How the Offsides Rule Works in Lacrosse (Illustrated Guide)


Have you ever noticed that certain lacrosse players stay on certain field halves, even when the ball has transitioned to the other end? The thing that is responsible for this is the offsides rule.

In lacrosse, offsides is a penalty that is issued when a team has too many offensive players or defensive players on one half of the field. Teams are only allowed to have a maximum of six players on the offensive half and seven players (including the goalie) on the defensive half at any given point.

It seems simple to understand on paper, but lacrosse is a fast moving game. With all the players quickly shuffling around on the field, it is easy to get lost in the middle of it all. This article will lay out all the knowledge you need to know to stay onside and avoid committing an unneeded offsides penalty.

A Brief Overview of the Offsides Rule

The purpose of the offsides rule is to prevent one half of the field from getting too crowded. The vast amount of field space available is an integral part of how lacrosse works. Take that away and chaos is sure to follow.

A team is only allowed to have a maximum of six offensive players on their offensive half of the field. The typical positional breakdown of this setup is three midfielders and three attackmen. On the defensive side, a team is authorized to have a maximum of seven offensive players on their defensive half of the field. It is standard for defenses to feature three close defensemen, three midfielders, and one goalkeeper.

Generally, the three attackmen stay put on the offensive side of the field. The three close defensemen and the goalie stay put on the defensive side of the field. The players that usually move back and forth between the offensive half and the defensive half are the three midfielders.

There are certain complex game situations where players lose track of where their teammates are located on the field. It is during these unsettled moments where offsides penalties happen most often. In the event of an offsides penalty, one player (or multiple) accidentally wanders over to the wrong side of the field, pushing their team over the legal player limit.

Diagrams of what this looks like for an offensive offsides penalty and a defensive offsides penalty are provided below.

Illegal Offsides Procedure for Offense

An offsides penalty is issued if a team has more than six players on the offensive half of the field. In this case, there are seven.

Illegal Offsides Procedure for Defense

An offsides penalty is issued if a team has more than seven players on the defensive half of the field. In this case there are eight.

How a Legal Onside Procedure Works

When a lacrosse team is in the offensive half field set, it is standard for them to have exactly six players on the field. They don’t want to have less because then they will be at a player disadvantage. They don’t want to have more because they will be penalized with an offsides violation.

This also applies to the defense, except that the typical defense has exactly seven players out on the field because of the addition of the goalie.

For your reference, I included diagrams of legal onside procedures for the offense and defense below.

Legal Onside Procedure for Offense

It is standard onside procedure for a team on offense to have six players on the offensive half and four players on the defensive half.

Legal Onside Procedure for Defense

It is standard onside procedure for a team on defense to have three players on the offensive half and seven players on the defensive half.

How an Illegal Offsides Procedure Works

With so many players moving about on the field, it is near impossible for officials to catch every offsides violation. At times, teams do get away with playing offsides if their players recover quickly enough. This is usually the case if a player takes a couple steps over the midfield line, realizes that their team has too many players on that half of the field, and quickly scurries back over the midfield line.

However, if a player is blatantly offsides for an extended period of time, officials are bound to throw out the yellow flag. A telltale sign of offsides play is if it appears as though one team is playing with a man up advantage.

For example, the defense may be aggressively double teaming the ball because they are illegally working with an extra man. The offense will always have an open player because the opposing team cannot cover everybody in an illegal 7v6 situation.

Common Situations Where Illegal Offsides Procedures Occur

To help better instill this concept, we will analyze a few common situations where teams fall victim to an illegal offsides penalty.

Clearing the Ball from the Defensive Zone to the Offensive Zone

With a shot save or turnover, a team acquires possession of the ball in their defensive zone. Their next responsibility is to deliver the ball from the defensive zone to the offensive zone so they could create viable scoring opportunities. This process is commonly referred to as clearing.

In order to get the ball to the offense, it is necessary for players to cross back and forth over the midline. In the midst of all this commotion, the probability of a player mistakenly going offsides skyrockets.

