Scott, an adult amateur Referee, asks:
Is there a distance from the ball when a referee should call an impeding foul instead of allowing the defender to “shield” the ball from the attacker. For instance, the ball is rolling quickly and is on a path to go out of bounds if no one touches it and there is an attacker running full speed towards the ball from a distance and the defender steps in 5 yards from where the ball is and shields the attacker so the ball will go out.
Good question and, as with many similar good questions, there isn’t a simple answer. Fortunately, the answer became less complex in 2017 when the International Board published the 2017-2018 Laws of the Game.
At the core of your query is the concept of “playing distance” which arises in several different scenarios in soccer generally as well as in the Laws. For example, it arises in Law 12 when the offense of “impeding the progress of an opponent” is discussed:
Impeding the progress of an opponent means moving into the opponent’s path to obstruct, block, slow down or force a change of direction when the ball is not within playing distance of either player. [emphasis added]
A bit later on in the same section of Law 12, your scenario is targeted:
A player may shield the ball by taking a position between an opponent and the ball if the ball is within playing distance and the opponent is not held off with the arms or body. If the ball is within playing distance, the player may be fairly charged by an opponent. [emphasis added]
Other places where the concept of “playing distance” arises include “interfering with an opponent” as one way of committing an offside violation, as one of the criteria for DOGSO (denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity), and as one of the ways that a legal charge can become illegal. Clearly, knowing what “playing distance” is and is not is an important element of refereeing.
Years ago, it was common for referees to treat “playing distance” as some absolute value – e.g. one or two yards or several steps – in all cases and circumstances. More recently, the 2014 version of Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game made the following observation:
The referee’s judgment of playing distance should be based on the player’s ability to play the ball, not upon any arbitrary standard such as a specific number of feet or steps a player is away from the ball. The decision as to whether a player is or is not within playing distance of the ball belongs solely to the referee.
In 2017, the International Board for the very first time provided an operational definition of the concept as follows:
Playing distance. Distance to the ball which allows a player to touch the ball by extending the foot/leg or jumping or, for goalkeepers, jumping with arms extended. Distance depends on the physical size of the player
In essence, the now-official definition is completely consistent with USSF’s 2014 Advice to Referees that the concept has to be defined by the “player’s ability to play the ball” and adds the critical reminder that, even so, it has to depend on “the physical size of the player.” Obviously, for most referees, this means that an average-sized U14 player will have a shorter playing distance than would an average-sized adult amateur player – all of which takes us back to what we said at the start of this answer and what Advice to Referees said in 2014, that decisions about playing distance belong solely to the Referee. What has changed (and improved) is that the International Board has now given us a “yardstick” for exercising this judgment – the distance between the ball and how far a player can stick his or her own, individually-sized leg out (or a goalkeeper can jump up or out while reaching for a ball in the air).