Owen Axelson, facing, works through drills with teammates Wednesday in Oakland. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

High school soccer in Maine will look quite a bit different this fall, and the changes that have been implemented will take getting used to for everybody involved in the game.

“You have to rethink the game 100 percent,” Hall-Dale boys coach Jesse Rowe said. “But it’s still tame compaired to what they could have done.”

The most notable rules changes to be implemented this fall in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic have to do with restarts and substitutions.

On corner kicks and free kicks, each team is allowed only five players per side in the 18-yard box, plus the goalkeeper. Slide tackles are illegal, and substitutions are limited to fewer players at a time, with players distanced in clearly marked areas while waiting to enter the game. There will also be sanitization breaks 20 minutes into each half, and on-field officials will be asked to wear masks.

Original ideas floated for rules changes this summer included things like eliminating throw-ins altogether and prohibiting heading the ball. In Massachusetts, soccer this fall is being played without headers.

Most coaches look at the first couple of games on their schedule and see a learning curve ahead of them.

“I don’t think they’re huge adjustments,” said Waterville girls coach Mark Serdjenian, who was previously the longtime men’s coach at Colby College. “I think the rules makers did a good job keeping it simple, not overcomplicating the adaptations.”

The biggest effect on the game’s play appears to be the new rules governing free kicks in attacking positions. What coaches noticed during preseason games is that, while more players are starting the play from outside the penalty area, they are crashing into the box as soon as the ball is played in.

“I think in some ways that’s more dangerous than it was before,” Gardiner boys coach Nic Wallace said. “Instead of everybody within two or three yards of the play, now you’ve got everybody running 10 to 15 yards into the box to collide with each other.”

Coaches have already found ways to work around the new rules.

One rule change regards the use of walls — lines of players standing shoulder to shoulder — to defend against free kicks from close range. Now, only three players are allowed in a wall instead of an unlimited number, and those three are asked to have some separation between them. Guidelines also ask for one-on-one marking situations to be done with some distance between the players.

“You can just stagger your wall,” Wallace said. “You can have three guys lined up and a fourth standing a few feet behind. As soon as the ball is played, that fourth guy can just step forward into the wall.”

Players and coaches aren’t the only ones who will have to adjust.

Area officials have spent time this fall already learning the new rules while also trying to apply them appropriately during preseason games.

Rich McGovern, who officiates a number of Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference and Mountain Valley Conference games each season, said he spent an extra two to three hours this offseason trying to prepare for the changes.

“They’ve made some pretty significant changes,” McGovern said. “Even on any throw-in that could potentially go down into the box, you’re only allowed to have five players in the area for each team. It’s a lot like doing basketball games when you come out of a timeout, now we’re standing there counting players.

“I think the crazy part is that anybody can come in and play the ball (after the restart). My interpretation of the rule is that once the ball’s touched, it’s game on. I bet there will be a guy who will blow the whistle at some point in a big moment. Those things are going to happen.”

The new slide tackle governance is also sure to create some rulings open to interpretation.

There is already confusion as to how slide tackling will be officiated. It is still technically allowed, though only in one-on-one situations where no contact is made between the players. When a slide tackle is ruled as a foul, it’s a direct free kick — as it always had been previously. If it’s ruled as a slide tackle that created contact, but was not a foul, an indirect free kick will be granted.

The new rule could, in a reverse effect, lead to more slide tackling challenges — particularly inside the penalty area, if defenders choose to risk giving up an indirect kick instead of a straight penalty kick.

McGovern said he saw one slide tackling instance in a preseason girls game he officiated.

“It was interpreted as a slide tackle with contact made,” said McGovern, though he was not the on-field official who made the call. “The part that caught me off-guard was the ‘Should that be an indirect kick or a direct kick as a foul?’ That will be something that will create some confusion.”

One rule that never would have been considered prior to COVID and mask-wearing rules is the following: If any player choosing to wear a neck-style gaiter has that gaiter pulled on intentionally by an opposing player, the offending player is to be ejected immediately.

Even with new rules, new interpretations and new, regionalized scheduling with no postseason to be had, most everybody agreed that simply getting to play the season — in whatever form — is a positive.

“Is it aggravating, all the new regulations and this and that? Yes,” Mt. Abram boys coach Darren Allen said. “But is it too much work? No. The kids have been chomping at the bit to play. I think that feeling is amplified, too, because you don’t know what the future holds.”

“This year, there’s no state championship to win,” Rowe said. “The win is what we’re playing.”

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