Fever dreams: Let’s fix college soccer (rules of the game)

With no soccer for the foreseeable future, we’re looking at some big-picture items in a perhaps-insensitively-titled series called “Fever dreams.” Today, we look at one of the many problems with college soccer: the rules of competition themselves.

Folks who don’t pay a ton of attention to college soccer may not know that the sport is not played by IFAB’s laws of the game*. There are several aspects that don’t adhere to the internationally-recognized regulations we know and love. Some of those are insignificant.

At least two of them, however, have a major impact on enjoyment of the game, and (importantly for our purposes) preparing players for a potential soccer career. The discrepancies that I’ll deal with here are those relating to timing and substitutions.

* Probably few more people – particularly in the VAR era, where it’s become a #talkingpoint – are aware that FIFA is not the arbiter of the laws of the game. The International Football Association Board is made up of the four British FAs (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales) and FIFA. It is recognized as the official guardian of the laws.

The clock

The clock does not typically count up in college soccer, unlike… every other level of soccer (aside from high school soccer in some states) both in the United States and abroad:

6.3.1 When an electronically controlled scoreboard clock is visible to both benches and spectators, it shall be used as the official timepiece. The clock may count up or down; however, it is recommended that it count down. There shall be one official timekeeper designated by the home team.

Is there a reason the NCAA recommends this? One is not made clear. In hundreds of college soccer games attended, I’ve never seen a clock count up. Didn’t think it was allowed until I looked up the actual rule.

There is also no stoppage time. Instead, the clock physically stops for a number of different situations:

6.3.5 The timekeeper shall stop the clock when the referee signals for any of the
following reasons: For a television timeout; Because a player has been instructed to leave the field for an
equipment change; To assess a player’s injuries; Because a player has been instructed to leave the field for a jewelry
violation; When a substitute(s) is beckoned onto the field in the final five
minutes of the second period only in keeping with A.R. 3.7.1.c; Because an athletic trainer or other bench personnel is beckoned
onto the field; When a goal is scored; When a penalty kick is awarded; or When a player is carded

…and resumes when the ball is back in play. Then the halves end in this ridiculous fashion:

6.3.8 The timekeeper shall call out audibly using a public-address system or to the nearest official the last seconds of playing time in any period, from 10 to zero.

Presumably there are reasons for these quirks:

  • The NCAA likely believes an American fanbase won’t be able to comprehend the concept of a clock counting up or stoppage time.
  • There’s also an added transparency when stoppage time – privately kept by the center official in other match settings – is not involved.
  • I’d wager to say the NCAA just wants to be different in the “cut off nose to spite face” mindset that is typical of the organization.

Perhaps there is some legitimate upside in two of those bullet points. The downsides outweigh them:

  • Most people deigning to watch college soccer probably watch other leagues around the world and can understand timing rules different from American football/basketball/hockey/etc.
  • The stoppage-time discretion of the officials allows for more end-of-game drama: an audible countdown leads to teams ceasing play if the ball is not in an attacking zone.


In FIFA-sanctioned contests, each team gets three substitutions (from a seven-person bench), and any player who is removed from the contest via substitution may not re-enter. For friendly matches, those rules are relaxed so the entire bench may be substituted with no limit of three.

There’s… quite a bit more going on in the college game. Substitutions are unlimited. Players may re-enter the game at the beginning of each period of play, plus the following:

3.6.1 Field Players. With reference to periods of play, substitutions are permitted
as follows:
First half: no re-entry.
Second half: one re-entry.
First overtime period: no re-entry.
Second overtime period: no re-entry

So: if a player begins the second half on the bench, then is substituted in, he or she may sub out and come back in again before the end of regulation.

That rule encourages constant substitutions, which breaks up the flow that is so important to the game itself (all my “have ever watched a college soccer game”-heads know what I’m talking about). It also seems to be… complicated just for the sake of being complicated? With no obvious benefits?

Let’s simplify it: teams may still make unlimited substitutions down their bench, but once a player is removed, they are done for the day. No re-entry at the beginning of the subsequent half, no bizarre second-half re-entry. You’re subbed out, you’re done. It’s more like a FIFA friendly.

Of course, in the spirit of college athletics, some exceptions can be carved out for temporary injury replacements, uniform violations, etc. etc., as long as the authority on those matters is a non-coaching personnel (medical trainer for injury, fourth official for uniform issues) to avoid abusing the rule.

Why bother? And aren’t you missing the forest for the trees here?

This is not changing rules for the sake of changing rules. Altering the way things are done “just because that’s the way everyone else does it” is not a good enough motivation for change. However, there are multiple benefits to approaching more standard FIFA-style rules: in addition to making the transition to other levels of play – including summer play in NPSL/PDL, but also future professional careers – make more sense for the players, it also makes for fewer proprietary rules for the officials.

That means that the pools of officials with FIFA certifications (through US Soccer or otherwise) and those with NCAA certifications (through the National Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association, NISOA) are currently separated. Creating two distinct pools – though they overlap – that have to use two distinct sets of rules of the game is damaging to the game in the entire country. The sport needs as many competent referees as possible, and making it unnecessarily difficult with separate rules for separate certifications prevents that happening.

Lastly, yes, this stuff is generally small potatoes when it comes to problems with NCAA soccer (and I’ll surely get into some of the other problems before this pandemic is over). But not taking a look at some issues simply because they aren’t the biggest ones means the smaller things can’t be addressed until the larger ones are taken care of (and I’ve got some really, really bad news for you about how willing the NCAA is to take care of the big-ticket items).

Adhering to IFAB laws of the game – or a closer version of playing rules to those laws – is broadly beneficial with extremely few drawbacks. It can also be a first step toward keeping (or, uh, “making”) NCAA soccer relevant to the broader public.

Header photo is the most recent college soccer game attended in person.
Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country.

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