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New Rules for the 2020 MLS Season

Know the new rules so you are ready to go for opening day.

SOCCER: JUL 03 MLS - LAFC at Sporting Kansas City Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Major League Soccer is set to kick off it’s 25th season this coming weekend. And as with every season, some of the rules will change. An interesting thing is that the rules have changed for most of the world the better part of a year ago.

The International Football Association Board (IFAB) put out a new set of laws that have been in effect since May of 2019 (at the U-20 World Cup). However, since MLS was a few months into their season, they, as always, waited to adopt the rules until the next season. That time is now.

Virtual Line for Offside Not Adopted

Many around the world have already seen the virtual line that rules on if a player is onside or not. MLS has decided not to implement that rule in 2020 as the system has been so controversial it’s ruling players offside by body parts that can’t score goals. The VAR has handled offside pretty well and it appears the league is planning to keep that as the plan going forward.

Speaking of video review, it’s going into effect around the world, but MLS was one of the first leagues to have it, so fans will already be familiar with those changes.

New Handball Rule

Another new change is around handballs. On defense, it remains the same. It’s up to the referee to determine if the hand was in a natural position, if contact was intentional, etc. However, there is a new interpretation for attacking players. I’ll let Howard Webb, general manager of the Professional Referee Organization, explain:

“One of the most important messages to get across to fans is that the Laws of the Game now differentiate different types of handball offenses,” started Webb. “Attackers – who make contact with the ball and immediately score goal or create immediate goal-scoring opportunities – are penalized. Everywhere else on the field, the referee has to make a determination as to whether the player is guilty of an action which will be penalized, such as deliberately moving his hand to the ball or making himself unnaturally bigger to create a barrier for the ball. Contact between the ball and a defender’s arm in itself is not going to be automatically penalized in the way an attacker scores with the same type of contact.”

Substitution Changes

In past seasons, when a player was subbed off and their team was winning, they would intentionally walk the wrong way, move as slowly as possible, shake the hands of every teammate and so on in order to waste time. Now, at least one of those things, can be slightly slowed down.

Now, players are required to exit the field at the nearest touchline. It won’t stop all the shenanigans, but it should have some impact. There is some leeway here though. Referees can allow players to exit at midfield to avoid a rowdy road supporters section or for any other reason they deem necessary.

Goal Kicks

If you’ve been watching preseason MLS or soccer from around the world, you’ve no doubt noticed this change. In past seasons, a team like Sporting Kansas City who want to play out of the back, would put their center backs just wide of the 18-yard-box. Then if they felt pressure as the ball was kicked they could simply step into the box and it would be an illegal goal kick and be retaken.

Now, the team taking the kick is allowed to be in the box and the other team can press and force turnovers (though they must start outside the box). This could be bad for a team like Sporting KC who insist on playing out of the back, even under intense pressure. But overall it will help speed up the game.

Referee Interference

In past seasons, you’ve definitely seen the ball unintentionally hit a referee and setup a scoring opportunity for a team. Now, that will no longer happen. If the ball is touched by the referee, the play is blown dead and the team with previous possession of the ball is given a drop ball.

Free Kick Walls

Another strategic move and sometimes time wasting technique is for players that are taking a free kick to jostle with players in the opposing wall. Now, “attacking players will not be permitted to stand within a meter of the wall should the wall feature three or more defensive players.”

For us American’s unfamiliar with the metric system, a meter is 3.28 feet (or just over a yard). It appears they’ll just use a yard as a measurement in America though.

Drop Balls

In addition to the referee interference rule, drop balls on the whole will change.

“Drop balls will now be uncontested and the team that’s not in possession can be no closer than four meters to the ball. Whatever the reason for the stoppage, including moments when play is stopped due to an injury, the team in possession of the ball will resume their possession wherever play was halted. This removes the need for acts of fair play that sometimes involve a team blasting the ball long distances as a means of returning possession to the opposition.”

PRO referee Mark Geiger explains further that, “all the gamesmanship of dropping the ball and kicking it out of bounds all the way down to the corner, or trying to take advantage and starting an attack, all of that is going to be gone. This is designed to improve the attractiveness of the game.”

Goal Celebrations

Sometimes, when players score, they get a little too excited. If a player commits an illegal celebration like removing their jersey (or taking selfies with fans) and the goal is later disallowed, the yellow card will still stand.

Penalty Kicks

Several changes are coming to penalty kicks. If the player that drew the foul is injured, they can receive quick treatment and take the kick.

For the goalkeeper they are not allowed to touch the goal posts, crossbar or nets and they cannot be moving (shaking) at the point when the PK is taken. Also, the goalkeeper must have just one foot on the line or inline with the goal line when the kick is taken. This should help when a player stutters as they approach to take the penalty.

Quick Free Kicks with Yellow or Red Cards

“If the referee is about to issue a YC/RC but the non-offending team takes the free kick quickly and creates a goal-scoring opportunity, the referee can delay the YC/RC until the next stoppage if the offending team was not distracted by the referee.”

The rule goes on to state further that if a quick restart happens on a DOGSO (denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity) offense, then the player will only get a yellow and not be sent off since the advantage was regained.

What are your thoughts on the new rules? Join the conversation in the comments below.