The Laws define the terms “careless, reckless and with
excessive force” for penal offenses:

1. Kicks or attempts to kick an opponent.
2. Trips or attempts to trip an opponent.
3. Jumps at an opponent.
4. Charges an opponent.
5. Strikes or attempts to strike an opponent:
6. Pushes an opponent
7. Tackles an opponent.

This makes it much easier for Referees to gauge the respective punishment when the force reaches a certain level. However, is it possible to do any of the above without a foul actually being called since it was neither careless, reckless, nor with excessive force?

A defender and attacker are running full speed, side-by-side shoulder-to-shoulder and stride-for-stride. The defender makes a cut and to make the cut he extends his leg outside his normal gait. The attacker’s leg clips the defender’s leg and the attacker goes down like a sack of potatoes. There is nothing to be considered careless, reckless or with excessive force. The referee considers the tripping to be unintentional and accidental and allows play to continue. But who on the field is going to accept that when the defender wins the ball? The attacking team is going to be irate and the defending team is going to think that they got away with one. The offense is “Trips or attempts to trip an opponent”. A trip is a trip, intentional or not. Should the referee call a tripping foul? Or does the brave referee make the non-call with the comfort in knowing that he’s the only one on the field that knows he’s right?

USSF answer (June 10, 2010):
You might wish to search through the archives to find this answer (only an excerpt given here) of April 15, 2010. It should answer all your questions on this matter.

“Careless” indicates that the player has not exercised due caution in making a play.

“Reckless” means that the player has made unnatural movements designed to intimidate an opponent or to gain an unfair advantage.

“Involving excessive force” means that the player has far exceeded the use of force necessary to make a fair play for the ball and has placed the opponent in considerable danger of bodily harm.

If the foul was careless, simply a miscalculation of strength or a stretch of judgment by the player who committed it, then it is a normal foul, requiring only a direct free kick (and possibly a stern talking-to). If the foul was reckless, clearly outside the norm for fair play, then the referee must award the direct free kick and also caution the player for unsporting behavior, showing the yellow card. If the foul involved the use of excessive force, totally beyond the bounds of normal play, then the referee must send off the player for serious foul play or violent conduct, show the red card, and award the direct free kick to the opposing team.

And it is worth repeating — yet again — that the occurrence of contact between players does not necessarily mean that a foul was committed. Contact occurs and it is accepted and welcomed, as long as it is accomplished legally — and that includes most accidental contact.

And the referee can very effectively reinforce his or her conviction that no foul has occurred by shouting out “No foul!” Never leave doubt in the minds of the players as to your comfort with your decision.

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