As aforementioned, midfielders are typically entrusted with the duty of crossing back and forth between offense and defense. However, there are times during the clear where there are no open midfielders available. In this scenario, the goalie or a close defensemen is left stranded in the defensive zone with the ball in their stick. Teams only have a set amount of time to clear the ball, so they cannot afford to wait for the midfielders to get open. As a result, the goalie and close defensemen must improvise and carry the ball over themselves.

This is where things get a bit complicated. Since the goalie and close defensemen usually remain fixed on the defensive side of the field, staying onside is usually a breeze. But, when a goalie or defenseman ventures over to the offensive half, they run the risk of an offsides penalty if one of the midfielders fails to stay back on the defensive half to hold their place.

Although there is a set maximum for how many players a team can have on one end of the field, the rules do not specify which positions have to stay where. Thus, offensive players and defensive players can exchange places as long as the maximum number of players per field half is not exceeded.

In the event of an improvised clear, the close defenseman (or goalie) in possession of the ball and a midfielder essentially switch roles. Rather than the midfielder bringing the ball over to the offense, the close defensemen (or goalie) acts as the transporter. The midfielder stays back on the defensive half to ensure that the offensive half will not have too many players.

If both players went over to the offensive zone, they would exceed the maximum player limit of six players because there would be three attackmen, three midfielders, and one close defenseman (or goalie) on that side.

To better illustrate this concept, I provided a couple of diagrams below for your reference.

Legal Clear (No Offsides Penalty Issued)

The defenseman in possession of the ball crosses over the midline to clear the ball. The backside midfielder stays put on the defensive half of the field to avoid drawing an offsides penalty.

Illegal Clear (Offsides Penalty Issued)

The defenseman in possession of the ball crosses over to the offensive zone to clear the ball. The backside midfielder illegally crosses over the midline as well, resulting in seven players at the offensive end instead of six.

Overaggressive Ride

Another scenario where offsides penalties are typical is during a ride. For those of you that do not know, a ride is a team’s defensive effort to prevent an opposing team from successfully clearing the ball from their defensive zone to their offensive zone.

To learn more about the specifics of a lacrosse ride, click over to my article What Does Ride Mean in Lacrosse? (Definition & Examples).

Generally, it is the attackmen that are positioned on the frontlines of the riding effort. When an opposing goalie or defenseman gathers possession of the ball, they want to get rid of it as quickly as possible. In most cases, these defensive specialists are not exactly the most proficient ball handlers on the team. The attackmen do their very best to generate a turnover before the opposing team is able to cross the midline by placing an immense amount of pressure on whoever has the ball, including the opposing goalie or defenseman.

Occasionally, this plan can backfire. There are times where an attackman gets tunnel vision while trying to pressure an opposing ball carrier. As a result, they continue to chase the ball carrier over the midline on accident and draw an offsides penalty.

Attackmen have to be weary of the midline at all times to avoid this situation. They do more harm than good by trying to track down an opposing ball carrier just a few feet beyond the midline.

If an attackman is dead set on following an opponent over the midline, a midfielder has to stay back in the offensive zone to allow their teammate to give chase. Otherwise, there will be too many players in the defensive zone.

Again, I know this can be hard to visualize so I provided a couple of diagrams for reference.

Legal Ride (No Offsides Penalty Issued)

One of the attackmen decides to give chase over the midline. One of the midfielders stay backs in the offensive zone to avoid drawing an offsides penalty.

Illegal Ride (Offsides Penalty Issued)

One of the attackmen commits to pressuring the ball carrier across the midline. The third midfielder illegally crosses the midline, resulting in eight players on the defensive half (which would draw an offsides penalty).

Subbing Players On and Off the Field

In addition, players substitutions is another area of lacrosse where offsides occurs most often. As players are rotating on and off the field, it is difficult to keep account of how many players a team has on each side of the field. This may lead to players crossing over to the wrong field half.

This is a common occurrence while the ball is transitioning field halves. An attackmen may have crossed over into the defensive zone to give chase. A defenseman may have crossed over into the offensive zone to clear the ball. A player that steps onto the field during these moments may be completely unaware of this. After all, you can only pay attention to a certain amount of gameplay while you’re trying to sub on for the right player. Consequently, some players end up drawing an offsides penalty simply because they didn’t know any better.

To help visualize how a proper substitution goes down, take note of the diagrams below.

