MLS is the latest sports league to introduce new rules aimed at speeding up the flow of play and limiting unnecessary stoppages. There are 8 new rules implemented for the 2024 season, but the three roster regulation changes will have very little effect on the season for fans. The 5 new gameplay rules are all overwhelmingly positive additions, though. The main three changes are aimed at keeping the game moving and limiting the 'Dark Arts' (take that Jim Curtin), while the remaining two rules help make the referee's decision-making clearer to fans.
What are the changes?
The MLS Sporting Initiative announced 8 changes: the Off-Field Treatment Rule, the Timed Substitution Rule, In-Stadium VAR Announcements, the Stoppage Time Clock, Return To Play Equity, Discovery Slot Reduction, General Allocation Money for Designated Player Transfers, and a Residency Deadline.
Off-Field Treatment Rule
This rule change is perhaps the most exciting and will, hopefully, have a big impact on how teams have to approach game management, the art of turning 10 minutes on the clock into 4 minutes of game time. The rule states that any player on the field with a suspected injury will be helped off the field by the training staff and will receive any necessary treatment for at least two minutes. This means that if you are wasting time and feigning an injury, you must spend at least two minutes on the sideline receiving treatment. This potential two-minute man advantage will greatly reduce the number of fake injuries that will appear.
In addition, players actually injured won't be punished by the rule. The exceptions to the rule include head injuries, goalkeeper injuries, serious medical events, and fouls resulting in yellow or red cards. This means that there is no benefit to a team if an opposing player gets harshly fouled, they still receive treatment and are brought on to the field at the soonest instance possible.
Timed Substitution Rule
This rule is, again, aimed at limiting time lost on breaks in play. If a player fails to be substituted in 10 seconds or less, the player being subbed in will have to wait 60 seconds before entering the field, resulting in a similar sort of "power play" 10-man advantage as in the previous rule. This rule will effectively eliminate any and all slow substitutions that used to be common. The rule also does so in a clear and defined way, the referee won't just occasionally give a player a yellow card for delay of game. The rule was also proven to be a success in MLS Next Pro as 99.7% of substitutions happened in 10 or less seconds once the rule was implemented.
Return To Play Equity
The final rule dealing with breaks in play is the Return To Play Equity rule. This new regulation will require players who both receive simultaneous head injuries to be brought back onto the field at the same time. If two players go for a header and collide, for instance, they will both be allowed to return to play once they undergo concussion tests following protocol and are both cleared. If one player takes longer to recover than the other, they both reenter the field after the longer treatment has finished. The rule is fairly self-explanatory but is beneficial and will help remove pressure to return to play as quickly as possible after a head injury because the player isn't making their team play down a man.
In-Stadium VAR Announcements
This is the first of 2 rules meant to make referee decisions clearer. The new regulation will greatly help eliminate confusion with referee decisions as, pending IFAB approval, referees will have to explain VAR decisions to everyone watching the game, both in the stadium and on TV. This is similar to when NFL referees discuss a foul and then have to announce that there was a holding on whomever and there will be a 5-yard penalty over the stadium intercom. This rule is totally new but will, hopefully, remove a lot of confusion over VAR decisions, which have been a subject of much controversy in recent years.
Stoppage Time Clock
The last rule for in-game play will require all stadiums to display the game time, including stoppage time. For instance, rather than the stadium clocks displaying 90:00 +4, they will display 92:37. This is a simple change but one I greatly appreciate as it allows a better understanding of how long is left in games and how much time the referee actually adds on.
Discovery Slot Reduction
Moving to front-office rule changes, MLS teams will now only have 5 discovery slots, rather than the 7 they have had before. These slots are players not in MLS or affiliated leagues whom an MLS team wants priority when talking to. To sign an external player, they must first be on your discovery list which is typically kept secret to the club. The goal of these slots is to increase parity by allowing any team the ability to lay claim to a player multiple teams might want. These lists also stop multiple MLS teams from bidding against each other for a player which keeps salaries from becoming over-inflated but also removes some of the drama of teams bidding against each other which occurs in Europe. The move from 7 slots to 5 will possibly allow for more freedom for players from outside leagues but will likely have little to no effect on MLS for fans.
General Allocation Money for Designated Player Transfers
This new rule change allows teams who are transferring or loaning out a designated player to receive part of the transfer fees as General Allocation Money, which a team can spend on any club fee. This change will allow for teams to benefit from selling on their DPs which could benefit a team like Atlanta who want to sell their top players on to Europe, but will likely have limited effects on MLS for fans.
Finally, the last rule change is to increase the regulations for what makes a player a domestic player on a team's roster. MLS teams have different numbers of spots for domestic and international players and for a player to qualify as domestic they now must either be established or have appeared for an immigrant visa interview by the opening of the Secondary Transfer Window. This could make it harder for MLS teams to sign more foreign players but, like the other front-office rules, will likely have no real effect on MLS's product for fans.
How will they change the game?
Now that we know all about the new rules, how will this actually affect gameplay and the balance of power in MLS? For starters, there will be less time wasting at the end of games to run out the clock because the most common ways of killing time, faking injuries and long substitutions, now have penalties associated with them if you take too long. In addition, VAR decisions and game time will now be clearer for fans as they have to be officially announced and displayed, respectively. This will, hopefully, mean a more fan-friendly MLS product with less downtime and clearer referee decisions.
As far as implications for the front-office rules, the General Allocation Money from DP transfers could incentivize more teams to follow the Atlanta United method of buying young players with aspirations of selling them on to Europe as successful transfers will allow for more spending on other players. The residency deadline and reduction in the number of discovery slots both slightly incentivize teams to buy MLS-affiliated players but there will be no substantial changes in salary construction due to any of the three rule changes.