On May 12, Lionel Messi left the field to be treated after a serious foul. He assumed that, as has been the case for the rest of his career, the official would return him to the field as soon as he was ready.

Instead, his return was delayed by a full two minutes, during which time Inter Miami were awarded a free kick in prime position for a left-footed dead ball ace. Even as he watched teammate Matias Rojas convert the chance, Apple’s streaming cameras caught his moment of frustration.

“If they make rules like that, we’re doing it wrong.”

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Messi criticizes MLS rule against time wasting and more from Inter Miami’s win over Montreal

At the time, Messi was experiencing one of two major changes to MLS rules, both of which are intended at least in part to combat time-wasting, either by embellishing injuries or delaying someone’s exit from the field during a substitution.

Despite Messi’s criticism, the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) which manages officials in MLS and other US competitions says it hasn’t heard much definitive feedback from MLS teams.

“Obviously, there’s a bit of negativity in the press when it affects a certain high-profile player or a high-profile club,” said Mark Geiger, a former MLS and FIFA referee who is now general manager of PRO. “There will always be misdemeanors. I think we need a little more data and a little more time to figure out where that’s going to be.”

But given the data, they think the initial window has been a success.

The origins

Offside handling and timed substitution rules may be new to MLS, but both have had a full season of practice in MLS Next Pro, the league’s development circuit. Their influence was clear to Geiger.

“I think the biggest impact for me (was) watching the MLS Next Pro final last year,” Geiger said. Athletics. “From the 70th minute is probably one of the hardest parts of being a referee – especially in a game of this magnitude. It’s really difficult because the referees are not doctors, so you will believe everything the players are telling you (about injuries). There just isn’t much flow to the game. There are many offenses from the team that is losing, or the one that has momentum.

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How MLS Next Pro is reducing wasted time

“You just didn’t see that in the final: it was free for the whole game. You really saw the benefit of these rules being enforced. It was just a really, really exciting game.”

The rules had gained traction in MLS, but their introduction was delayed until after the MLS officials’ work stoppage, during which time matches were overseen by relatively inexperienced replacement officials.

Players receiving treatment must leave the field for two minutes (Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Off-field handling rule

These two time loss measures underwent revisions before taking a look at the MLS level. For example, the offside treatment rule (which states that a player may have to stay off the field “if the referee stops play because of a possible injury to the player”, with certain specified exceptions) was shortened from a retention period of three minutes to two minutes.

The rule can appear to penalize a player for injury – that was Messi’s complaint and that of his manager Tata Martino after Inter Miami against Montreal. However, MLS senior vice president of sports development Ali Curtis stressed that it was a rule that could act as a check on harmful impulses from highly competitive players.

“Sometimes if you’re suffering from a physical or difficult challenge, it can be helpful to get off the field and get a beat — or take two minutes, in our case,” said Curtis, who is a former MLS player. and also supervised the implementation of the rule. in MLS Next Pro. “I remember also in my experiences as a player, trying to play with injuries, ankle, torn knee – you try to fight through some possible injuries. Taking a step off the field increases our ability to handle players and keep them safe.”

However, a very competitive player may also try to exploit these new rules to see if there is an advantage to be found. Geiger revealed as much when doing the PRO’s standard preseason meetings with MLS players and coaches, explaining rule changes and answering questions just as he had previously done at Next Pro.

“There’s a little difference between MLS proper and MLS Next Pro in terms of the types of players you’re going to get,” Geiger said. “A lot of the players at Next Pro are just trying to put themselves out there; they are not necessarily trying to game the system or find ways around any rules. When we were doing club education (MLS), all of a sudden the wheels were turning and they were trying to think of ways to overcome it. I haven’t seen anything devious at all, anything that’s been really out of the box in terms of trying to win the system or get around the rules.”

An MLS Season Pass broadcaster speculated during one game that some defenders might struggle to find the right strength of challenge to send an opponent off the pitch for two minutes without being hard enough to warrant a booking. In effect, producing a “power play” situation.

“I guess what I would say is, I hope not,” Curtis said of that hypothetical. “Even taking from my experience as a GM or as a player: players are going out there and competing, and it’s a physical game, but generally, players don’t go out there to hurt other players. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I don’t think the players are going there to try to hurt the players.”

Ali Curtis has overseen the implementation of rule changes in MLS and MLS Next Pro (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

The rule of replacement in time

The timed substitution rule requires a player to come off the court within 10 seconds after the fourth official holds the scoreboard in the air. If a player does not go to the nearest sideline and passes an efficient exit window, his substitute will have to wait a full minute before entering the game.

When asked, Geiger said there are no guidelines for how fourth officials count to ten. He joked that usually once a judge starts yelling “One! Two!”, you can see a player getting away by working harder on a run.

However, Geiger says players will be given some benefit of the doubt.

“We’ve tried to take a reasonable approach to a lot of these things,” Geiger said. “The one thing I didn’t want to happen is to get an email from a club saying ‘it took 10.5 seconds for a certain player to leave, why aren’t they being kept?’ The officials are doing this count in their head as soon as the board goes up, so what they’re trying to see is the player making an effort. If they’re trying to get off the field, and they had no other options – they’re going to leave at the nearest point – and it took 11 seconds, I don’t think you’re going to see the officials holding that player at midfield.”

Center officials also help players along, often with an arm outstretched toward the sideline like an entrance to a dimly lit theater.

In the 84 games since the new rules took effect, MLS teams have combined to make 716 substitutions — just over 8.5 substitutions per game combined between the two teams. Of that sample, a player breached the 10-second guideline on just eight occasions – not even 0.1 times per contest.

Mark Geiger was an MLS and FIFA referee before becoming an administrator (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Results and the future

While Geiger and Curtis did not pass a final judgment on the rules, the new initiatives appear to be making the intended first impression. Before the offside treatment rule, there were 5.25 suspensions per game involving potential injuries. In the six game weeks since the rule was implemented, that figure has dropped to 1.67 suspensions per game. Fouls, yellow and red cards have all been issued at roughly similar rates across the timelines.

This likely won’t be the last time guidelines outside of the Laws of the Game are modified after tryouts in MLS Next Pro. Curtis was referring to an initiative that already has the approval of the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the international body that administers the rules of soccer around the world: a rule where only the captain of a team can interact with match officials to get clarification. in a call. This would hopefully reduce the number of times a referee is swarmed by angry players demanding a call overturned or, at the very least, an acceptable explanation.

“I’d say there’s probably four or five other concepts that I think are interesting that we really need to explore,” Curtis added. “Many of them have to face what I would say is not just a waste of time, but a really effective match. These key areas of player health and safety, gamesmanship, technology, some of those key areas – we want to be a leader in the game and we want to be on the front foot.”

Ultimately, Curtis reiterated that these rules are made with the best intentions of the game in mind, as a fun event and a way to keep players safe.

“There’s this kind of tag that we’ve talked about,” Curtis said, “that the game has been around for 100 years, but there’s a lot of other parts of the game that have evolved in terms of how it’s played, who’s playing. it, who watches it, how we consume it.The game itself and the quality of the game has changed over time.

“As part of that evolution, you have this – not an internal issue, but you have a kind of global problem where teams and players implement these tactics that delay games. You know, embellishing fouls, faking injuries, applying these types of delay-of-game tactics to get a result. We think it’s unfair to the players, it’s unfair to the coaches, it’s unfair to the fans, it’s unfair to everyone who’s invested in the game. There is no perfect answer, but doing nothing cannot be the answer.”

(Photo: Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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