Recently, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) approved the permanent adoption of the use of five substitutes, giving top-level competitions the option to allow up to five subs in a match (restricted to three substitution windows, plus halftime). This was a temporary rule change adopted in 2020 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it proved to be a successful and popular amendment to the laws of the game, enhancing player safety and giving teams more flexibility to make moves during a match.

Soccer certainly isn’t the same game it was when it was first played in the 19th century. It has grown and evolved with the times, just like every sport has. Over time the players change, the strategy changes, and sometimes, the rules must change as well to improve both the integrity and quality of the game.

But has it done enough, or perhaps too much?

Another relatively recent addition to the sport is VAR (video assistant referee) and Goal Line Technology, intended to make sure results aren’t affected unjustly by incorrect or missed calls. As noble as these technological efforts have been, they are certainly not perfect and can cause just as much controversy as before, but some of that comes down to the rules of the game themselves – rules that leave a lot of human subjectivity in the process, and thus are subject to error.

So, let’s take a look at five other rule changes that could help improve the sport. Some are major changes, some are tweaks, but all of these could potentially enhance and elevate the game.

Rule 1) Extra Time – Eliminate Shootouts

Though they have provided much drama and excitement (especially for neutrals), it’s tough to argue that the penalty shootout from the spot is a fair way to decide the winner of a match – especially when you consider that the method is only used to break a tie in knockout situations, which by definition are high-stakes games. Imagine working for an entire season, a career, even a lifetime in many cases, to have a chance at winning a major trophy as a player or coach (or a fan), only to lose in what amounts to an almost random skills contest. No other sport allows something like a championship game to be decided in such a frankly ridiculous manner.

A solution that has a bit more balanced odds between the keeper and shooter is the hockey-style shootout, used by the NASL in the 1970s and by MLS in its early years, where the shooter has 5 seconds to dribble in from 35 yards out and get a shot off, with the keeper allowed to come off their line and defend. Personally I think this style of shootout is much more entertaining, and more fair, but it still amounts to a sort of All-Star game skills display, not suitable to decide the winner of a game, season, or in the most extreme case, a World Cup. This type of penalty shot does have its place (more on that later), but it’s not to decide a winner of a game.

Rule Change:
The best way to break a tie in an elimination game has been tried before by FIFA, and is still used by NCAA college soccer in the USA: Golden Goal.

It’s a simple rule. If teams are tied after 90 minutes, you keep playing, and the next goal wins. You play the same traditional two 15-minute periods of extra time, but if anyone scores, the game is immediately over. If still tied after the extra 30 minutes, you go to a shootout. But we want to get rid of shootouts, so here’s where this can be tweaked and improved:

#1 – For the first two 15-minute periods, play the “silver goal” variation. This means if someone scores, the game isn’t immediately over, but if the period ends and the score isn’t even, then a winner is declared. This prevents an unlucky or otherwise fluke goal early in extra time from outright deciding things, giving each team a fair chance.

#2 – After 30 minutes if you’re still tied, don’t go to a shootout. Instead, then move to golden goal, next goal wins, for 15 minute periods until somebody scores. This is the way playoff hockey works – the game goes on, just as it did the entire season, with normal rules, until someone scores. And it can lead to some incredibly suspenseful and unforgettable moments. Yes, players will get tired, but with an expanded substitute option (perhaps the sub rules could be extended further in these extra time situations), it’s entirely manageable. Imagine the scenes if a cup final or promotion playoff were decided in the 156th minute, or even later?

Rule 2: While We’re At It, Let’s Get Rid Of Spot Kicks Entirely

The non-shootout penalty kick from the spot during normal game play has been a source of controversial moments for as long as it has existed. Even with the help of VAR, many PK calls are still hotly debated, and not once has a penalty kick really accurately replicated the opportunity taken away by the foul from the defending side. Has an attacking player ever been fouled, while standing still on the penalty spot, with no defenders around him and the keeper standing on his goal line? Of course not. So why on Earth do we award what is an almost automatic goal for things like soft fouls at the edge of the 18 yard box, or random handballs in a crowded cluster of players?

Rule Change:
2.1 – Award a direct free kick from the spot of the foul, just like any other area on the field. This would take much of the pressure off the officials when making foul calls in the box, produce far less controversy while still giving a scoring chance to the team that was fouled, and more closely replicate the opportunity that was nullified by the infringement. And it would definitely produce some interesting moments and memorable goals. You could enforce a maximum number of players in a wall in these situations, so you can’t simply pack the goal line, and also somewhat accurately replicate the scenario before the foul was committed. You could even use VAR to determine how many defenders were between the ball and the goal when the infraction occurred, as the limit for the wall, but this may be a step too far.

2.2 –  There is one scenario where a true one-on-one penalty shot is justified – when an attacker is on a breakaway, with only the goalkeeper in front of him and gets taken down illegally before getting a shot off. In that case, this is where our friend the NASL/hockey penalty shot comes in. It gives the attacker the near-exact chance he had before the foul, and is not a guessing game spot kick.

