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MLS, NWSL, U.S. Soccer make a no-brainer decision to join FIFA’s concussion substitute pilot program

At worst, the rule change should help avoid ugly scenes like we saw in the Premier League earlier this season. At best, it could save a player’s life.

Arsenal v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League
David Luiz of Arsenal wearing a headband following an injury after a clash of heads with Raul Jimenez of Wolverhampton Wanderers
Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

The noise was something I won’t soon forget.

In a Premier League match earlier this season, Arsenal winger Willian whips in a corner kick in the fifth minute against Wolverhampton. David Luiz makes a hard run to get a head on the ball, smashing into Wolves star forward Raul Jiménez. The stands were empty because of the pandemic, so the collision of the two players’ skulls produced an eerie crack that seemed to echo throughout Emirates Stadium.

It was disgusting.

Jiménez suffered a fractured skull, and was rushed to the hospital. David Luiz, though, played on. His massive head bandage continued to bleed throughout the first half, eventually looking like Arsenal’s away shirts this season. David Luiz was finally taken off at halftime, about 40 minutes too late.

It was ridiculous that Mikel Arteta didn’t sub off David Luiz right away, but it wasn’t surprising at all. Why burn a sub in the fifth minute? The rules of our sport actively discourage coaches from properly dealing with clearly concussed players, especially when the injuries happen early in matches.

This head clash immediately came to mind when U,S. Soccer announced Monday that MLS, NWSL, USL, and NISA will participate in FIFA’s concussion substitute pilot program.

Here’s how the program will work in MLS, according to the league’s press release:

Normal Substitutes: A continuation from 2020, each club has five normal substitutes available to make over three separate opportunities. throughout an MLS match. Any substitutions made during halftime, or between regulation and extra time, or between the two halves of extra time in the postseason will not count as one of the three opportunities.

Concussion Substitutes: Each team will be permitted to make up to two concussion substitutions only during instances of suspected concussions. A concussion substitution can be made immediately after a concussion occurs or is suspected, after an on-field assessment, and/or off-field assessment, or at any other time when a concussion occurs or is suspected. This includes when a player has previously been assessed and has returned to the field of play.

Additional Substitutes : If a team uses a concussion substitution, the opposing team will receive an additional substitution that will be available to use only after all five of its normal substitutions have been made. If a team makes a second concussion substitution, the opponent receives another additional substitution opportunity.

We’ll have to see how this shakes out, but hopefully this means coaches won’t feel discouraged to sub off a clearly concussed player. For a sport that’s been slow to deal with concussions, it’s a rule change that’s a long time coming.

There’s one potential drawback to the rule, as Chicago Fire midfielder Fabian Herbers pointed out on “Zee Soccer Podcast” this week: “Let’s say you use all the five substitutions, and somebody’s calf is cramping, you could just say ‘Oh, I fell on my head,’ or ‘My head hurts,’ and just make an excuse to use a concussion sub.”

Herbers isn’t wrong, but it seems the health benefits for the players should outweigh the chances that coaches will game the system. The pilot program should make it clear how often that will happen. If it becomes a problem, hopefully we can find a way to punish teams that abuse the rules.

Soccer is physical, and there will continue to be head injuries. We can’t eliminate all risk. But if we can help mitigate that risk with simple, common sense rule changes, that should be a no-brainer.