The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association is calling it soccer season, but for the coaches and players preparing to play the sport this fall during the COVID-19 era, the game they will be playing is not the same one they have been enjoying their whole lives. It will resemble soccer, but thanks to a slew of rules put in place as an attempt to keep the sport safe during the pandemic, it will really only be soccer in name only.
“Crazy doesn’t half explain it,” said Sandwich High School’s girls’ head coach Dave DeConto. “It’s human foosball because they have to stay in their grids. All that’s missing is the spinner.”
The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs force put forth a laundry list of changes and modifications for the 2020 soccer season, which will begin with practice next week before moving on to games two weeks later. The MIAA soccer committee met on Tuesday, September 15, and reiterated that the amendments to the game, which is considered a moderate-risk sport, will be upheld.
The extensive list for soccer was put in place to eliminate deliberate and intermittent contact in accordance with the state guidelines. The changes include that all players must wear masks or gaiters, not physically contact opponents and not throw the ball (all restarts are kicks) with no heading of the ball and no corner kicks. There are no timeouts allowed, and games are not to be played in quarters rather than halves. That’s just the start.
DeConto said it would be easy to sit back and bellyache in regard to the strange ways the game will differ from what is normal. Instead, he is focusing on the positives.
“Two weeks ago I didn’t think we’d even have a season,” he said. “I could go hours and hours complaining about the rules, but it is what it is. It’s not soccer. We’re going to realize that and appreciate the time that we get to spend together and the opportunity to not think about what’s going on. We’re upbeat, we’re going to do it, but no one knows how long it will last.”
Falmouth High School girls’ coach Cory Dubuque said what the soccer teams are able to accomplish during their season not only means a lot to the players who are playing that game but also to athletes who are waiting—and hoping—for their seasons to come this school year.
“Right now we are the ones most affected by these rules, but a lot of what happens in soccer will determine how other sports get to do things going forward, sports like hockey and football and lacrosse. We have to do our best to adhere to the rules and make the most of it,” Dubuque said.
In terms of actually playing the games, it is kind of anyone’s guess as of right now what that will actually look like. It won’t exactly be the tabletop game version of soccer that DeConto somewhat jokingly envisions, but it might not be too far off. Scores are likely to go up, maybe even way up, with defenders not being allowed to make slide tackles, head the ball or nudge an attacker off the ball with their bodies. Add in that defensive walls are not kosher, and the recipe could be in place for some wonky final tallies.
“My plan is simple: We have to dive right in and take a significant part of practice and scrimmage. That’s the only way that they’re going to get used to it,” DeConto said. “It’s going to take a ton of scrimmaging, and it’ll be probably the end of the season we’ll still be getting used to it.”
Every coach in the state who has a team playing during the Fall 1 season—locals Bourne, Upper Cape Regional Technical High School and Falmouth Academy have all opted to have their soccer be played during the Fall 2 part of the schedule that is to begin around the beginning of March—will be looking for some sort of edge and new wrinkle over the next few weeks as they prep for the season.
Mashpee Middle-High School boys’ coach Ed Furtek said he was planning on workshopping some plans with some friends who coach in Vermont and see if they could crack the code of what this version of soccer is and how to excel at it.
“I have a couple of ideas. I think that there are certain basic things that you can do. There might be a real innovative wrinkle, but once you do it, everyone will pick up on it and they’ll be doing it too,” he said. “Just getting the kids to buy in will be big.”
Buying into the new version of the game means playing by the new rules, and with that comes accepting the interpretation of the new rules by the officials. How the referees react to the players on the field and call the games will be something to watch because of the severity of the penalties that have been put in place for arguing with the refs. Players who step toward the referee to argue a call can be yellow-carded on the spot. Should the players step within six feet of the referees to argue, that can be penalized with a red card for breaking social distancing.
The coaches said they believe the referees’ already difficult job has gotten even tougher because they are the ones responsible for sorting through and enforcing the new rules. An already thankless job will become far more stressful.
“I’d hate to be a referee,” Furtek said. “You have to have a smart team, a team that plays under control, and we know that some referees will call games differently than others, there’s no doubt about it. It’s going to be difficult, but like everyone you have to play the hand that you’re dealt and do the best that you can. You treat it like any other factor. You have to adapt to the conditions of the game.”
First-year Falmouth High School boys’ coach Dave Plourde said he thinks the harsh arguing rules were put in as a way to keep the game moving along when everyone is dealing with trying to figure out what is allowed on the field.
“Let’s be honest. A high school kid shouldn’t be arguing with a referee to begin with,” he said. “I think that the referees are going to do their best to use common sense and keep a flow to the game.”
Plourde added the referees have to relearn what they have been taught over the years and, as for the players, it is all new to them.
“There’s a million different scenarios, and the referees are just as green as we are. They’re going to do the best that they can,” he said.
DeConto said he thinks the sound that will most be associated with the 2020 version of high school soccer will be a whistle trilling. Early in the season he thinks it will be difficult for players to gain any kind of rhythm but hopes it will improve over the course of the season.
“It’s going to be a constant reminder of, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t do that,’” DeConto said. “I’ve got a group of seniors that know the game so well, they’re students of the game, but they have to basically relearn what they can and can’t do.”
Staying positive and appreciative for the fact that there is soccer at all is what the Sandwich coach said he wants to stress most. Like extra time at the conclusion of a game, the end of the season could come out of nowhere.
“We’re just one incident from it all going away, so you’ve got to enjoy it while it lasts,” DeConto said.
Whether they play the whole season or get shut down midway through, the fact that soccer is going to be played at all is reason to be excited and happy. The coaches all said they were pleased to have something akin to normalcy coming to the fields of play, and they look forward to getting together with their teams to practice and prep for games.
“It’s a weird year,” Dubuque said. “We hope it’s a one-and-done thing, but really I’m just happy for the seniors. I’m glad they get to play one more season. They need it.”
Plourde agreed, saying the big picture is what is most important.
“It’ll be challenging, sure. But the most important thing is that the kids are getting out and getting to play soccer. That’s more important than the rules that we have to navigate,” he said.