Analysis / Breaking News

A rule change for the ages

Photo by 215pix

The most important offseason change to affect Major League Soccer happened yesterday morning.

From the league’s website: “Major League Soccer will participate in FIFA’s concussion substitute pilot program from the 2021 season, in continuation of its role as a leader in prioritizing player safety, the league announced Monday. The program allows for up to two substitutions per team during a match to replace players suffering from a concussion or a suspected concussion, regardless of the number of substitutions already used.”

Following trials in England earlier this year, MLS becomes the first major soccer league to allow for concussion-specific substitutions.

It’s a massive step forward.

Why it matters

Soccer is a game that seems both eternal and very constant, and yet is actually one with a revolving door of ever-changing rules.

Laws of the game ranging from offside to back-passes to the goalkeeper, using one’s hands to tackling, the existence of jersey numbers to even the crossbar, have changed time and again since the game’s inception. Some changes are for the sake of uniqueness (not allowing the use of one’s hands was more to differentiate the game from rugby than it was anything else), others for beauty (goodbye, boring back-pass), others still for safety (no sense linking any videos here, as there are truly hundreds of ghastly challenges left under-punished in soccer history, none of which did the game any good then or now).

The modern version of The Beautiful Game exists because of innovation not in spite of it, and any opportunity to keep the best players in the league healthy is another step forward. In that vein, this is a masterstroke.


Because with any potential injury in sports, tension is created. This is a tension between the player, the coach, the team, the training staff, and the fans.

Is it a serious injury? Can he go on playing?

What does this do to the team’s chemistry? It’s strategy?

And so on.

Because substitutions are a manufactured scarcity in modern soccer, the level of tension is simply ratcheted up.

Who is the back up for this guy, and is he worth using a substitute on? We only get three, after all…

Throw into that pot of tension the likelihood of a player’s desire to stay in a game, whether on account of machismo, a will to win, or a want to simply not end up as Wally Pipp once did, and what is created is a boiling stew of bad outcomes.

This rule is meant to address such scenarios, at least in the hardest of injuries to quantify: concussions.

By allowing a pressure release valve, a free sub for a head injury in the heat of the moment, all parties have been given a gift. This gift is permission to take player safety seriously and not have any party’s judgment clouded (more than it needs to be) by misaligned incentives. For players, this gift is one they likely won’t want to accept in the moment, but one that will give them value the rest of their lives over. One that may keep them playing the game they love, simply by forcing them to stop playing for a while.

Just ask Taylor Twellman if he’d have accepted that gift in the heart of his playing career.

Or Sidney Crosby, or Troy Aikman, or Eric Lindross.


MLS continues to position itself as a place where foreign players can come, live relatively normal lives, feel safe from fanatical supporters, and genuinely count on a paycheck. Recently it’s also become a place where a player can do those things and eventually earn himself a nice payday abroad.

Now it is also the place where a head injury is given its just due, as objectively different than other muscular or skeletal injuries and one deserving of special treatment, from the moment a player is injured.

MLS doesn’t get everything right, and especially this offseason got a lot of its labor-related positions wrong. This pilot is a check mark to the good.


  1. Gruncle Bob says:

    First – what is the objective? How is it quantified? How will we know if this works or not?

    I’d like to know more about how this is going to be executed, and what alternatives were evaluated in developing this rule. It’s hard to see how adding more subs to a 5 sub game is going to do much.

    I’d like to hear to what extent they have considered how this implementation can be gamed and how they are going to fight against that.

    My expectation is that the U always consider player safety and welfare in every decision they make. That’s with or without additional subs.

    This rule I have no doubt is well-intentioned, but it may or may not accomplish the objective, whatever that may be.

    • Is the objective not to ensure players’ health? Here’s a question. What is served by keeping a concussed or even possibly concussed player on? That player’s play is diminished. The product is thus diminished. And the player ends up having long term health effects. As for the 5 subs already, I don’t believe FIFA plan to keep five subs after this year so that should go back to three. Even so, this isn’t only about when you have subs, it’s about when you’ve run out too.
      Will teams/coaches try and game the system? Are we humans? Of course they will. So what. There’s gamesmanship in every sport. It’s gamesmanship that adds that certain special twist or flair. But even if a coach does this, he risks losing that player. Imagine being pulled off for a fake concussion by your coach. You know you were fine and could still play. That shit might fly once or twice, but I’m not so sure players would stand for it. Even so, it’s not like it would ever get to a point where it had become rampant. FIFA would adjust. A level would be found. I mean, it’s not like they can’t change a rule or law of the game after they made it.
      Gruncle, I don’t see your point at all. Not in this day and age. Not with what we know about concussions and long term effects. Not with all we don’t know about concussions. To be honest I find this view archaic. How many players careers could have been extended had they been pulled off the field/rink/court and gone through proper protocol. I see zero harm in this. It is a trial after all and the point is to find the kinks and work them out.