This is the only rule suggestion that would require modifying the field markings, as you’d no longer have a need for the penalty spot in the box. You could move it to 35 yards out, or perhaps more interestingly get rid of it completely and on NASL penalty shots have the shooter start from the spot of the foul.

Rule 3: Handball Adjustment

This one ties in somewhat to the previous rule, as nobody really cares about a handball if it’s not inside the 18-yard box. But if it is, we all become CSI detectives breaking down every frame of video on the replay to argue over the intent of the player, where the hand was, could they have gotten it out of the way, etc.

But if we get rid of spot kicks and instead award regular free kicks for fouls in the box as suggested above, a handball call becomes significantly less impactful, so therefore we can simplify the rule a bit.

Rule Change:
If a ball hits any non-goalkeeper hand (let’s define a hand as anywhere on the arm below the elbow), anywhere, at any time, for any reason, it’s a handball and a free kick to the other team. Doesn’t matter if your hand is behind your back, or what your intent was. Ball hitting hand equals handball.

This simplification takes a lot of the subjectivity out of the call, which makes things easier on the fly for refs, as well as for any calls under VAR scrutiny.

Rule 4: The Sin Bin

I’m stealing this one from rugby, but it’s actually a rule that has been approved by the IFAB for optional use in the youth, veterans, disability and grassroots variations of the game.

We’ve all seen plenty of sending offs that were questionable, for fouls that probably shouldn’t have warranted the nuclear option of a red card. The sharp escalation from “hey don’t do that again” to “you’re out of the match and your team has to play one man down the rest of the way… oh and by the way you’re suspended for the next game too” in the soccer justice system doesn’t leave much room for referees to work with.

Rule Change:
Adopt temporary dismissals, or “sin bins”, at every level of the game. Think of it basically as a “yellow card+” or “orange card”, in between a yellow and a red. If given a temporary dismal, the player in question is sent off, but only for 10 minutes, at which point they can come back on. So it puts their team at a disadvantage, but not a catastrophic one, and is more of a fair punishment for certain offenses that are worse than a yellow but that don’t quite warrant a full sending off and suspension (but under the current rules there is no other choice for). In fact, it would be decent punishment for a run-of-the-mill second yellow card as well, with a third then resulting in the traditional sending off.

I’ve had experience with this rule first hand at the adult amateur level in the USA, and it really is a positive addition to the game.

Rule 5: Offside

Saving this one for last – it’s a simple change with a big effect, and another one that ties in with making VAR smoother and easier to operate (and making it less necessary in the first place).

The current offside rule states that:

A player is in an offside position if:

  • any part of the head, body or feet is in the opponents’ half (excluding the halfway line) and
  • any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent

The whole thing ought to be flipped around and streamlined.

Rule Change:
Soccer’s offside rule basically works as “if any part of the player is offside, the player is offside”. But it should work in reverse, like hockey’s offside, which is “if any part of the player is onside, the player is onside”.

So let’s revise the official rule to:

A player is in an offside position if:

  • The entirety of the body (including hands and arms) is clearly and obviously within the opponents’ half (excluding the halfway line) and
  • The entirety of the body is clearly and obviously nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the entirety of the second-last opponent

This effectively means that you can “tag up” and remain onside even if just the tip of your boot or a pinky finger is in line with any part of that second to last defender. And we’re including the entire body, because not counting hands and arms as in the current rule just adds unnecessary complexity. If a hand/arm is relevant enough to stop play when the ball touches it, it’s relevant enough to include with the rest of the body when it comes to offside.

The intent, effect, and spirit of the rule remains exactly the same as the existing rule. You can’t be ahead of the ball and that second-last defender before the ball is played. This just changes how we measure it. This change gives the benefit of the doubt to the attacking player, but isn’t that how it should be? Nobody wants to see goals or attacking chances called back. Nobody wants to see play constantly interrupted by a linesman’s flag. Free-flowing, attacking soccer with more scoring chances is a much better product. This helps promote that.

The “clearly and obviously” qualifier helps 1) in VAR situations and 2) making VAR less necessary in the first place. Unless somebody is blatantly offside with a good amount of daylight between them and the second-last opponent, the flag should stay down more often, and if there is a review, without clear visual evidence to the contrary, if there is any chance part of the player is onside, they are onside and reviews should be quicker.

So that’s it. None of these would be earth shattering changes. We’re not talking about making the clock count down, adding time outs, getting rid of draws, increasing the goal size, adding 3-point shots or anything wacky that might have come out of an early 90s MLS brainstorming session. This would simply be massaging the existing rules into something that would dial back the opportunity for controversy, and make the game more enjoyable and fair.

Do you like any of these suggestions? Any ideas of your own? Hit us with your best rule changes in the comments!