Please help me understand the parameters of a fair shoulder charge — especially when it comes to skilled players in U16 matches and above.

I believe that when a player approaches another, especially from a near 90 degree angle, with enough force to blast a player off the ball with the shoulder (all other parameters of legal charge are used; feet on ground, contact at shoulder area, in playing distance, no use of elbow/arm) that the charge becomes careless if not reckless. I was taught that “playing the player” prior to playing the ball is a violation of the LOTG. A friend and very respected and talented referee has chastised me for calling charges made with what I believe to be “freight train” force fouls. He states that nothing in the ATR or LOTG supports my belief that aggressive charges are fouls. Here is an exchange we had via e-mail:

What exactly would constitute a careless or reckless charging foul other than one not directed to the shoulder?? And if a charging foul could be committed with excessive force, what would that look like?

A direct free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a player commits any of the following seven offences in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force:
• kicks or attempts to kick an opponent
• trips or attempts to trip an opponent
• jumps at an opponent
• charges an opponent
• strikes or attempts to strike an opponent
• pushes an opponent
• tackles an opponent

I personally do not believe that it is possible to execute an otherwise fair shoulder charge (feet on the ground, contact with the shoulder to the opponent’s shoulder area [due to size difference it may not be possible to be exactly shoulder-to-shoulder and as the ATR notes this is NOT required], and while within playing distance of the ball) in a careless or reckless manner or to use excessive force. The object of such a charge is to knock the opponent away from the ball. In these instances the stronger player is legally allowed to use his body and strength to displace the opponent from his desired position AND THEN go collect the ball. There is certainly no requirement within the LOTG to “play the ball” under such circumstances.
Soccer is a tough game which can often be quite physical. As long as the contact is done in a legal manner, I am never going to deem the charge to be a foul.

I would really appreciate and answer regarding this matter as [my state] has no SRA or DRI and I have nowhere else to turn on this matter.

USSF answer (October 20, 2010):
We applaud your correspondent, who has an excellent grasp of the fair charge.

There is no other sort of charge than a “shoulder charge”; no hips, no hands, no holds or pushes. A fair charge is shoulder to shoulder, elbows (on the contact side) against the body, with each player having at least one foot on the ground and both attempting to gain control of the ball. The amount of force allowed is relative to the age and experience of the players, but should never be excessive. This is as defined by the referee on the game, not some book definition, adjusted as necessary for the age and experience of the players and what has happened or is happening in this particular game on this particular day at this particular moment. It all boils down to what is best for the referee’s management and the players’ full enjoyment of the game.

Although often overlooked by spectators, it is important to remember that a player’s natural endowments (speed, strength, height, heft, etc.) may be superior to that of the opponent who is competing with that player for the ball. As a completely natural result, the opponent may not only be bested in the challenge but may in fact wind up on the ground — with no foul having been committed. The mere fact that a player fails in a challenge and falls or is knocked down is what the game is all about (and why coaches must choose carefully in determining which player marks which opponent). Referees do not handicap players by saddling them with artificial responsibilities to be easy on an opponent simply because they are better physically endowed in some way.

Fair charges include actions which do not strictly meet the “shoulder-to-shoulder” requirement when this is not possible because of disparities in height or body type (a common occurrence in youth matches in the early teenage range where growth spurts differ greatly on an individual level within the age group). Additionally, a fair charge can be directed toward the back of the shoulder if the opponent is shielding the ball, provided it is not done dangerously and never to the spinal area.

The arms may not be used at all, other than for balance—which does not include pushing off or holding the opponent.

“Momentum” should not be a factor in the referee’s judgment of a charge. Beyond the definition given above, there are only two criteria for judging the charge: (1) Was it fair or unfair? (2) If unfair, was the charge (a) careless, (b) reckless, or (c) using excessive force? After these two questions have been asked and answered, the referee makes a decision.

If the player’s momentum is too great, it is likely that the player is using excessive force; however, please remember that a player can be knocked over by a fair charge and the charging player should not be punished for that. If the charge described in your example was either reckless or done with excessive force, the player should have been either cautioned for unsporting behavior or sent off for serious foul play.

We must add that a player may be off balance and fall more easily because of a “fair” shoulder charge. Charges from behind when a player is shielding a ball that is within playing distance are often deemed to be fouls if the player shielding the ball falls forward. Again the referee is the judge what constitutes fair of foul. But simply causing an opponent to fall does not automatically mean that a foul has been committed.

In addition, some well-meaning but ill-informed leagues make a “no-charge” rule part of their rules of competition. These are the same misguided people who say that younger players should not be sent off for offenses that would merit a send-off and lengthy suspension in advanced youth and adult soccer. How will kids learn to cope with adversity as adults if they are spoon fed only sweetness and light as youths?