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USL coaches react to potential ‘head injury substitution’ rule change for 2020

Dave Sarachan, David Bulow and Tom Soehn offer their comments on the potential “head injury substitution” rule change.

Richmond Kickers head coach David Bulow talks to two players along the the sideline on May 15, 2019, during a U.S. Open Cup match at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

CARY, N.C. — About a week ago, ESPN reported that the United Soccer League had submitted a rule change to the International Football Association Board that would allow for a “head injury substitution” rule.

If approved, the USL hopes to implement the change in its Championship and League One tiers for the 2020 season. It would allow the medical staffs of teams to examine players with head injuries further, properly and more carefully, without the team having to burn one of its three full substitutions.

The USL’s application to the IFAB — a governing body that determines the laws of the game of soccer — was submitted on April 17. ESPN reported that the proposal had been in the works for two years. Among those who support it are ESPN analyst and former MLS player Taylor Twellman and FIFA’s medical committee chair Michael D’Hooghe.

USL president Jake Edwards told ESPN “it’s a safety issue” and that the league wants to do everything in its power to “protect the safety and well-being of the players.”

Pro Soccer USA asked a few coaches what they thought about the potential of a rule change. The coaches mostly seemed to be in favor of doing whatever is necessary to protect players, even if they weren’t totally educated on the finer points of the proposal.

“I don’t know enough about the real details of it, but my feeling is that this is a very important piece to the evolution of dealing with concussions. I think being on the front foot, like the USL has indicated, is great,” North Carolina FC coach Dave Sarachan said. “Once I dig into the real logistics in how that will play out, I could even comment further. As someone who has been involved with soccer head injuries, I think it’s very important. So, I’m all for it. I’d be curious to see how it advances.”

David Bulow, the head coach of the Richmond Kickers, had mostly coached at the youth level before taking the reins of the League One side. He said that many youth leagues and academy systems already have this rule, or some form of it.

However, Bulow said, at the youth level, winning isn’t all that important. In the USL, the difference between wins and losses can lead a coach to getting fired. If the rule is implemented in 2020, the league must watch out for coaches using it improperly.

“It’s probably a good thing. The one thing you have to be careful of is coaches taking advantage of the rule. But certainly, on the medical side and player’s safety and player’s health side of it, it’s the right thing to do,” Bulow said. “I was in the academy (level) before this and they had that rule as well. So, if there was a head injury, you had the subs to get them off to evaluate them. Certainly, the youth game is not so much about the results, so I think the coaches understood the rule. As long as it’s not being abused, I think it makes perfect sense.

“I’ve got kids and when they start playing in five or six years, head injuries are the scariest part for any parent and anybody who cares about another human being. It’s probably the right thing to do. I think it’s worth it to try it and see what happens.”

If approved, here’s how the rule would work: When a player suffers a head injury, a team can put in a substitute for him, even if the team has burned all three of its full substitutes. This would allow the medical and training staff to fully and properly assess the player’s injury, without the team playing a man down.

If the player is deemed fit to return, he can replace the injury substitute. If not, then the substitute will stay on the field and is made permanent as one of the team’s full three subs. If the team has already used all of its three substitutions, then the substitute would have to come off the field once the evaluation of the injured player is complete.

Edwards told ESPN that “cross-off period” for the injury substitute will be around 10 minutes.

“You can’t have it be 15-20 minutes,” Edwards told ESPN. “We’re certainly going to look into that.”

When asked about the potential rule change, Birmingham Legion FC coach Tom Soehn didn’t initially want to give his opinion, but pledged his support to what the league wants to accomplish.

“I’m not even going to comment on it until it happens,” Soehn said. “I think every league is looking to protect players and do whatever they can do to make it easier. You know, we’ll support whatever they do.”

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