      • Gruncle Bob says:

        You are creating a strawman, reading things into my post that I didn’t say.

        You made my point in your first sentence. Yes, exactly, there is no value in keeping injured players on. That is why clubs will sub injured players WITH OR WITHOUT additional subs. They have every incentive to protect their players and build a reputation for doing that.

        I prefer to learn the analytical activities behind policies. “Rule Good” because “player safety” simply isn’t good enough.

        Adding subs changes the game. I don’t think it should be done without a REALLY good reason. You may disagree. We can all co-exist. No worries.

      • Gruncle I wasn’t purposely trying to put words in your mouth, more looking to find where you were coming from.
        I still think I disagree with you in the sense that you feel they go far enough, whereas I don’t. I think there’s still wiggle room for a player to talk themselves onto the field while being concussed. You mention you think the Union do their best for the players and I agree. It’s also irrelevant because it’s one team not a whole league. We are also talking human nature and what should happen and what does happen are two different things. So in my eyes more needs to be done.
        Listen, you’ve given me something to think on, and I appreciate it. What I’d really like to be able to see was the whole evaluation process a player goes through during a match. I mean maybe that could be an idea, just recording a protocol eval and using it as a teaching tool and for learning. I just want the least percentage chance of a concussed player making it back on the field. I don’t think we are there yet. I also don’t think getting closer to this ideal is unreasonable nor will it ever get perfect. It just needs to be better. Peace Gruncle.

  2. If they do this they need to go back to the 3 sub rule.

    • If I remember correctly, FIFA have already stated they plan to go back to 3 subs next season. As always, I could be wrong.

  3. They did say that but I will believe it only when I see it ;)!

    • Well I’m sure there are enough soccer purists to make it happen. But what if it didn’t? Does it really affect your enjoyment of watching? I mean the point of the game is to put a ball in a goal and that still will happen. What if more substitutions equaled less injuries and longer careers for players? Coaches like Klopp, Pep, Mourinho, have all complained about congestion of schedule and it’s affects on players. What exactly is being held on to by sticking to three subs? Tradition? Purity? This is the way it’s always been done, thus so it always shall be?
      So Kevin, Gruncle, anyone on the other side, what are your major holdups? What do you feel is being lost or made a joke of, or whatever it is you dislike about this? To me it’s just going to improve the product by spreading the load on the players, allowing them to be in better condition for longer and hopefully equaling longer careers in the end.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        The purist angle is one I tried to address here, but maybe missed on. There’s no such thing as “original” soccer. The game changes all the time, and especially in the direction of safety.

      • One of the more enjoyable things about football is that it isn’t based on an American model (unlimited subs, entry/exit/re-entry of games). Football is a contact sport and I don’t worry about longer careers as more subs isn’t going to contribute to that. More stoppages for subs and var kills flowing football.

      • As I tell my daughter the only way you can be safe playing football is to quit and play golf or tennis instead 😉

  4. Buccistick says:

    Chris, thank you for using your summary to contextualize MLS’s rule change in the bigger picture. You add an observation that is as important as it is underrated by mentioning that players perceive MLS as a place where they can “genuinely count on a paycheck.”
    Gringos take this stuff for granted; and as we’ve discussed here many a time, there’s a lot to dislike about MLS’s single-entity model (without pro-rel, etc., etc.). And I am no apologist for capitali$m.
    But our norteamericano labor disputes simply do not compare to the never-ending soap operas in so many other leagues.
    … all the more so during this past year+ of pandemic stressors!

  5. Are there any more details on how this will work?
    I remember a suggestion of allowing the concussion substitute to enter while the player is being evaluated, then if it is determined that the player was not concussed, the player re-enters and the concussion substitute comes off.
    This seems much better to me than just an extra substitute in case of head injury, for two reasons:
    1. it doesn’t stop the game while the player is evaluated, assuming they can be safely moved off the field.
    2. with the team no-longer down a player while an off-field concussion evaluation takes place, there is a lesser incentive for the evaluation to be rushed

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