MIAA soccer will look a lot different in 2020 with athletes needing to social distance even while playing defense. Photo by Mike Flanagan.
By Mike Flanagan
Hometown Weekly Sports Editor
It's still unclear whether or not sports such as boys and girls soccer will occur this fall. The MIAA's COVID Task Force has sent their set of modifications and guidelines to the board of directors for approval. For now, the season is set to officially begin on September 18, but it is unclear whether or not that will represent the start or preseason practices or actual games.
It was inevitable that changes would made to the high school sports world once organized athletics were allowed to come back. The changes made to MIAA soccer, however, are drastic and will completely change the way that the game is played this fall.
The four-page report of modifications made to boys and girls soccer this fall includes: no throw-ins; no heading the ball; no shoulder-to-shoulder contact; no slide-tackles; all players, coaches, referees must wear masks at all times; no defensive walls on free kicks; all players must stay six feet apart on restarts; no corner-kicks; and goalies cannot boot the ball across midfield.
With rules like this, MIAA soccer games this fall will look more like a game of pickup. Almost all physical elements are being taken out, as are strategies when it comes to heading the ball and drawing up plays off of corner kicks. Despite all teams playing under these same rules, the modifications could benefit those that like to keep the ball on the ground and utilize their speed rather than those who like to go aerial and rely on playing a more physical style of soccer.
"It's definitely going to take some getting used to," said Wellesley boys soccer head coach Chris DiCecca when asked about how he is game planning for this season. "Every year you have to adapt. Obviously this year it's going to take more adapting for not just us, but every team around the state. Just for our team, I think some of these rules actually benefit some of the ways we want to play. Different teams all have different tactics. Some like to play long and run onto the ball, where some like to build out of the back. I think we are more of that style where we like to keep the ball on the deck as it is. We obviously want to be aggressive and challenge the ball in the air, but that just isn't going to be the case this year. These rules are going to simplify the game. It's not going to be easy, but we are all in the same boat here and it's not like anybody is being given any type of advantage. We'll take whatever is given and we will go from there."
Walpole head boys coach Lee Delaney agrees that the guidelines will definitely have an impact on the way the game is played, but says that this modified brand of soccer is better than the alternative of nothing.
"The kids need it," said Delaney. "The guidelines are certainly challenging, but the alternative is not having any fall sports. At this point we all just want to give it a shot. Hopefully the powers that be are able to make it safe enough for us to take the field. Hopefully we're able to get underway on September 18."
Delaney also says that game planning and coaching is going to require significant adjustment for him and his players.
"We're going to have to get creative," said Delaney. "There's no walls [on free kicks], so playing defense is going to be a lot more difficult. Practices are going to be a lot different and we're all going to need to be proactive. The kids are all working out on their own right now in small groups with masks on, trying to get prepared for what's possibly ahead. We just have to try and make the best of the current conditions. It's going to be a different game, without a doubt."
As far as actually enforcing these rules, referees are going to be put into a difficult position whenever a player heads a ball out of habit or makes a slide tackle. Does that player get a card? Is it a turnover? These are questions that will need to be answered before the season gets under way.
"I think a lot of it will vary from ref to ref," said DiCecca. "We're going to see as we go along. This is obviously new to all these players and to us coaches, as well. We need to instill into all of our guys in practice how to avoid that urge to head the ball and to play it with your chest or your feet out of the air. All we can really do is prep and hope that we're able to take the field on September 18."
Medfield Athletic Director Eric Scott says that his fall coaches and athletes look forward to being given the opportunity to return to the field. Scott also says he understands sports such as field hockey and soccer will have a new look to them, but even so, the opportunity to compete in a safe manner is all anyone can ask for right now during these trying times.
"Through the very limited interactions I've had with our student-athletes since these modifications came out, I've seen that the students are actually very overwhelmingly supportive of just having an opportunity to be out there with their teammates and play. I know it's going to be completely different, especially for field hockey and soccer. We received the modifications a little sooner than we expected. We though we weren't going to get them until September 1, but we ended up getting them about five days prior. This allowed us to relay that information to players and coaches quicker and allow them a little more time to prepare for what's ahead. It's certainly going to be a learning experience for these players and coaches, with the coaches needing to teach the game in another way than normal and the players having to play the game in the new way they are taught. This will definitely be the most interesting year we've ever had as ADs. I'm just excited to see that we are being given an opportunity to play this fall, because for a while this summer there was not a lot of hope. Safety is obviously our top priority. We want to do everything we can to supply these athletes and coaches with a fall season while taking every precaution possible."
For funny and incisive sports analysis as well as video highlights of games, follow Mike Flanagan on his personal Instagram and Twitter handles @flano0.