The Bench is My Friend…Or is it?!

According to the NCAA Soccer Rulebook, the optimum size of the field of play is 75 by 120 yards. Soccer games tend to utilize most of that field of play requiring the referee crew to adequately cover that expansive area effectively to ensure that the rules of the game are followed so that the game is played fairly and safely. BUT play in specific areas or zones on the pitch tends to be more intense because that play is more likely to affect the outcome of the game. SO the referee crew has to be particularly attentive to what happens in particular zones and take necessary action to guarantee a good outcome. The team bench areas on and off the field is one of those key zones.

In this article, I will present and discuss the following issues regarding the bench areas:

  1. Why this zone is particularly important for referee attention and proper action.

  2. Responsibilities for referee crew members in managing the bench areas.

  3. Suggestions to effectively address situations that typically occur in the bench areas.

There are many reasons why the bench areas of a soccer field are prone to be of high intensity that require concentrated attention by the referee crew. The most obvious issue is that highly critical coaches and substitute players are present on the benches. Although the adversarial relationship between referees versus coaches and players has improved, that contentious relationship persists and will persist well into the future. So when play moves to the bench areas with the most ardent critics of the referee crew’s performance in close proximity, one can expect a comment or two and those remarks, nine times out of ten, tend not to be complimentary. In addition, in many college stadiums, fans are typically located in stands behind the bench areas and they feed off and amplify the rebukes from coaches and players or vice versa. This is true in college soccer, whether the fans number 100 or 10,000.

Another issue is that there are opportunities for coaches and substitutes to more easily interact with field players, both their teammates and opponents, that may intensify the action. Do I have to explain how bitter team rivalries contribute to the hype and liveliness in the bench areas?

Finally, as the season progresses and games become a bigger factor in determining play-off contention and positioning, coaches and substitutes are more prone to actively offer opinions about referee and AR’s decisions and actions.

All of these factors clearly indicate why the referee crew needs to ratchet up their attention and focus when play is near the bench areas.

With regard to referee crew duties and responsibilities concerning the bench area, the following activities should be observed and exercised:

  • Prior to the game during the field inspection, the crew needs to ensure that the requirements for Rule 1.12: Coaching and Team Areas are in place. In addition, they should inquire where the substitute warm-up area is located to determine if that location is within the guidelines of the rule and is satisfactory.

  • Determine if video review will be utilized and where the equipment is located so that the referee crew can develop an effective plan for bench control when video review is conducted to prevent interference during these intense situations.

  • During the referee pre-game, the referee crew needs to clarify the specific actions that the AR and 4th official (if present) are to take if the coaches, substitutes and other team personnel permitted to be on the bench act inappropriately. Specifically, the referee should clarify the circumstances when the AR and/or 4th official are expected to call the referee over to the bench area to resolve an issue or situation that is negatively affecting the game.

  • Discuss situations that require AR and 4th official actions to prevent coaches, substitutes and other bench personnel from entering the field of play when not authorized particularly if there is a mass confrontation incident on the field and especially if that situation is close to the bench areas.

Because of the issues and situations described above, I encourage referees to consider the following recommendations to be more effective in managing the game near the benches areas:

  1. It is essential in the pre-game discussion to emphasize the significance of making sure that the first foul in front of the benches is not missed to strengthen the credibility of the referee crew for the rest of the match.

  2. As previously stated, during the pregame conference, instructions regarding means of communication to address issues concerning bench control, especially regarding coach behavior, must be addressed, clarified, and understood.

  3. Of course, referees strive for consistency when determining when the rules of the game must be enforced. But I propose that incidents in the bench areas of the field require more scrutiny and stricter enforcement of the rules.

  4. The referee crew should gauge the “temperature” of teams particularly coaches, substitutes and other team personnel on the benches so that the crew is prepared to avoid, address and manage critical incidents quickly and efficiently.

  5. During the match, the Referee, AR’s, and the Alternate Official should minimize distractions from the benches to maintain concentration needed for the action on the field. Coach questions and reactions can be addressed when the ball is out of play as time permits for those interactions. If needed, the Referee can stop the clock to interact with the coaches.

  6. It is advisable that the referee adjust her/his movement to be present in the bench areas when there is anticipation or expectation of a challenging play. Presence lends conviction when referees take action.

  7. It is important that each member of the referee crew be decisive and use strong signaling when making calls. These actions demonstrate confidence particularly in the bench areas and minimize negative reactions.

  8. Substitutes warming up should be monitored to ensure that they remain active and not become observers that could potentially interfere with play verbally and/or physically.

  9. The referee crew needs to be vigilant as the match concludes so that postgame interactions exhibit proper sportsmanship.

I contend that effective attention to and management of the bench areas before, during and after a soccer match are critical to achieving a positive outcome for all participants. The circumstances, situations and recommendations I have presented in this article can help referees to address another aspect in their development of a complete officiating skill-set.

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