Limited Re-Entry Substitution - Physical Madness

 The article mentioned below was published in the Nov/Dec issue of the NSCAA Soccer Journal.  It will also appear in the Jan/Feb issue of the WORLD CLASS COACHING magazine.


 There are some rules that make sense in some instances, but not in others.  The limited, no re-entry substitution rule is a prime example of such a case.  This rule states that once a player is subbed out, they cannot re-enter the game in that half.  This rule clearly makes sense in Europe and elsewhere where their young players typically play just one game per weekend.  Here in the our top youth teams can play 3 – 5 games in a tournament weekend or one game a day for five consecutive days.  So in our case, it doesn’t make sense.  Playing games on consecutive days puts our players in a bad physical situation, and limiting substitutions makes this bad situation worse.


I think we all agree that playing more than one game per weekend is not ideal.  So why do we do this?  Sometimes we have little or no choice.  The is unique in its geographical size and often from a financial and logistical point of view; there is no alternative but to play more than one game per weekend.  For instance, a parent and child (player) from Kansas City cannot justify spending around a $1,000 on flights, hotel and expenses to go to Dallas or Florida to play just one game.  To make financial sense, they have to squeeze in more than one game to justify spending that amount of money for a weekend trip.


US Youth Soccer, their four Regions and 55 States agree with this.  They recommend no more than two games per weekend, no more than four games per week and ideally a day’s rest in between games.  Yet some of their Regional tournaments and some State Cup tournaments are played with five games in five consecutive days?  As I said, this scheduling cannot always be helped.  But US Youth Soccer then makes a bad situation even worse by insisting on the no re-entry substitution rule at these tournaments.  This turns what is already a tough physical situation for our young players into one that is primed for injuries to occur and one that creates an environment for a deterioration in the level of play.


First, let’s look at some of the reasons US Youth Soccer have for insisting on limited re-entry substitution.  The Position Statement from the DOC’s of Region Two covers 11 reasons why they believe limited re-entry substitution should be played.  In short they mention:


  • The rhythm of soccer in would be more controlled with limited subs.  Plus it would allow players to become more tactically aware and creative. 

  • Neither players nor coaches really understand soccer "match-ups," because of free subs.  Soccer becomes a coach’s game with too many subs.  

  • Players who aspire to higher levels of play must learn to play by international rules. FIFA-7 is the standard form of the substitution rule used in for top-level competitions.  

  • The Midwest Regional League has adopted the FIFA-7 substitution rules of the USYS National Championship Series. The next logical progression is to implement this model within the respective state leagues and state cups, and thereby create a vertically consistent system for all elite levels of competition. 

  • There are many coaches who use unlimited substitution to callously disrupt the flow of an opponent’s play or who us the stoppages in play to kill the clock towards the end of a game.

Now I happen to agree with most of their points, but they are missing the giant elephant in the room.  These points just don’t make sense WHEN OUR TOP YOUNG PLAYERS ARE PLAYING FIVE GAMES IN FIVE DAYS (or multiple games in a weekend).  The FIFA-7 limited substitution takes into account that most countries play just one game per weekend…not 3 – 5 games.  How can we expect our top players to perform well when physically we are destroying them?


This is where some common sense should come into play.


Let’s look at the implications of playing games on consecutive days.  These are primarily, a deterioration in the level of play, and a higher risk of injury due to fatigue. 


Scott Moody, President of Centers for Athletic Performance states, “Games on consecutive days are not only taxing to the metabolic system, but also to the Central Nervous System (CNS) to the degree that it takes the CNS 36 to 48 hours to fully recover.  The nervous system is fatigued (loss of coordination), players get dehydrated (due to lack of water the body can’t recover effectively), the metabolic system is challenged (lack of energy) and muscles are in a damaged state. This type of environment is begging for injuries as well as sub par play.”


What does Moody, who specializes in working with youth soccer players, say is a good way to help this situation?  “Frequent rest/hydration breaks would help control some of these fatigue factors and injury risks.”  In other words, if players were allowed to substitute more frequently, they could get rest breaks and re-hydrate giving some help to a bad situation.


I asked College coaches if their teams experienced a “fatigue factor” in Sunday’s games after playing 48 hours earlier on Friday.  Every single one of them responded that there was a “fatigue factor” and not only did they experience reduced levels of play on the Sunday games, but they experienced more injuries also.


Bob Warming of Creighton University said that the Missouri Valley Conference recently passed a recommendation that they would play games on Wednesday’s and Saturday’s to give more recovery time between games.  Warming also said, “The in club and college soccer started this business of playing multiple matches on weekends because of costs and time constraints.  It is not good for the players”.


Now if college coaches agree that there is a “fatigue factor”, even when they have a full days rest between games, then surely the fatigue factor when playing games on consecutive days as our club teams do, can only be worse.

I also asked the opinions of coaches and conditioning specialists at the Academies of professional English clubs.  They too concurred with Moody and our college coaches.  


Eamon Swift, the Academy Sports Scientist at West Ham United, states that games on consecutive day’s leads to fatigue, lower levels of play and higher possibility of injuries.  This is the reason why their young players only play one game per weekend. 


David Williams, the Academy Director at Norwich City said that they have a minimum of 48 hours recovery between games for their younger players.


The conditioning and coaching staff at Sheffield United Academy add the concern about delayed muscle soreness (24-48 hours) and the likelihood of long term injuries like Osgood Schlatter’s and stress fractures.


Barry Gorman, Penn State University and Past President of the NSCAA, mentioned that because of the limited substitution rules and games on consecutive days, the international teams that attended the Disney tournament were not allowed to play more than 35 minute halves because of their federation ruling.  


According to Sam Snow, Director of Coaching Education for US Youth Soccer, all 55 USYS State DOC’s are in agreement with the limited no re-entry substitution rule…even taking into account teams having to play games on consecutive days.  My question is, “how many of these State DOC’s have coached teams that have had to play five games in five days in the most important tournament of the year (State Cup or Regionals) for their team?” 


Interestingly, US Club Soccer, an association that was formed in 2000 by the DOC’s of major soccer clubs around the country, addressed the limited no re-entry substitution rule as they put together the rules for their National Championship.  Founder member, Derek Armstrong, said they felt it was madness to subject our players to unnecessary physical hardship, so they allow unlimited subs at their National Cup competition.


The founders of US Club Soccer were all DOC’s of major clubs with experience of coaching teams to State, Regional and National Championships.  I find it interesting that with their extensive experience of developing our top talent and Regional and National Champions, they opted against the limited no re-entry substitution rule for their National Championship yet the 55 USYS State DOC’s who have little or no experience of coaching Regional and National Champions choose to go against this, as well as ignore the evidence and recommendations of experts from our top college coaches and the professional Academies from the English Premier League.


Barry Gorman puts this situation in perspective, “The logical and physiological evidence advises against playing multiple games yet we as educators/coaches continue to ignore the research documentation and at the same time claim to have the best interest of the student-athlete (player) at heart.  Surely, we are all hypocrites sending out the wrong message.  We need to put in place rule/schedule adjustments that cater to the well-being and development of our young players.”


Playing games on consecutive days or 3 – 5 games in a weekend is a tough situation to put our top young players in.  Some of this is unavoidable (some isn’t).  But let’s not compound the problem by limiting their rest/re-hydration breaks.  So let’s put in a rule that caters to the well being of our young players.  Now is not the time to dig in and save face.  Now is the time to help our top young players.  Now is the time for common sense.  Now is the time to abandon the limited substitution rule when playing more than one game per weekend.