Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those schools that will be playing sports this fall will have to overcome some changes in the way each game is played.
No sport has seen more drastic changes than soccer. Last week the MIAA approved its safety measures for the sport, and the sport will have a different look on the pitch.
There will be no heading, slide tackling or deliberate body contact will be allowed, and masks will be required for all athletes during play. Athletes will have the option to take a “mask break” if they are more than 10 feet away from anyone else, but the default expectation will be that masks should be on.
Instead of playing two halves, teams will play four quarters with two-minute breaks between quarters and a 10-minute halftime. The ball will be wiped down after every quarter, and goalies won’t be allowed to spit on their gloves. There will also be no timeouts and substitutes must remain socially distant while checking in near midfield.
For restarts, indirect kicks will be the primary method of resuming play, and all indirect kicks will be played on the ground. Instead of throw-ins, teams will take an indirect kick from the sideline, and corner kicks will also be taken as indirect kicks. Goal kicks and goalie punts or throws can be played in the air, but the ball cannot travel through the air past midfield or the other team will be awarded an indirect kick from midfield. Penalty kicks will use penalty shootout rules, where the ball will be dead if the goalie makes a save or the ball bounces off the post and no rebounds will be allowed. There will also be no defensive walls permitted on free kicks.
The referees will have wide discretion to enforce the modifications and can issue yellow or red cards to anyone they feel is in violation. That includes teams that aren’t social distancing on the sidelines, players who make deliberate contact or slide tackle others, those who don’t wear their masks and anyone who approaches the ref to argue a call.
Rockport and Manchester Essex are both hoping to play this fall, but both schools need approval from town officials as both will be starting the year with remote learning.
"We still need approval to play but I'm cautiously optimistic," Rockport boys head coach Dave Curley said. "I'm in the mindset that we are and so are the kids. I'm glad they're going to try to get the games played this year and have made a strong and transparent effort to make these safety rules. But it is going to take some serious adjusting and the game we play is going to look a lot different."
The biggest hurdle could be the elimination of headers. At the high school level, especially the varsity level, players are well seasoned in the sport with some playing the game for over a decade. That much time on the pitch makes a headed ball an instinctual play, something players don't think twice about and just react to.
"That's a play that's in your soccer DNA," Curley said. "And it's not just scoring plays, backs head the ball out of the area as do the midfielders. It's a big part of the game. I'm hoping the referees will be empathetic on those plays if they happen by mistake."
Restarts have a radically different look. The new rules state that after a stoppage, both teams must wait until a second whistle from the referees to get the game restarted. That means the refs must make sure each team is lined up correctly and socially distanced correctly before restarting play.
That's a big change to what teams are used to. Many teams like to get their restarts going quickly to catch the defense.
"I don't really know what to expect on restarts because we haven't seen them in action yet," Curley said. "My best guess is that if we are kicking towards the goal, our strikers and midfielders will be lined up first and then the other team will get the chance to line up the defense correctly before the restart. It's going to slow the game down a bit but it's another area I think we can work through."
Deflections and re-directs could also be a big part of the game now.
"I think it's going to look a little like hockey," Curley said. "Drive to the net, put the ball on net and see if it can deflect off of something and into the net. It's something all of us coaches are looking to develop strategies for."
Overall, while there are advantages and disadvantages to the changes, Curley is confident teams will be able to adjust.
"I'm sure teams that are tall and good in the air will be at a disadvantage as will teams who have someone that is really good on throw-ins," Curley said. "But we're excited to start a season and happy to be playing. I think we will be able to figure this all out and adjust our games."