Morgan Thibodeau, second from left, and Hunter Warren of Mt. Abram compete for a corner kick with Loegan Hodgkins, back center, and Giovanni Pitts (16) of Dirigo High School during the second half in Dixfield earlier this season. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

It’s happened more than once this season. Waterville senior back Jay Brock runs toward the player with the ball, ready to break up the possession, and then he has to hit the brakes.

It’s a little tougher to play defense in the age of COVID.

“There were a few times where I’d go to step and they’d get by me because I’d realize I can’t slide tackle,” he said. “Slide tackling, I kind of miss it as a defenseman. It’s kind of like a new game of soccer.”

Slide tackling in soccer is not permitted this season, one of several changes to the game made in an effort to cut down on contact and promote safety amid coronavirus concerns. Players also can’t form walls on free kicks. They can’t load up the box on corners. Mouth guards must remain in place and untouched on the field. And in the middle of each period comes a sanitation break that essentially makes a game four quarters rather than two halves.

Some changes have had a bigger impact on the game than others. But all have contributed to what coaches say is a different feel, and many teams have had to change how they play on the field as a result.

Richmond High School boys soccer coaches Ryan Gardner, left, and Peter Gardner speak with their players during a soccer game in Richmond. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“The flow of the game is exactly the same. It’s not like you can’t head a ball, and typically I don’t teach my kids to slide tackle anyway,” Gardiner boys soccer coach Nick Wallace said. “But the set plays are definitely different. It favors the offensive team, if you can score.”

Teams have had to figure out ways around the new rules. On walls in front of players attempting free kicks, for instance, the plan is normally to line players shoulder-to-shoulder blocking the angle to one side of the net, while the keeper takes care of the other. With players needing to be separated by 3 feet now, however, teams have to find new formations.

“Not being able to make a wall is definitely huge,” Messalonskee girls soccer coach Chris DelGiudice said. “Essentially, you’re just giving a player their pick of where they want to shoot on the net, at that point.”

Mt. Abram boys soccer coach Darren Allen has his team form a fence rather than a wall, in hopes that the kick won’t find the spaces in between.

“It’s been OK. It’s been all right,” he said. “Good thing we don’t have any David Beckhams that we’re playing against.”

Other teams have formed a staggered wall, creating a three-dimensional block of spaced-out players to kick through, with the idea of providing tighter openings.

“We’ve gone over it a few times,” DelGiudice said. “You’re used to everybody’s locking arms and you’re going to move your wall that way, where now you can’t do that.”

Alicen Burnham, a senior on the Monmouth Academy girls soccer team, said the biggest change has been the new rule with corners. Before, teams could load up the box with as many players as they wanted to defend the kick or try to redirect it in for a goal. Now, only five players are allowed in the box.

Gardiner goalie Lorelei Mason is unable to stop a scoring shot by Winslow’s Emily Nichols earlier this season in Winslow. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“(That’s) been a big adjustment for us. We have our plays planned out very specifically for a bunch of different situations, so we kind of had to go through all of those plays at the beginning of the year and re-situate how many we could have in the box,” she said. “Who’s marking who, if we’re playing zones who’s going to be in what zone, and we kind of had to work with the five-person rule in order to do that.”

The rule has caused some teams to swap man marking on corners for zone defense, with the thinking being that with fewer players in the box, it’s easier for there to be large patches of space left uncovered. Of course, a tactical change requires more work on communication.

“We go over those situations quite a bit, at least twice a week in training,” Allen said. “There was a game where I had some players in there that totally forgot the zone marking, and they lined up in man and the other team almost scored on them.”

“Something that we do at the end of pretty much every practice is our offensive and defensive corner kick plays,” Burnham said. “Working through those and re-working how many people we could have was something that was really important to us. We didn’t want to just go into it without any plan at all.”

And yet, the biggest change might be what takes place in the middle of the half.

“I think the sanitation breaks are,” Wallace said. “I can now play my top guys 80 minutes, where in the past I would have had to sub them out, and there’s no guarantee they’re going to get back in the game in three minutes. If there’s no dead ball, the kid could be sitting for 10. That’s a huge advantage, or disadvantage, depending on how you want to look at it and what kind of team you are.”

The breaks are essentially timeouts, as coaches can chat with their players and make adjustments, instead of waiting 40 minutes for halftime.

“If you’re struggling, it’s great. It’s like an extra timeout for you,” Wallace said. “But if you’re a team that’s dominating with your foot on the gas, it’s almost a free break for the other team to re-collect themselves and maybe change formation or change how their tactics are going.”

From a strictly competitive standpoint, rather than a medical one, the breaks have gotten mixed reviews.

“I think it interrupts the flow of the play,” Allen said. “We used to do it in middle school, four quarters. I was like ‘This isn’t flipping basketball, this is soccer.’ You get two halves, it’s supposed to be running time, it’s supposed to be fitness.”

Some players don’t mind, either the breaks or the rules on the field.

“(The breaks) are good for the fresh air and stuff, all of these new rules are kind of beneficial,” Waterville’s Brock said. “It’s less slide tackling, more passing to feet. It’s unique. I like it.”

Of course, if it’s what had to happen for there to be a season, then everyone is on board.

“The changes are fine. At least we’re playing,” Allen said. “I tell the kids, be thankful. Be very thankful you have a season, and you’re playing.”

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