Commentary / News

2024’s new rules, and possibly new referees

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Union fans preparing for the 2024 season should be aware that some Major League Soccer rules of play have changed. The changes seem unlikely to apply to CONCACAF’S Champions Cup, the Leagues Cup between MLS and Liga MX, and the U. S. Open Cup, since those tournaments involve reconciling other leagues and their rules.

With the International Football Association Board’s late-January ruling to adopt last year’s 12-month in-tournament experiments announcing VAR decisions to both stadiums and live TV audiences, these five changes will help govern the new MLS season:

  1. Referees will announce VAR decisions.
  2. With appropriate exceptions and under the referee’s guidance, more injury treatment will occur off the field and sooner.
  3. Substitution exits must occur within ten seconds, with penalties for violation.
  4. Players suffering simultaneous head injuries requiring off-pitch treatment and evaluation will return to play simultaneously.
  5. Stadium clocks will run during stoppage times.

Pragmatically, the referee’s judgment governs the implementation of all of the above changes except number 5.

VAR announcements

At its most recent meeting in London at the end of January, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) approved the proposal to announce review decisions to both stadium crowds and TV audiences.

Off-field treatment

During play, if an injured player is down for more than 15 seconds, the referee will stop play and bring on training staff and other medical personnel. Once it can be done safely, the player will be removed from the pitch for a minimum of two minutes for a more thorough examination and course of treatment.

There are sound exceptions for goalkeepers, suspected head injuries, “serious medical events,” and offenses that have produced disciplinary cards that need recording and defusing.

10-second substitute departure

When substituted, a departing player can access all points outside the pitch for exit. Failure to be “into touch” within 10 seconds of the substitution call will result in his replacement being held on the sideline for an additional 60 seconds. The team will play with a man down for the duration.

Accumulated MLS NEXT Pro data says 99.7% of substitutions have occurred within 10 seconds under this rule.

Simultaneous return to play

Players removed for simultaneous head injuries will only be permitted to return to play when both players have been cleared. Requiring concurrent re-entry allows medical staff to take their time during concussion evaluations, rather than being pressured to make rushed decisions in the hopes of gaining any brief on-field advantage.

Years ago, anyone who witness Sebastian Le Toux suddenly flow to the ground after a trademark overdrive burst of sprinting that followed an excessively speedy, negative concussion evaluation–he was out concussed for a few weeks–can only approve anything that promotes caution about leakage inside a coconut.

Stoppage clocks

Having stadium clocks imitate those populating both broadcast and streamed video will keep fans from questioning when the final whistle will blow—currently one of the drawbacks to paying for a ticket to watch a match in person.

A referees’ strike?

On January 15, the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expired between the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA), the labor union representing professional soccer referees in the United States and Canada, and the Professional Referees Organization (PRO), the organization that manages them on behalf of the United States Soccer Federation, the Canadian Soccer Association, Major League Soccer, the United Soccer League, the National Women’s Soccer League, and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

The expiring CBA was extended to January 31.

In the interval, each and every PRSA member who responded authorized a strike. Furthermore, the union has filed an unfair labor practices complaint against PRO with the National Labor Relations Board alleging PRO bypassed union leadership and communicated directly with the referees and assistant referees themselves. Pablo Maurer and Tom Bogert published the story behind The Athletic’s paywall on January 22.

To date, no resolution has been reported.

According to Jonathan Wilson of The Guardian (behind its paywall), as of January 23, the issue is pay.

PRO was founded in 2012, and the CBA in question dates back to 2014. Since then, while players’ salaries have increased (as confirmed by the Players Union’s semi-annual salary guide), the salaries of referees have not kept pace. The MLS also used Targeted Allocation Money to augment pay in 2017. As of now, it’s unknown what the salary situation is like for any of the other leagues’ PRO services.

Wilson alleges that the referees’ union is asking for an 80% increase and that PRO’s counteroffer is below 10%, somewhere in the single digits.

With the regular season opener on February 21, the MLS may begin the season using replacement officials until labor negotiations are resolved.


  1. I could live with or without announced VAR decisions, but the other things that reduce time-wasting and writhing on the ground are great changes that are way past due.
    Showing the time on the stadium clock during stoppage always seemed like a no-brainer. Why has it taken this long?
    Given the quality of league officiating, it is not surprising to learn that referee compensation is screwed up. It is just STUPID to not pay the officials. Overpay them and then GET RID of the bad ones. It is really not that complex. The PRO needs to be abolished and reformulated (if necessary) into something that is more transparent and accountable. That structure may work well in England, where there are more, and much better, officials. It is certainly not working very well for MLS.

  2. Thanks Tim. I always felt like a nerd starting my stopwatch at second half kickoff, just so I would have some idea of elapsed injury time. FYI I don’t think The Guardian has a paywall.

    • I think they still give you ne or two articles for free every once in a while.
      If you try to consult specific articles or with frequency I have had difficulties.

  3. I’m curious on the substitutions how it will effect the captain passing an armband to another player on the field (especially if they are in the offensive 3rd and have to get it back to the keeper).
    Also, how the timing be affected if the player being taken off is leaving because of injury. Will the substitute have to wait 60 seconds if the player has to be helped off the field?
    The simultaneous head injury return seems like it is ripe for abuse if the player for one team is significantly stronger than the other. A team may prefer to play 10 v 10 for awhile and delay the return of both players.
    I’m also not fully convinced on the clocks on for stoppage time. When the ref wants to add more time after a delay they are going to face vocal opposition if the home team is ahead by a goal.

    • As far as stoppage time, not enough fans understand that its a minimum of X Minutes of stoppage time.

    • Andy, you are illustrating why I made the point about all of it being under the center referee’s control.
      When you have watched Union II you have seen three of these rules in action.
      even the 10 second sub rule is subject to ref’s discretion. When does he start the timing, and how does he measure it?
      My own view as a fan is that it gives refs tools to use if there is egregious, obvious, unsportsmanlike manipulation. Previously, all they could do was give cards for unsportsmanlike behavior, which took something extreme to provoke. That I remember I have seen such a card once.

      • Unfortunately I missed most of the Union2 games last year so I didn’t see the new rules in action as much as I would have liked. Ref’s discretion does make sense. I have seen a few occasions where someone is carded leaving the field, but they are few and far between.

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