Messi is frustrated with MLS’s time-wasting rules. And they could go global

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Lionel Messi;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Lionel Messi</a> was forced to leave the pitch for two minutes after being fouled against CF Montréal.</span><span>Photograph: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images</span>

Lionel Messi was not happy. It was a little over 40 minutes into Inter Miami’s trip to Quebec to take on CF Montréal this past Saturday and the star-studded Eastern Conference leaders were 2-0 down. But it was not that Miami were losing that had vexed Messi. He just wanted to be on the pitch.

Miami had won a free kick 30-yards from goal, slightly right of centre – prime Messi territory. Yet he was not allowed to take it. He’d received treatment on the pitch a minute earlier after being fouled by Montréal defender George Campbell. Due to a new set of rules adopted this season to crack down on time-wasting, Messi had to wait on the sideline for two minutes before being allowed to re-enter the game.

“With this type of rule, we’re going in a bad direction,” Messi said in Spanish to the television cameras as he waited pitchside, watching his team play on with a one-man disadvantage.

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As it turned out, Miami would be just fine. Matías Rojas assumed responsibility for the free-kick in Messi’s short absence and duly curled the ball into the top corner to get Miami back into the game. Luis Suárez scored another before half-time and Miami went on to win 3-2 after a second-half goal from Benjamin Cremaschi, maintaining their lead in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.

But that Miami and Messi felt they had essentially been penalised for a foul against them remained a talking point, bringing the league’s new rules under scrutiny.

Different measures to counteract time wasting have been introduced in Europe recently. In the Premier League, for instance, fans will have noticed elongated periods of stoppage-time at the end of games, with referees now instructed to add on the exact time lost to goal celebrations, substitutions and injuries. There were 10 minutes added on at the end of the second half between Manchester City and Tottenham on Tuesday night as a result of an injury stoppage.

MLS has pushed even further. It has taken a leading role in enforcing the International Football Association Board’s mandate to boost the amount of time the ball is in play, and this season, in many ways, is a trial run for rules that could be adopted by leagues around the world.

“There are situations that must be revised.” Miami coach Tata Martino said. “In Leo’s situation, he was clearly fouled. The [opponent] deserved a yellow card, which would mean Messi would’ve never left the field for two minutes. As I understand it, the team that suffered the foul was punished. With these new rule changes, there are situations that must be revised. The infraction was clear and was a yellow card, and ultimately it was us that lost Leo for two minutes.”

Messi was not the only Miami star to fall foul of new rules, either. When Suárez was withdrawn in stoppage time, he failed to leave the field in under 10 seconds. As a result, the fourth official prevented the Uruguayan’s replacement, Leonardo Campana, from entering the pitch for one minute, leaving Miami shorthanded again.

The rule Suárez breached dictates that, according to MLS, “If multiple substitutions are made at the same time by a team, each player leaving the match must leave the field of play within 10 seconds of the Fourth Official raising the substitution board for the final change.” It was another source of consternation for Martino, who insisted that Suárez had exited the pitch in time.

These rules were part of five new regulations ratified by the MLS board of governors back in December, with the others relating to the treatment of heads injuries, in-stadium VAR announcements and roster changes. The ones designed to combat time wasting and curb excessive stoppage-time periods were trialled in MLS Next Pro last year, where it was found that, of more than 3,200 substitutions made, the departing player was able to leave the field in under 10 seconds 97% of the time. With its black-and-white parameters, this rule appears easily enforceable and fit to serve its purpose.

The one Messi has railed against, however, sits in a grey area.

The reasoning behind the rule change is understandable. According to league data, the average MLS game previously saw 5.25 injury-related stoppages of 15 seconds or more, while only around 8% of those stoppages led to a substitution. The new rule was introduced at the start of the 2024 season and, the league found, such stoppages fell to just 1.77 a game over the first three weeks of the campaign.

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There are exceptions built into the rule, too. Any player receiving treatment for a head injury is exempt, likewise any player on the receiving end of a foul that draws a yellow or red card. This is the root of Messi and Martino’s ire, it seems. The judgment the referee made in not issuing a caution to Campbell meant Messi’s subsequent need for medical attention was treated with suspicion, deemed under the new rules to be a scenario in which a player may feign injury to run down the clock.

MLS’s eagerness to eradicate time wasting is a virtuous, and the rules introduced this year can, with some minor adjustments, be perfectly viable. However, situations such as the one involving Messi last Saturday, where a legitimately fouled player was prevented from being involved in a key on-field moment, must be avoided. One simple tweak would be to incorporate wording into the rule that takes account of the game state – with Miami trailing 2-0 at the time, Messi had no reason to waste time.

Just as the rest of the soccer world has taken a keener interest in MLS since Messi’s arrival, the Argentinian’s opposition to the new off-field treatment rule has shone a spotlight on the anti-time-wasting measures. As last weekend showed, they are not quite ready for a universal rollout.