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Between The Lines

Abuse of MLS sub loophole is detrimental to league image.

By Gary Davidson

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Friday, July 11, 2003) -- There are those hailing MetroStars coach Bob Bradley as a genius -- mostly MetroStars fans and apparently Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber.

Heading into overtime of a 1-1 tie at D.C. United Saturday, Bradley took advantage of a loophole in the MLS substitution rules to send in a fourth reserve field player. Eddie Gaven, that sub, went on to score the game-winner with a minute remaining in the overtime.

While some might think Bradley was brilliant for pulling three points from a road game -- instead of leaving with one or even no points -- he also damaged the credibility of a league still desperately searching for respect.

While the first-year MetroStars coach worked his magic, the final minutes of the game more resembled an adult recreation game than a professional match. While virtually every league in the world allows only three substitutions per team -- period -- MLS has permitted three field subs and a goalkeeper replacement since its inception in 1996.

Having already made his three substitutions, Bradley used the break before overtime to "designate" midfielder Mark Lisi as goalkeeper and move Tim Howard to the field. However, Lisi never stepped into goal. When the MetroStars took the field to start the overtime, it was Gaven who was in net.

If the game officials were properly doing their job, that sequence would not have been allowed. Gaven should not have been permitted to enter the field, wearing shorts with his No. 24 and goalkeeper jersey with No. 1 on the back. Bradley listed Gaven as No. 24 on the official lineup sheet. Was fourth official Alex Prus earning his paycheck? Apparently not, since Gaven was additionally allowed to come in wearing a black shirt which was not permissable since D.C. United was also wearing black.

"It turned it into a pantomime. I was expecting a clown on a unicycle to come in next," United coach Ray Hudson said yesterday. "They might have allowed that. It's ridiculous in the extreme. If that happened at Old Trafford (Manchester United's home) or anywhere else in the world -- any coach pulled that -- the boos would be ear-splitting."

Overtime was delayed 90 seconds while a shirt of a different color was found for Gaven. That jersey had no number. Meanwhile, Howard, with his usual No. 18 on his shorts, wore a field jersey with no number. Of four officials, should one have noticed?

So for the 10 seconds United held possession before MetroStars striker John Wolyniec was able to blast the ball out of play, two MetroStars players wore jersey's without numbers. Of four officials, should one have noticed?

While soccer enthusiasts at RFK Stadium might have flashed back to weekend rec games, this was a professional match in the U.S. first division.

After Saturday's game, Hudson terse evaluation of the MetroStars' actions was "disgraceful sporting behavior." Following yesterday's practice, he spelled out his opinion: "M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E."

More disappointing than the amateur display was Garber's response which commended Bradley's cleverness. "This type of move is within our rules and regulations," Garber said in an e-mail to The Washington Post. "I do not view it as unsportsmanlike. I view it as good coaching."

The wording of the substitution rule is vague: "Each team is allowed three substitutions per game, plus an extra substitution for the goalkeeper." However, the one example that is subsequently cited clearly spells out the intent. "For example, if D.C. United wanted to put in a fresh keeper late in the game, they can do so without using any of their three field subs," reads the rule book.

So the intent is clear: an extra sub is available for those who want to employ a reserve keeper which, among other things, would prevent a team from being reduced to 10 players should a goalie be hurt after his team has already expended its three field subs. But Garber made it clear that any industrious coach who wants to employ a fourth reserve field player can do so in any game by going through a ridiculous sequence of moves that violate the spirit of the game.

Given that midway through MLS's eighth season, Bradley's gambit represented the just third time the rules were skirted to bring on a fourth field reserve -- the first time was in 2001 and it happened again earlier this season -- the league's coaches obviously stand closer to Hudson's feelings than Bradley's actions.

"I would put my hand on my heart and say, 'I would seriously never do it.' " Hudson said. "It's just not the way that rule is supposed to interpreted. . . What does that say? Is that where we are? I think it's a very sad commentary. . . The rule will be changed, I can guarantee you that."

After Saturday's game, Bradley defended his moves. "Those are the rules in our league. You have the opportunity to use the extra sub, if that's how you do it," he said. "When you're playing a man down in this heat in the afternoon, you look after your players. That, to me, is the most important part of the spirit of the game."

It's terribly disappointing that MLS's competition committee was well aware of potential abuse of the substitution rule when it was reviewed in the past offseason, but took no action. The simple solution would be to require each team to designate one reserve keeper before the start of every game

"It just so happens that this particular rule prior to the start of the year was brought up for review and the decision was made, 'Hey, it hasn't been abused. It hasn't been used that much. There's no reason to change it.' " said Nelson Rodriguez, MLS vice president of operations and administration. "So we left it. Obviously, at the end of this year, as (bending the rule) gains more popularity, if you will, or more usage, we will re-examine it again."

MLS's ability to expand its fan base has been hurt by repeated inconsistencies. Only the most hardcore fans can keep up with playoff formats that change annually, a never-ending array of waiver draft rule changes, a wide array of player acquisition designations and, in the past couple seasons, ever-changing game rosters with the league's stars frequently absent.

Rather than make rules and continually change them as problems arise, an effort should be made to anticipate the consequences of league actions and head off the problems before they occur.

Gary Davidson is managing editor of SoccerTimes and can be e-mailed at

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