When Can You Substitute in Youth Soccer?

Youth soccer involves a lot of running (for just how much, take a look at How Far Do Youth Soccer Players Run in a Game?).  Consequently, youth soccer players will get tired and need to be substituted at times.  Also, many recreational youth soccer leagues will require a certain amount of participation for every player on the roster.  So, it’s important to know how substitution works in youth soccer.  To start, when can you substitute in youth soccer? The general answer is that, in youth soccer, you can substitute on dead balls when the referee permits the substitution.

Substitutions Can Only Occur on Dead Balls

Substitutions in youth soccer can only occur on dead balls.  In other words, when the ball goes out of bounds, when a foul occurs, when an injury occurs or at halftime.  Unlike indoor soccer or futsal (see Futsal vs. Indoor Soccer), substitutions cannot occur while the ball is in play.  

Referee Permission is Required

Substitutions can only occur when permitted and recognized by the referee.  Ultimately, the referee will decide whether to allow substitutions or not.  The referee has broad discretion in this regard.  Always remember, that, regardless of the general rules of substitution, the referee can allow or disallow substitutions.

The foregoing are the overarching rules of when substitutions may occur, but many youth soccer leagues also have more specific rules.  These rules are generally designed to encourage game flow and discourage time wasting.  

More Specific Rules Apply in Some Leagues

The most common specific rules that some leagues use are as follows:

Possession governs when teams may substitute

  • The team in possession may substitute on any dead ball situation.  In other words, the team that will be taking the throw in, corner kick, free kick, etc. may substitute freely.
  • The team not in possession may only substitute as follows:
    • on a dead ball situation in which the team in possession has elected to substitute
    • on any goal kick situation
    • after a goal
    • at half time

No substitutions on corner kicks

Some leagues do not allow either team to substitute on corner kicks.

Often, coaches interpret these rules as absolute rights to substitute or absolute prohibitions on substitution, but, again, the referee is the ultimate authority.  So, even if these specific rules indicate that a team ought to be able to substitute, the referee does not have to allow it.  Conversely, even if these specific rules indicate that a team should not be able to substitute, the referee can allow it.

How to Substitute in Youth Soccer

The rules regarding how to substitute are fairly simple for recreational youth soccer leagues.  Typically, when a substitution opportunity occurs as set forth above, the coach will notify the referee that he/she would like to substitute.  If the referee allows it, then the substitutions can be made.  The substitute goes on the field and the player being substituted comes off at the same time.

Possible Requirements for Higher Level Leagues

The rules tend to get more strict as the players get older and/or switch to competitive soccer.  The first of these more strict rules is that the substitutes must go on and players must come off at the centerline.  This allows the referee to keep track of who is on the field and who is off more easily.  Also, since the referee will not restart play until the substitutes are fully on and the players leaving the field are fully off, it makes it easier for the referee to determine when play can be restarted.

In contrast to that, the most recent IFAB Laws of the Game actually encourage players going off the field to exit at the boundary line that’s closest to them (rather than the centerline) and then walk around to the bench.  This rule change prevents the time wasting that is so often seen at the pro levels when players exiting the field walk slowly to the bench to allow time to continue to come off the clock.  While some leagues will follow the IFAB Laws of the Game, many leagues will still require substitutions at the centerline.

Another rule you may come across is that the player coming off the field must actually fully exit the field before the substitute may enter the field — no crossing in the middle of the field (this rule is strictly enforced in futsal).  Again, this allows the referee to keep track of the players on the field more easily. 

Along those lines, some leagues require substitute players wear pinnies that are a different color than their uniform jerseys.  This allows the referee to distinguish between players on the field and players off the field more easily.  When a substitution takes place, the substitute player must hand his/her pinnie to the player coming off the field.

Additional Possible Restrictions on Substitutions

The foregoing stricter rules may seem a little picky, but they’re fairly easy to follow.  However, at higher levels, it gets more difficult and somewhat controversial.   Recreational and lower level competitive soccer leagues usually allow an unlimited number of substitutions and free return substitutions (a player can go in and out of a game an unlimited number of times).  Those levels encourage participation and opportunity.

