The Flow of the Game
A soccer game begins with a pre-game coin toss. The winner of the coin toss decides whether to begin on offense or defense. Then starting possession will switch at the beginning of the next period.
The team on offense will begin with a kick-off, meaning that the ball is placed in the center of the field, and the offensive team will have the first opportunity to kick the ball. All the players on each team must be lined up on their own half of field for the kick-off, typically as you see it in the image to the right. Defensive players must begin at least 10 yards from the ball until it has been kicked for the first time.
The player who first kicks the ball cannot touch it again until another player touches it, so he will typically only kick it a few inches forward, and have a teammate nearby come in to kick it to another teammate to maintain possession.
Then the teams are off! The team on offense, who has possession of the ball will try to dribble (one player kicking the ball to maneuver it to himself), pass to teammates, and score goals (kicking the ball into the opposing team's net). The team on defense will try to defend the goal and intercept the ball to steal it for themselves. Each team's goalkeeper can defend against goals using any part of his body, including his hands. However, he cannot use his hands if one of his own teammates passes to him. This is a technical offense called a pass back and results in the opposing team getting possession of the ball beginning with an indirect kick (see description below).
There are relatively few stoppages of play and few rules, otherwise. The ball is out of play if: (1) it goes outside the boundaries of the soccer field; or (2) the referee calls an offense or penalty.
If the ball goes out of bounds, the team who last touched the ball loses possession, and the opposing team will start by throwing or kicking the ball. The ball will be thrown in, if it crossed a side line. The ball will be kicked in from the corner of the field (a corner kick) if the ball crossed the goal line and was last touched by a defender or kicked in by the defending goalie (a goal kick) if the ball crossed the goal line and was last touched by an offensive player.
There are four primary means of restarting the game after an offense or penalty is called:
- Indirect free kick: when a technical rule has been broken or play has been stopped to caution a disgruntled player. This occurs most often when a player was offsides (described below). The team who did not commit the offense will begin play by passing the ball from where the infringement occurred to another player, i.e., he cannot immediately attempt to score a goal (hence "indirect" free kick). The opposing team must begin at least 10-yards away.
- Direct free kick: when a deliberate foul has been committed outside the penalty box. A foul is an unfair act by a player and can be anything from pulling an opponents shirt to kicking or tripping an opponent to misconduct off the field like assaulting a referee. The team who did not commit the foul will begin play by kicking the ball from where the infringement occurred. He can try to directly score a goal (hence "direct" free kick). The opposing team must begin at least 10-yards away they will typically form a wall in front of the goal to prevent a goal from being scored.
- Penalty kick: when a deliberate foul has been committed inside the penalty area. The team who did not commit the foul will try to score a goal from the penalty spot (indicated in the diagram above). All other players must begin at least 10-yards behind the ball. A penalty kick typically results in a goal, because it is very difficult for a goalkeeper to block the ball from such a short distance, so he must make a guess where the player will kick the ball.
- Dropped ball: when a serious injury has occurred or there was some external interference with the game. The referee will drop the ball between a representative from each team where the ball was stopped.
One of the most common technical offenses is being offsides. This offense is a bit tricky to understand, and it is different from the meaning in American football and ice hockey, so I've created the diagram to the left to help explain. A soccer player is in offsides position when he is (1) on the opposing team's side of the field; (2) the closest player to the opposing team's goal, and (3) farther down the field than the ball. This positioning only becomes an offense if the player touches the ball or gains some advantage from being offsides, like blocking an opponent from receiving the ball or getting possession of the ball after being in prime possession for a rebound. So in the image to the left, the red team's CF is in the offsides position, but this will only become an offense if he touches the ball or gains some unfair advantage.
This rule exists to prevent teams from sending one player up the field to camp out at a prime position to receive the ball throughout the entirety of the game.