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UEFA Champions League
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Modest ways to improve soccer: tweak the offside rule, refine how time is kept

The offside rule isn't broken, per se, but it could be refined to encourage more attacking play.

You might credit the geniuses on the pitch with the fact that soccer never lacks for new and original moments of beauty, but we think the visionaries who gave us the game's deceptively simple rules -- which have grown from just 14 to 17 since the first set was codified more than 150 years ago -- deserve their due. Here we present two modest proposals from an English teacher in Portland, Oregon, for ways to improve them further.

The offside rule can be tweaked

FIFA has updated the offside rule several times since 1990, offering as its stated purpose to "promote attacking football" and increase scoring. But as Chris Anderson and David Sally point out in their book "The Numbers Game," the number of goals per game has essentially stayed the same since 1970. In England, that figure is 2.6, but it has remained relatively static elsewhere, too. If FIFA and the IFAB really want to encourage more goal-scoring without fundamentally altering the game, they should consider the following proposal.

Imagine a line drawn 22 yards from each goal at the outer edge of each penalty arc. The offside rule would remain in effect as currently written -- until the ball crosses this line. It would then be nullified from the next touch. In other words, the attacking team would have to advance the ball past the 22-yard line under the current rules. Once it has established possession in this zone, however, players could pass to any teammate without being called offside. When the ball is sent back across the line, the regular offside rule takes effect once again.

What you get is a release point once the ball has been advanced past the designated line, creating an attacking zone in which the offense is now essentially using the entire space in whatever creative ways it can imagine to score a goal. I believe we would begin to see innovative teams moving freely in this offensive zone and spreading the field in ways they currently cannot. And since the zone is limited to 22 yards from goal, this does not place an unreasonable burden on the defending team.

The purpose of maintaining the existing rule for the majority of the pitch is to preserve the role of the midfield and prevent players from camping out near the opposition goal: this would likely be the result of a complete elimination of the offside rule, turning every soccer game into a succession of Hail Marys into the box. In the case of the NASL's 35-yard line and the Scottish Football Association's 18-yard line of the 1970s, where players were not called for offside up to those lines but were after, forwards would often park themselves at the line and wait for the long ball.

My plan prevents this; the ball is close enough to the goal to encourage tight, crisp passing. It is in that final zone where the potential for some magnificent, innovative soccer exists. I imagine that a form of keep-away will emerge in which offensive teams become excellent at applying high pressure without allowing the ball to go farther than 22 yards from the goal, lest they have to reset. Defenses will adjust accordingly and both sides will have more space to showcase their talent.

The game clock should be more transparent

Soccer has something that most major American sports don't: long, uninterrupted action and a game that keeps moving, free of delays. Soccer fans love this, but the game is not free of its own peculiar set of problems. The ugly by-products of a fluid clock are time-wasting and faking of injuries, things that could be fixed with a simple change in the way game time is kept.

Under this plan, the game clock would count up from zero to 90 minutes, just as it does now. But instead of referees keeping track of game stoppages privately, so that only they know exactly how much time will be added to the end of the match, this process would become transparent.

During periods in which play is stopped for extended periods, the clock would stop as well. The referee could control this easily with the touch of a button on a watch. Everyone who is playing and watching would know exactly how much time is left. This would eliminate the guesswork that goes into calculating stoppage time; in fact, it would eliminate stoppage time entirely.

To preserve the flow of the game, pauses would remain at the discretion of the referee. There would be no need to stop the clock for something as minor as a throw-in or a routine foul. But if a player takes an especially long time to throw in a ball or if a recalcitrant ball boy withholds it, time could be halted. The new law could even require players to throw the ball within a certain amount of time and could switch possession if they fail to do so.

In a world where technology is so ubiquitous, it seems odd that soccer has preserved its archaic form of timekeeping. This change wouldn't take discretion away from the referee entirely, but it would enforce an element of transparency that would make the game more fair. Most importantly, it preserves the fluidity of the game and eliminates some of the things that have become a blight on the sport.

Time wasting and injury faking would then provide no benefit, unless the goal is to get an opponent punished; that's a different problem. Players might still saunter off the pitch when they are substituted but doing so won't give their team an advantage. Referees will be able to avoid allegations of favoritism for extending stoppage time or calling the game too early.

In other words, we can get back to making soccer more about the game and less about the gamesmanship.


This story is from the fall 2017 issue of Howler, a quarterly mag about soccer. Get 20% off a subscription with promo code HOWLER13 at shop.howlermagazine.com.

Jeremy Hansen is an English teacher who cheers for Real Salt Lake and the Utah Jazz from his home in Portland, Oregon.

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