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MLS rule changes for the 2020 season

Some things will be a little different this year.

SOCCER: NOV 10 MLS Cup Final - Toronto FC at Seattle Sounders FC Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the International Football Association Board decided on rule changes for the 2019/20 seasons of world soccer back in March of 2019, most countries adopted them as of June 1. Since that is the middle of the MLS season, it was decided that they would come into play for the 2020 season.

Now that the 2020 season is upon us, let’s take a look at some of the more prominent changes:


Up until now, if you were leading late in a game, you could waste some time by subbing off a player that was lined up on the far end of the field. By the time he noticed his number on the 4th official’s board, shook a few players’ hands, and walked all the way across the field to come off, a team could easily waste as much as a minute.

Now, players will have to leave the field at the nearest point to where they are. That means if you are subbing a player on the far end of the field, he will have to leave the field at the far end and walk around the outside of the field to the bench.

Goal kicks

Previously, goal kicks had to leave the 18-yard-box before it was touched by the team with the ball. If it was touched by the possessing team before leaving the box, it was retaken.

Now, goal kicks are live the second that it leaves the kick taker’s foot. That means there will be a number of teams in MLS who place their centerbacks a few feet away from the goalkeeper, play a 5-yard goal kick, and play out of the back. We saw a lot of this during the preseason, and it will be interesting to see how many teams continue to use it consistently.

Free kick walls

Another change you will see come into play often is a restriction on offensive players around free kick walls. Before this season, offensive teams loved to have players stand next to the other team’s wall in order to further screen the goalie or, more typically, try to push their way into breaking the wall apart when the kick is taken.

Now, if the defense builds a wall of three or more defenders, the offense is not allowed within one yard of the wall. In other leagues, they have adapted to this rule by building their own offensive walls a yard in front of the defensive one so that they further screen the goalie.

Drop balls

In the past, when a drop ball was needed due to a stoppage in play like an injury, it was technically a neutral ball. In an effort for sportsmanship, the team that didn’t have possession when play was stopped would “win” the drop ball and play it back to the team that had the ball before. Usually, it meant they would kick the ball out of bounds or all the way back to that team’s goalie.

Now, a drop ball is already considered to be in possession of the team that had it when play was stopped. The team that did not have the ball is not allowed to pressure the ball until after the drop. This will allow the offensive teams to actually continue playing from where they had the ball before.

Hand ball

Under the old rule, hand balls were always subjective and a referee had to constantly decide if the player’s arm was in a natural position and if it was a case of “ball-to-hand instead of hand-to-ball.”

While this rule will stand for the most part, IFAB has also added a clause that if an offensive player touches the ball with his hand/arm and it immediately leads to a goal-scoring opportunity or a goal, it is a hand ball. It does not matter if the arm was in a natural position.

Referee interference

In the past, the referee has always been considered part of the field. This meant that if a pass happened to hit the referee and bounce to the other team leading to a counter-attack, tough luck.

Now, if the ball hits the referee, it will lead to a drop ball.

Virtual offside line

Although not part of the IFAB rule changes, it is worth noting that MLS will not be using the virtual offside line that leagues like the EPL have been using. There has been a high level of controversy over players being ruled offside by a matter of centimeters because of their armpits in a blurry picture, so MLS has decided to avoid using it for 2020.

If you would like to read all of the rule changes, you can find them here. What change are you most excited about for 2020?