Five Substitutions is a Bailout for the Rich
As a part of the so-called "new normal" for soccer fans, there has been an interesting blast from the bast for FC Cincinnati fans, five substitutions. The once weird quirk of the USL is in place in the English Premier League, German Bundesliga, and now MLS. In the mad rush to get sports back in place as fast as possible, a bending of the rules was needed. And it appears to be here to stay for a bit longer than we originally thought.
For anyone not aware, in the world of soccer there are two organizations that "run" the sport. FIFA, the corrupt organization most people are familiar with, and IFAB, the one not very many people have heard of even if they're soccer fans. You can think of it this way, FIFA manages the competitions, from the World Cup to professional leagues to other forms of soccer like Beach Soccer or Futsal. IFAB manages the competition, as in the rules of the game itself. IFAB are the ones who keep tinkering with handball rules, the ones that allow or disallow VAR, and the same organization that has given us five substitutions instead of three. IFAB is run by England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and FIFA itself, with each of them getting a vote on rule changes.
IFAB issued a temporary decision back in May to allow for five substitutions in soccer competitions, but originally said that rule would expire back on July 31st. This week, they extended that expiration date back to the end of the year.
The reason for the rule and its extension was explained in the following two points:
Some competitions which resumed in 2020 may have a shorter-than-usual recovery/preparation period before the start of their next season.
For many competitions, the 2020/21 season will involve matches being played in a condensed period due to a delayed start and the inability to end later than usual because of major international tournaments.
On the face of it, sure this makes sense. In the rush to get these suspended seasons to their conclusions, the run-up time was likely to put extra strain on the players. And with many of these competitions the condensed matches means teams are having to turn around their games very quickly which could lead to an increase in injuries.
However. The extension of this rule now includes competitions that have not been as impacted. In fact any of the issues in terms of condensed matches or lack of preseason would be self-imposed issues unrelated to the pandemic.
And that is the issue.
The five substitution rule is ripe for abuse. Larger clubs, the ones that dictate leagues and their rules, are the ones who stand to benefit from this rule change. Manchester City can afford 16 "first team" players, could Norwich? Could Bournemouth? And with the ability to give more players more playing time, better players may not be convinced to stay at so-called "smaller" clubs for more playing time if they know they'll have more opportunities to be subbed in with bigger budgeted teams.
This rule is being left to the leagues to take up or not, but they all seem to be adopting it no matter the distance between matches. In any other year teams would be forced to play just a few days apart using three subs, but not now. And MLS can claim its because of the heat that they're using this rule, but don't forget Orlando, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Galaxy, LAFC, and soon to be Austin all play outside in these temperatures with three substations. This novel rule isn't fixing a new issue, these issues have always been here. The pandemic is merely cover for a rule change.
Thankfully IFAB and many of the leagues have gone with a rule to include a maximum of three substitution windows, that is you can't stop the game five times to make five substitutions, you only get three stoppages to make your substitutions. But these increases in the amount of time a substitution takes, not to mention the water-breaks which are gratuitous themselves, increases the amount and duration of stoppages. And those stoppages increase the likelihood of mid-match television ads. In a world where every other sport has been so inundated with ads, soccer stands out as a delightfully commercial-free television viewing experience. So long as you only recognize commercials as prepackaged television videos and not the thousands of ads on the players and around the pitch.
For FC Cincinnati fans, the team is going through a rebuild. The roster isn't quite ready to compete against the higher echelons of MLS. And five substitutions exacerbates that issue. Letting more established teams like Seattle or LAFC continue to have this advantage will only make the differences between the haves and the have-nots worse in MLS. The breaks on this runaway train need to be applied now.
Extra substitutions for concussions or some version of a temporary substitution will probably be attempted soon, and good. Player safety should be a top priority. But using a pandemic as an excuse to expand the advantage wealthy teams have over poor teams is poor sportsmanship at best, and pure corruption as worst. Fans need to remain vigilant to attempts to co-opt the sport at its fundamental levels. What little parity is left ought to be preserved.