Understanding Soccer: How to spot offside calls correctly

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Every sport has its own rules, the organizing principles that have the game look the same in a small town in Iowa as in a large city like Boston. Baseball has as many as 71, golf has 34 and soccer has 17.

Soccer's 17 Laws of the Game define play in all professional leagues and are modified to accommodate leagues below that level of play. As the ages of players decrease, the fields become smaller, there are less than the specified 11 players on a side and many fouls become teaching moments for the very youngest.

If you have never played soccer, or if you mostly watch it from the sidelines cheering on your kids or grandkids, it might not make sense to you when one of them outruns the other team and scores only to have the referee blow the whistle and declare it "offside".

The offside is the most misunderstood law in soccer. A player is in an offside position if, in the other team's half of the field, he is nearer to the opponents' goal than both the ball and the two defenders closest to the goal, one usually being the goalkeeper.

If your "mini-Messi" ran with the ball and scored with the required two defenders in front of him — it is a goal. If the ball preceded him in and the goal was then scored — it is offside. This rule prevents a player from standing in front of the defensive goal waiting for the ball.

Soccer's laws, as well as the game's history, have evolved over time. Goalkeepers were once allowed to use their hands anywhere on the field and the offside law did not exist.

It is important for players to understand the laws. An attacker knowing the offside law can avoid from having a goal disallowed.

This is especially true for the goalkeeper, particularly for plays that develop within scoring distance of the goal.

When I was in college, any ball that went over the side line resulted in an indirect free kick. Thus, a dangerous attack could be launched from well past mid-field. This happened late in one game when the sun was low and in my eyes. As the ball descended in a perfect arc towards me, I quickly realized that there was a high probability of my not controlling the ball. Rather than taking a risk, I stepped aside and let the ball enter the net untouched because a goal cannot be scored on an indirect kick.

I was not concerned by what my coached yelled at me, not printable here, but was relieved when the referee waived off the goal.

A law that effected goalkeepers was changed in 1994, in that they could no longer use their hands for a ball passed back from a teammate. This was designed to minimize the defense's ability to stall and waste time.

This restriction on handling a ball passed back to them forced an evolution in the position.

Today's goalkeepers cover a much wider range and have added a significant dimension to their team's offense. Excellent footwork can be seen as the goalkeeper approaches and even passes mid-field. Although the anxiety of the coach and the many fans watching is considerably raised, it is rare to see today's goalkeeper make a mistake.

Once the goalkeeper is outside the penalty area, he is like any other field player who is not allowed to touch the ball. If he needs to handle the ball to prevent an opponent from getting past and possibly scoring, the penalty is a direct free kick. Since this usually occurs up field, the risk to his team is minimal.

Listing all the Laws of Soccer would consume too much space and probably put the reader to sleep. I have tried to explain by example some of the offside and free kick laws.

Next up will be the role of the referee and how fouls are called.

Alan Rubin is the owner/coach of Just4Keepers of West MA, and is the Massachusetts State Director at Just4Keepers USA. For questions or comments, reach Rubin at airubin13@gmail.com, his website is www.understandingsoccer.com.


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