These days, pro soccer in America plays by the same rules as everyone else in the world. That wasn’t always the case, though — not in the old North American Soccer League, and not in the early days of Major League Soccer. Both leagues refused to trust Americans to enjoy soccer by its worldwide rules, so they tried to make a few tweaks.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the changes ever got approved.
When MLS launched in 1996, it had borrowed some of the NASL’s strangest rules, in the hopes of getting the attention of American fans. Chief among them was the penalty shootout at the end of every tied game, to ensure a winner. But not just a traditional penalty-kick shootout from a fixed spot. Instead, shooters lined up 35 yards from the goal, simulating a breakaway situation.
In practice, this led to goalkeepers and forwards running pell-mell at each other, followed by a brief moment of a player trying to shoot around the onrushing keeper. Its excitement was debatable; its potential for injuries wasn’t, as the two players often careened into each other. The shootout was, thankfully, abandoned after the 1999 season.
Another rule change involved the clock, which counted down to zero rather than the traditional soccer clock, which counted up to 45:00. This mostly gave teams a renewed incentive to try to run out the clock if they were leading, since the referee couldn’t punish time-wasting by adding stoppage time onto the end of the half or the game. Not surprisingly, giving teams a reason to slow down the game did not prove to be popular.
Perhaps the goofiest MLS-specific rule was a slight tweak to the rule that limits teams to three substitutions. MLS introduced a fourth substitution that was only allowed to be used for the goalkeeper. The rule died an ignominious death when coaches — chief among them current LAFC boss Bob Bradley — figured out that all they had to do was swap their keeper with another player who was already on the field, sub in a player for the new “goalkeeper,” and then have the actual goalkeeper move back into the net.
There were other changes that some of the league’s founding fathers wanted to make, such as introducing much bigger nets. By 2003, MLS had finally figured out that what American fans really wanted was the kind of soccer they saw on TV in Mexico and Europe, and in the World Cup.
The end of the goofy rules changes was the beginning of the modern era of MLS, when the league wasn’t afraid of draws or stoppage time, and let the soccer sell itself. Hopefully, the league’s success since has also put an end to the desire of American soccer executives to make wholesale changes to the sport as a whole.
• David Wagner and Huddersfield Town beat the odds this week, earning draws against powerhouses Manchester City and Chelsea to avoid the possibility of relegation. Wagner, who is German-American but played for the U.S. men’s national team, has earned his stature as an up-and-coming star in the managerial ranks. He says he loves it at Huddersfield, but his name has been linked to much bigger jobs.
• Multiple reports have indicated that Everton striker Wayne Rooney, until recently with Manchester United, will move to D.C. United this summer for a $17 million transfer fee. D.C. is moving into a new stadium and wants to make some sort of splash. Remember this the next time someone in MLS claims that the league doesn’t have enough money.
• New Zealand is the latest country to announce that it will pay, and treat, its men’s and women’s national teams the same. You have to wonder when the United States will finally do the same, especially since the women’s national team is the best in the world, and the men’s team can’t even qualify for the World Cup.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at TSG Hoffenheim, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. It’s the final week of the German season, and Dortmund needs a draw or a win to guarantee itself a spot in next season’s Champions League. Hoffenheim, meanwhile, needs to win to guarantee itself the same. There’s plenty on the line on the final day.
Premier League: Brighton at Liverpool, 9 a.m. Sunday, Ch. 11. The Premier League standings are all but decided, but the biggest question left is which team will seal the fourth and final Champions League spot. All Liverpool needs is a single point from this game to finish ahead of Chelsea, and it’s expected to get it.
Serie A: Juventus at Roma, 1:40 p.m. Sunday, beIN. Juventus has effectively clinched a seventh consecutive Scudetto already, thanks to goal difference, but a win or draw would seal it. Roma, meanwhile, is still not guaranteed a top-four Champions League spot. A home victory would be enough to give it a return to Europe.
MLS: Seattle at Portland, 3 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. Los Angeles and New York both have new crosstown rivalries, but the best local battle in MLS is still the clash of two teams separated by nearly 175 miles of Interstate 5. Portland hates Seattle, Seattle hates Portland, a soccer rivalry that’s been going since the 1970s.