When you watch soccer, you see teams making multiple substitutions throughout a game. If you’re wondering what the rules are regarding these subs, then you’ve come to the right place! I’m going to explain how substitutions work and what rules teams must follow.
Soccer Substitution Rules:
- A team must name substitutes before kick-off
- Only players named as substitutes can take part in the game
- A team can make a maximum of 5 subs during a game
- Return substitutions are not permitted in professional soccer
- A player can only enter during a stoppage in play
- A coach can make all substitutions at the same time
- The coach must inform the referee before a team makes a substitution
- The referee must give permission for a player to leave
- The player entering the field must follow the correct procedure
- A substitution is complete once the substitute is on the field of play
Each of these rules deserves a little more explanation.
In this article, I’ll explain what each of these rules means and why they are essential for the game of soccer.
Let’s get started.
1. All Substitutes Must Be Named Before Kick-off
The first rule of substitutions in soccer is that each team must submit a list of substitutes before the first kick of the game.
The list of players starting the game on the field and the players that will begin on the bench must be given to the game officials.
The number of substitutes that a team can name will vary depending on the competition and the level of soccer.
2. Only Named Substitutes Can Participate in a Game
The list of named substitutes is essential because these are the only players that can replace another player during the game.
This restriction encourages coaches to think carefully about who they select for the substitute’s bench.
For example, not having a substitute goalie would be a problem if the goalkeeper on the team needed replacing. Or, if a coach wanted to increase the offensive capabilities of their team partway through a game, they would need several attacking options they could use from the sidelines.
3. Substitutions Are Limited to Five Players per Team
Although a team may be entitled to name up to 12 players as substitutes, there is a limit on how many substitutes a coach can use during a game.
In professional soccer, teams can only use five substitutes during a game.
In my article clarifying the number of subs permitted in soccer, I explain the multiple reasons for this limit in detail, and you can explore them there.
The only time this rule doesn’t apply is in youth soccer or international friendly games.
In youth soccer, you will often find that the governing bodies will allow an unlimited number of substitutions. This is because younger players are not always physically developed enough for the demands of an entire soccer game.
To compensate for this, the coach can substitute their players as many times as they believe necessary. For more info on substitutions on youth soccer, check out my article – Youth Soccer Rules: Everything you need to know.
In an international friendly game, the reason is different. At this level, the players are more than capable of completing an entire game.
The rules permit more than five substitutions in this scenario because one of the main reasons for the game is to experiment with different players, positions, and formations. Changing players in and out allows this to happen.
4. Return Substitutions Are Not Permitted in Pro Soccer
Unlike some other sports, soccer rules do not permit return substitutions.
A substitute can not return to the field of play after being replaced by another player. Instead, the substituted player must stay on their team’s bench or return to their changing room until the game has finished.
This rule prevents players from coming on and off the field and disrupting the game’s flow.
Similarly, a player can not be substituted twice in a game. But, again, because a player cannot return to the field after being replaced, there is no option to substitute a player more than once.
However, it is possible to remove a player that has entered as a substitute, as you can find out in my article – In Soccer Can You Substitute a Substitute?
Similar to before, these rules apply to pro, college, and high school soccer but are different in youth soccer.
During a youth soccer game, you may see players taking turns to play in the game. This rule prevents the young players from becoming exhausted and gives all the players a chance for some game time.
5. A Substitution Can Only Be Made During a Stoppage in Play
No matter what level of soccer you are involved in or watching, substitutions can only be made at specific moments during a game.
A substitution can only be made during a stoppage in play. After the referee has blown their whistle to signal a break in play, they will signal to the bench that they are happy for the team to make a substitution. Only then can the substitute enter the field.
A stoppage in play can include:
- Any time the ball goes out of play
- Any time a player commits a foul
- or any time a player scores a goal
6. A Coach Can Make All Their Substitutions at the Same Time
For most soccer games, a team will not make all their substitutions at the same time. However, the rules do not say a team has to operate this way.
A coach can make all their substitutions simultaneously if they want. When the referee signals permission to make a substitution, a team can choose how many players are changed at that moment up to the maximum number permitted within the rules.
You won’t see this happening very often. There is an advantage for a team to stagger substitutions throughout a game. This allows a coach to continuously assess what is happening on the field and respond accordingly.
If the coach uses all their subs too early, they cannot respond to any injuries or tactical changes later in the game.
Or, if they leave all their substitutions until later in the game, they may miss the opportunity to positively affect the game’s development earlier on.
There is significant pressure on the coach to make the right call at the right time.
7. The Coach Must Inform the Referee Before a Substitution
A team must not make a substitution before informing the referee of their desire to do so.
At the pro level of soccer, the referee and other game officials communicate via an earpiece and microphone headset that each official wears.
These communication devices enable the fourth or sideline official to easily communicate to the central referee when a team wants to make a substitution.
At lower levels of soccer, where the game officials do not have electronic means of communication, the coach will have to wave or shout at the referee during a stoppage in play to signal their intention of making a substitution.
8. The Referee Must Give Permission for a Substitution
Once the coach has informed the referee of a team’s desire to make a substitution, the referee must give permission for the exchange of players to go ahead.
Before giving permission, the referee will have to consider three things:
- If it is appropriate for the team to make a substitution at this stoppage in play
- How many subs the team have previously made
- and if the player coming on has already appeared for the team in this game
After the ref is satisfied that the substitution can go ahead, they will signal to the bench that they are happy. The team will then immediately make the substitution.
9. A Substituted Player Must Follow the Procedure for Entering the Field
For a player to enter the field of play, they must follow a specific procedure.
This procedure includes two main requirements:
- The player must enter at the halfway line
- The player can only enter the field after the player being replaced has left
This rule prevents players from coming on from any area of the pitch and potentially not being spotted by the referee.
It also prevents more than the permitted number of players from being on the field at one time.
It’s worth noting that although a player can only enter the field at a specific location, the player leaving the field can exit at the point nearest to their current location.
For example, if the coach was about to replace their goalkeeper, the current goalie could leave the field behind their team’s goal. But the incoming goalie must still enter at the halfway line.
10. A Substitution Is Complete Once the Substitute Is on the Field
The substitution procedure is complete once the incoming player has entered the field.
At this point, the coach cannot change their mind and stop the substitution or choose another player to come onto the pitch.
If the team wants to bring on another player, they need to make another substitution.
If you want to discover more information about the rules of soccer, I recommend you check out my easy-to-understand guide to the rules of soccer. Or High school soccer rules if you’re involved in this level of soccer.