Former U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Benny Feilhaber recently watched a Brazilian Serie A game on television and realized how frustrating the late stages of the game can be for viewers.
Botafogo, the Brazilian-born Feilhaber’s lifelong favorite, currently sits atop the table, waiting to take a one-goal lead over American Minero. As America began to control the movement, the game turned to what it often does in those situations: the art of wasting time.
Feilhaber said: “For me, this fact is true: I think we have a problem with time-wasting in football today. “It happens everywhere. We see it all in MLS, everywhere. People who kill or get killed because they know you won’t always get back or because they affect the rhythm or speed of the other team. If you want to make it more fun, you need to fix it and find a solution.
Feilhaber’s frustration is fueled in part because he knows the problem can be solved. As the coach of MLS Next Pro Sports Kansas City II, Feilhaber has seen the effectiveness of the league’s off-field treatment rule implemented last summer. “If the referee stops play because of a player’s injury, the player may be forced to leave the field of play for three minutes,” the rule states.
The rule has “exceptions” for problems that result in head injuries, bleeding, heart attacks or serious injuries, or a red or yellow card, but the goal is simple: stop time-wasting tactics.
After one and a half seasons of implementation, the results were clear and eye-opening: an 80% reduction in extended suspensions due to on-field treatment.
Before the rule went into effect, players went down an average of 6 times per MLS Next Pro game for more than 15 seconds due to injury, including injuries that occur outside of the rule. When off-field treatment was the rule, that number dropped to 1.21 instances per game – 1.01 per game were exceptions to the rule (injuries that required a stoppage but did not trigger the three-minute waiting period) and just 0.20 per game where a player stayed off the field for more than three minutes.
For those who participated in the game, the difference was not noticeable. The game itself doesn’t seem to have messed up much, but the gameplay was noticeably better. While the league is working with a data provider to measure effective playing time this season, several people who coach or work in the league say the change has been obvious.
“Statistically and based on what I’ve seen, yes, I believe 100 percent that these rules have a positive effect on the game,” Feilhaber said. “Overall, I’ve seen a huge improvement in our league in terms of time-wasting. There really is no time to waste. “
Austin FC II defeated Columbus Crew 2 in the MLS Next Pro Championship game. The league was formed to increase development opportunities for youth players and expand MLS’ footprint locally with the establishment of MLS Next’s youth academy division. But the league’s ability to serve as a guinea pig for rule changes has proven invaluable.
League officials have been working diligently to test new rule changes and competition structures, and have had some successes — including off-field treatment and the timed substitution rule, which gives players just 10 seconds to leave the field. A couple of examples – it can contribute to more effective playing time, which is a major goal for leagues around the world.
The timed substitution rule states that if a player does not leave the field within those 10 seconds, the player waiting to enter must wait until the first stop following a 60-second holdout. There have been just 10 infractions over 3,150 turnovers this season. He was zero in the game. It effectively eliminated players for wasting players’ time.
Ali Curtis, MLS Next Pro’s senior vice president of competition and operations, spearheaded the changes to these rules. Curtis, a former sporting director at the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC, said it was a months-long process involving stakeholders across the league.
“We knew we wanted to be really progressive when it came to innovation in the field,” Curtis said. But at the same time, we didn’t want to change the game, we wanted to improve it.
Representatives from 11 different MLS Next Pro clubs were involved in the discussions as part of the committee that ultimately proposed the rule changes. Curtis spoke to national team coaches, FIFA officials and referee officials, including former PRO executive Howard Webb, who headed to the Premier League last summer, and current PRO general manager Mark Giger. Notably, the Premier League has introduced a similar “on-field treatment” rule this season, although players are only required to stay off the field for 30 seconds over three minutes.
The meetings were important because they had to look for some of the unintended consequences that new legislation might create. For example, there were concerns that the on-field handling rule could lead to players abusing their opponents late in games to gain a man advantage if they had to stay longer. time. That, in turn, led to an exception to the rule regarding yellow or red card offences.
“I’ve been in a lot of meeting rooms at all different levels, and these conversations involving new regulations are the most challenging I’ve ever seen,” Curtis said. “There’s an emotion that goes along with breaking tradition, sometimes it takes time. In that regard, it was difficult to get people to understand how to evolve and what the right steps were to do that. We don’t want to impose rules for the sake of change. We want to be thoughtful and we want them to have an impact.
Coaches, players and executives around the league saw an immediate change in behavior. The players were growing too fast or leaving the field themselves for treatment. (A player may return three minutes after leaving the field alone to receive treatment at the discretion of the referee.)
Columbus Crew II general manager Cory Wye recalled an incident in which a Columbus player was handed a three-minute penalty. Wei asked the player after the game what happened. The player said it was narrowing but it was around the middle of the field. He thought about rolling across the field, but chose to just go down.
While the image of a player rolling off the field is comical, the incident shows that the rule was successful in changing the way a player thinks about injury – ‘How do I get up and leave the field and not delay the game?’ ‘ – But there are still things that need to be corrected and solved in the regulation that is a natural part of the process.
“Every week, ‘What’s the opinion?’ We’ve been asking. We’ve been talking to (stakeholders) and the biggest concerns have been medical and performance. We’re taking care of players and looking out for what’s best for them,” Wray said. “Are you injured? And ‘Can I help you?’ “If you’re injured, there are exceptions to that. It keeps the players safe. Other than that, guys need to know whether it’s bad to go down or not stay. That’s the thought process we’re trying to influence. Are you going to sit to influence the situation, or are you going to stay because you can’t let go?”
The rule changes have proven to be so successful, there’s a chance we’ll see them in MLS next season. That, however, requires further approval by the league’s Product Strategy Committee and approval from the Board of Governors. Those conversations aren’t easy, Curtis said. Still, the data is compelling, and it means the change that started in MLS Next Pro will soon find its way to the big leagues.
“At the end of the day, we want to see more football,” Curtis said. “And that was something that was a real, real bright spot.”
(Photo: Andrew Cathampes/ISI Photos/Getty Images)