On the other end of the spectrum, the IFAB Laws of the Game only allow 3 substitutions per match for international games and 5 substitutions per match at the pro level (this was actually increased to 5 because of the COVID situation and  will go back down to 3 at the end of 2021) with no return substitutions.  No return substitutions means that if a player is substituted out of a game, that player may not return to the game.

High level competitive youth soccer tends to come down somewhere in the middle of recreational soccer and pro soccer.  However, every league is a little different.

USYS National League

The USYS National League is very permissive with respect to substitutions prior to the U15 level.  Substitutions are unlimited and may be made, with the consent of the referee, at any stoppage in play.  Starting at U15, substitutions are limited to 7 players per half and there is no re-entry in the same half.

National Premier League

In the National Premier League (NPL), substitutions are limited to 7 players per half and there is no re-entry in the same half regardless of age group.  Note that the individual regions were allowed to modify that rule due to the COVID situation.

Elite Clubs National League

Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) mirrors the National Premier League and limits substitutions to 7 players per half with no re-entry in the same half.

Girls Academy League

The Girls Academy League (GA) is slightly more restrictive.  Substitutions are limited to 7 players per half with no re-entry in the same half, but substitution opportunities are limited to a total of 5 moments (with no more than 3 moments in one half) plus halftime.  This is intended to prevent the time wasting tactic employed at the end of a game in which one player is substituted whenever there is a stoppage in play.

MLS Next

MLS Next allows unlimited substitutions over 3 moments per half plus halftime with no re-entry in the same half for its U13 age group.  For all other age groups, MLS Next permits unlimited substitutions over 3 moments per half plus halftime with no re-entry in the same game.

For more general differences with respect to the above leagues, see ECNL vs. GA and MLS Next – Which Soccer League is the Best?

Positives of Additional Restrictions on Substitution

There are two positives for many of these more restrictive substitution rules in these competitive leagues.  First, since these leagues are a bridge to the professional and international levels, the substitution rules are more in line with the highest levels.  Second, these limiting rules encourage more actual game play.  Substitutions break up the flow of the game and, ultimately, limit the amount of soccer that is played within the allotted time.  

Negatives of Additional Restrictions on Substitution

On the other hand, many soccer parents dislike these substitution rules for a few practical reasons.

  • the rules limit recruiting exposure for many players
  • these leagues are generally “traveling” leagues and the investment is substantial for players who may receive limited playing time
  • the rules do nothing to promote player development, which should be the focus at the youth levels

What About Injuries?

Rules that limit substitution also create issues when injuries occur.  If a player is injured and that player’s team has used all of its substitute players or its substitution opportunities or the player intends to re-enter the game, then the team usually has to play shorthanded until the player is able to re-enter. 

In some leagues, there is an exception for a suspected concussion.  If a player receives a head injury and the team has substitutions remaining, then a substitute player can be used while the injured player is being evaluated.  If the injured player is cleared to play, then the injured player may re-enter.  

To avoid having to play shorthanded (or with players out of position) in injury situations, some teams will choose to bring “sitters” to games.  “Sitters” are players that only play if a team suffers an injury.  Tactically, “sitters” are a good idea, but often the investment required to be a “sitter” is not worth it for soccer parents.

Check Your League Rules

Determining when you can substitute in youth soccer is fairly simple at the recreational and early competitive stages.  However, as teams move to higher competitive levels, substituting becomes much more complicated and tactical.  There are several different rules that may apply, so be sure and check the league rules.

Substitution Quick Reference Chart

USYS National LeaguePrior to U15 – unlimited; Otherwise, limited to 7 players per half & no re-entry in same half
NPLLimited to 7 players per half & no re-entry in same half
ECNLLimited to 7 players per half & no re-entry in same half
GALimited to 7 players per half, no re-entry in same half & limited to total of 5 moments (with no more than 3 moments in one half) plus halftime
MLS NextU13 – unlimited over 3 moments per half plus halftime & no re-entry in same half. Otherwise, unlimited over 3 moments per half plus halftime & no re-entry in same game

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