical considerations. They might also sometimes replace players who might get sent off and leave their teams with 10 players. With more precise timekeeping, it is getting less common, but sometimes coaches substitute for time-wasting or stop the high tempo of the game which is in favor of their opponents. You might consider the last two as a tactical consideration also.
Competitive game is a game for which winning the game or not losing is the first objective for both teams. Testing players or giving everyone some time to play is not the objective of these games. Any MLS, NWSL, EPL or a national team (except friendly ones) games is competitive. Friendly games at any level are usually not considered competitive. LOTG allow six or more players – if mutually agreed before the game - to be substituted in friendly national team games and others. But in those games, return substitution is not permitted. “Return substitutes” are only allowed in youth, veteran, disability and women games.
LOTG allows three types of substitution:
For the first one, we have explained why coaches do substitution. In the top division games, the game will be stopped maximum of six times.
For the second type of substitution, the coaches substitute to test and see the performance of as many players as possible. In this case, the game stops a lot. Coaches are not that much interested in how the team functions as a unit but rather how individual players perform. The notion of a team working in cohesion or creating a tempo or rhythm is inflicted by multiple substitutions.
In the third type of substitution, the objective is to get as many players to play as possible so that they can be in a healthy physical activity and they can maximize their enjoyment. Through “unlimited substitution,” non-soccer values can be shared by players like comradery, loyalty and fairness as well as it helps building their character. Although in recreational youth games the parents want to see the game as being competitive in nature these games are recreational and non-competitive. Unlimited substitution does not help to build team cohesion, player endurance or to create a tempo and rhythm in the game. In a nut shell unlimited substitution does not help to develop competitive teams, although it might help to some extent the development of players. Talented players can only be developed for maximal output in competitive games.
You can argue about the three types of substitution in the LOTG regarding the numbers involved. You can be rest assured that those Laws came through a lot of research, vetting and IFAB asking the opinion of all the stakeholders involved.
The three professional leagues (MLS, USL and NWSL) in our country use the first type of substitution (three per game), as promulgated by the LOTG. Although USL being a second division professional league can use five substitutions in the game; they since 2017 use only three per game like other second division leagues in most of Europe.
Let us now look at the use of feeder systems into our professional leagues. There are three categories of systems that feed our professional leagues:
The substitution systems used in the DAs are extremely well thought off. It is a tiered system that uses all three types of substitution under the LOTG: From unlimited substitution (U12-U13 and U14) to five substitutions for U16-U17 and U18. Except for U12, they also restrict the substitutions to three moments in the game; which helps to minimize the loss of time and rhythm.
ECNL uses seven substitutions per half without reentry in the same half. Actually this method is used in many youth leagues. This is still unlimited substitution since there is reentry in different halves. Also this leads to potential of 28 stoppages in the game. The ECNL system of substitution is not as effective as the DA system for developing players for the competitive professional game.
Although there are other “fourth tier” leagues in the USA, I chose NPSL, PDL, WPSL and UPSL to talk about. UPSL, NPSL and PDL use seven substitutions in the game without reentry. WPSL uses unlimited substitutions without any restrictions. I believe WPSL wants to classify its league under the third type of substitution. Also, most of the WPSL players are college players. The question is when and if they play for NWSL teams or the women's national team how they will adopt to a limited substitution. If WPSL adopted limited substitution, at least the college players playing with limited substitution during the off-college season will get a feeling of how to play with limited substitution.
On the other hand NPSL, PDL and UPSL by allowing seven substitutions are declaring their leagues as others (meaning not an official competition) since they allow more than five substitutions. I watched recently two top ranked UPSL teams compete. Since they rely on seven substitutions towards the end, the non-substituted players were hardly moving around whereas the 60 year old referee who did an excellent job was still sprinting at the closing moments of the game. I also watched another two amateur men’s teams who are not used to the three-men substitution rule compete in the Open Cup. Teams were hoping at the end of the game that the game will not have extra time.
Since some of the teams from NPSL, PDL and UPSL play in the U.S. Soccer’s Open Cup, their leagues should be considered as official competition. Is allowing seven substitutions in an official competition comply with the LOTG? This is a question that should be answered by U.S. Soccer.
The college game (NCAA) uses a different set of rules. They are not affiliated with U.S. Soccer. They use a different version of unlimited substitution – with reentry in the second half. The college substitution rules affect the women’s game more than the men’s game; since far more women players go to play professionally than the men. Ray Reid, the coach of the nationally ranked University of Connecticut, in a recent interview said: “I think the college game has improved, simply from more kids playing soccer, and more coaches have an idea -- but the substitution rules leave a lot of room for improvement.” I believe the other coaches who do not want to fight the NCAA establishment, do not object too much to the substitution rule.
The unlimited substitution rule is a great asset for the recreational youth game. The definition of what constitutes “grassroots” soccer outside the youth game is very debatable. So many if not all amateur men’s and women’s games in the USA are played under unlimited substitution; hence they consider themselves as grassroots. I personally think that those games are far more competitive than any youth games.
There are elite leagues – supposedly non-recreational – that feed into the DA and ECNL leagues. Since Carlos Cordeiro started a Task Force to minimize the effects of fragmentation in the youth leagues, I believe the Task Force should define new and national substitution rules for the elite leagues that feed into DAs and ask U.S. Club Soccer to reconsider its ECNL substitution rules.
Law 3 which might seem like a very simple Law actually affects the development of players and now I believe it is time we restructure our leagues’ substitution rules that feed the professional leagues and USNTs so we have better players and better teams.
Ahmet Guvener (email@example.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, TX.