Caleb Porter - Columbus Crew - close up - points at his eyes
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA Today Sports Images

Columbus Crew coach Caleb Porter on how five-substitute rule would help alleviate fixture congestion

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is forcing soccer officials across the world to re-think what the game might look like as leagues around the world start gearing up to play again, from stadium experiences to competition formats, and even to temporary changes to the laws of the game.

On the latter front, the proposal that has gained the most traction so far is one from FIFA that would temporarily allow teams to use five substitutions per game instead of the usual three. The proposed change, which has been approved by soccer’s rule-making body, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), would last through the end of 2020 and help to alleviate the fixture congestion that will almost certainly ensue as leagues =aim to finish their season in a condensed timeline.

Columbus Crew SC head coach Caleb Porter voiced his support for MLS adopting the temporary rule change on a Wednesday conference call with reporters immediately following his team's return to individual workouts, and suggested ways he might utilize having five subs at his disposal.

“I think that would help,” Porter said. “I think what would change is less full rotations and you could do some half rotations where you would see subs at 45 and you can keep the right amount of guys together, because the analytics show that when you rotate too much you just don’t win.”

Though squad rotation is almost inevitable during any condensed period of games, when a coach has more substitutions, they can theoretically start their preferred XI more often knowing there is more leeway to lessen players' workload with later substitutions.

“What we don’t want to have happen is injuries in the first several games, because now you’re really in trouble,” Porter said. “That’s why I believe we need four weeks, minimum — usually we get six [in preseason]. Typically at four weeks, our players are at about 60 to 70 minutes, so even in four weeks we’re going to have to push it a little bit and that’s why we’re trying to get our guys at level higher than a normal offseason when they come in and get six weeks.”

He also noted that he’s not trying to have his players do too much quite yet, in part large part due to not yet knowing when, exactly, games will restart.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been coach of a team with no clear timeline,” he said. “Players in the offseason know when they’re coming back, they know when preseason is and they know when the games start. We can’t really have a clear periodization of training until we know that.

“… We’re trying to find the sweet spot of making sure we’re doing enough but understanding too that we have time to ramp up. We just don’t want to be behind it if all of a sudden they say ‘You have three weeks and then we play 90 minutes.’”

In addition to overall squad fitness, Porter made sure to note that he and his staff are also considering individual situations (e.g. age, injury history) when planning out any potential rotation plans, just as they always do. The MLS Cup-winning head coach also explained that they are making use of data and sports science to remove as much of the guesswork as possible when planning for training regimens and squad rotation.

As much thought and preparation as Porter and his staff are putting into it, he did admit that when teams to take the field again, it might be the ability to cope with the unique and challenging circumstances that is the biggest factor for success. So he's trying to make sure his players have fun with their training as much as possible.

“We want them to feel like they’re getting really good work in but also enjoy it as well,” he said. “because I think the team that has the best attitude, chemistry and spirit, honestly, when we pick back up will be the team that wins the most games.”