Friday, March 31, 2017

Next Most Logical Rules Change for MLS-part II

How does MLS institute rules changes, if it must first get clearance from FIFA? ...Water breaks during extreme weather and regular weather was the hot topic of Next Most Logical Rules Change for MLS (part I). If the reason for the new rule protects the health of the players and is good for the game, as is the case for water breaks, then, just make the change and worry about the consequences later.

Adjusting the rules should definitely take precedence for protecting players from head injuries or concussions, and, as discussed in a previous post, MLS is already the best hope in solving soccer's concussion crisis. 

We are learning that the newer, more transparent FIFA is also a kinder, gentler world soccer governing body. Post scandal, it is more likely that FIFA will oblige common sense, rather than punish it. Especially so, because MLS is the guinea pig world Division I league experimenting with VAR (video assisting referees), to get the right call on challengeable instant replays. MLS has a distinctive relationship with FIFA now, which other leagues don't have.

The most aesthetically displeasing of all Soccer plays is the goalkeeper punt (punting is dropping the ball from the air with the hands with or without a quick bounce). It’s awful to watch. It hurts the flow of the game and looks out of place compared to the rest of the game. The inartistic nature and brute force of the kick doesn’t blend in with the rest of the skills that make soccer the world’s most ‘beautiful game.’ The punt delivers more than just concussions for the players who receive them with their heads. It subconsciously changes how the game is strategically played.

These punts happen when the keeper gathers the ball with his/her hands after a player from the opposing team has made contact with the ball pushing it towards the goal being defended by the keeper.  The keeper could have made a great save or it could have been incidental contact by the opposing team.  Either way, the keeper has the option to punt the ball to try and give his/her team an advantage going towards the other goal.  After gathering the ball, the keeper runs or jaunts quickly to the edge of the penalty box line, if they desire. Usually they are waving teammates down field and then the ball drops from their hands and is punted with as much power in the leg as possible (sometimes the punt will be directional with less power).  

Goalkeepers are the only players who have the ability under the rules to touch the ball with their hands. From the time as children growing up playing the sport, this has always been the most distinctive attribute to Soccer. Players don’t ever get to use their hands, only the keepers.  So why not keep it this way? Force goalkeepers to throw the ball down field after collecting it, rather than the option to punt. Their skill sets throwing the ball can still place the ball to the midfield line. 

Interestingly, as with the water break rule, a rule taking away punting from goalkeepers can also help the game of soccer gain more practicality and provide for more goal-scoring opportunities. This rules change would intrinsically reward the more skilled offensive team.

Most of the advantage one team has over another during a game is shown in the game stat, time of possession. What time of possession generally proves out is that one team is dominating the field of play and most of the action is held on their offensive side of the field past the mid-field line. Sure, there may be a lot of back passing onto its defensive end, but generally speaking, one side of the field is getting the greater amount of play due to one team having better ball control and passing acuity.

Some may argue that the punt allows the punting team a more direct route to scoring, and, thus is better for overall goal-scoring. I disagree with this logic. As the ball travels downfield in a hurry for play nearer to the other team's goal, the punt does give a team more chances at getting lucky. It is true that forwards can retrieve a punt and put action onto the opposing goal moments after an initial touch. However, the value of the punt does not outshine the value of excellent ball control by the team pressuring a goal repeatedly. And, if a goalkeeper can only throw the ball to midfield, that same pressuring offensive team will have an earned advantage, rather than having to go on defense to protect against a long punt. In the long term, more goals will likely be scored by the consistent offensive team, rather than the fortunate punting team.

Overall, this rules change has a dual purpose: To carry the game forward with appropriate strategies for skilled teams to become higher scoring teams and to prevent the obvious blasts to the skulls of players by trying to win the ball with headers from punts by goalkeepers. The force of a punted ball is more likely to concuss an athlete than a thrown ball.

The integrity of the sport is not at stake. High arcing, long-distance kicks are still part of the game. These types of kicks will continue to happen in the natural flow of the game, all over the field, by both the offense and defense, and frequently on direct and indirect kicks.

Review:

*Make goalkeepers use their hands to throw the ball, rather than punt.  As it is now, punts can almost travel the length of the field; definitely, they are traveling three quarters of the field.  The most any keeper can throw the ball is just barely half the field length.  

*Giving keepers only the option to throw the ball is an important distinction because it means the team attacking may be able to keep their momentum. They have worked the ball down the field, controlling the action. Their work does not get completely subverted. They earn the ability to control more of the action.  

*Also, it is important referees enforce the rule only allowing six seconds with the ball before the keeper releases their throw. If a keeper first touches the ball at or near the end line, by only having up to six seconds, the throw becomes much more important to the game because the goalkeeper has to think about where to throw and it might not get too far down the field. He/she may have to be ready to defend again quickly. 

*Keepers are still allowed to kick at balls in play or kick a ball from the ground that is in play, just no punting. Also, keepers can surely take part in goal kicks. Punting, though, is useless and ugly.

*Most importantly, make the game safer for players. There are less chances for brain injury and concussions, if players don't have to try to gain possession off of punts. Players naturally don't want to show apprehension or fear towards heading punts, but, the reality is that no player enjoys it because of the risks involved with life's most precious organ. 

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