Proper Substitution (No Offsides Penalty Issued)

The defenseman in possession of the ball crosses over the midline to clear the ball. The backside midfielder is subbing off for another midfielder. Smartly, the oncoming midfielder subs onto the defensive half instead of the offensive half to avoid drawing an offsides penalty.

Improper Substitution (Offsides Penalty Issued)

The defenseman in possession of the ball crosses over the midline to clear the ball. The backside midfielder is coming off the field for a substitution. The oncoming midfielder illegally subs onto the offensive half, resulting in seven players on the offensive end (which would draw an offsides penalty).

How an Illegal Offsides Procedure is Penalized

An illegal offsides procedure is penalized as a technical foul, not a personal foul. Teams that are caught offsides are either penalized with a 30 second stay in the penalty box or a change in possession. Technical fouls are typically treated as releasable penalties. This means the offending player is released from the penalty box if the opposing team scores during their man up advantage.

How Attacking Teams are Penalized for Being Offsides

Generally, if the offending team has possession of the ball when the offsides penalty occurs, the play is immediately blown dead and the offense must forfeit possession to the other team.

If the attacking team manages to score a goal while they’re offside, the goal is waved off. This rule applies even if both the attacking team and the defending team are found to be offsides. Officials award possession based on the alternate possession (AP) rule if it is unknown which team went offsides first.

To learn more about how the AP rule works in lacrosse, check out my article What Does AP Mean in Lacrosse?

How Defending Teams are Penalized for Being Offsides

On the other hand, if the offending team was playing defense at the time that their team went offsides, the officials throw their flag but do not stop play immediately. This is called a play on scenario.

In a play on scenario, the offense is allowed to continue on with their possession. It wouldn’t be fair to kill a scoring opportunity for the offense simply because the defense committed an offsides penalty. So the officials implement a slow whistle to permit the offense to carry on.

There are a few stipulations that an offense must follow in a play on scenario. For one, the ball cannot leave the restraining box once it enters. Second, the ball cannot touch the ground. In the event that either of these stipulations are violated, the play is blown dead.

If the offense manages to score a goal during the play on situation, the offsides penalty is waved off and the goal is counted. The opposing defense must only serve the 30 second penalty if the offense fails to score with the slow whistle in effect.

Tips for Staying Onside During Lacrosse Games

Now that you know exactly how offsides works in the game of lacrosse, you likely want to know how to best avoid making these mistakes during the game. I compiled some useful tips below to keep you and your teammates on the same page to avoid drawing any unnecessary offsides penalties.

Build a Habit of Strong Communication

One of the easiest ways to minimize the likelihood of venturing offsides is to talk with your teammates.

Tell your teammate where to go when you sub off the field. Let your team know when you plan to cross the midline as an attackman or defenseman.

In my experience as a midfielder, this communication helps tremendously. During games, if it looked like the defenseman with the ball planned to cross the midline on a clear, I would raise my stick up and yell “I’m back! I’m back!” to let him know that he could go over. Not to mention that this would also signal to the referees that our team was still legally onside.

This same tactic could be applied as an attackman is giving chase to a ball carrier during a ride. By letting your teammate know that they are good to cross the midline, it takes away their hesitancy and gives them full confidence to play aggressively.

Have Situational Awareness When You Sub into the Game

Furthermore, it is important that you know exactly what situation you are going into as you step onto the lacrosse field.

As aforementioned, substitutions that take place during unsettled situations are where offsides penalties occur the most. Managing everything that is happening during the game is difficult, but doable.

To ensure that you have the most information possible prior to subbing on, keep your eyes on the game. Talking with your teammates on the sidelines is okay to do every once in a while. However, if you find yourself constantly distracting yourself with side conversations before you step onto the field, you’re going to cost your team some extra penalties.

So pay attention to the game at least before you sub on. This way, you will be fully equipped to handle all of the chaos that comes your way.

Final Thoughts

Learning the offsides rule seems simple on paper, but there is a lot more to this rule than meets the eye. If you familiarize yourself with the various situations where offsides occurs most often, you will be light years ahead of the majority of lacrosse players out there.

Lastly, try to implement the tips for staying onside and spread this valuable information to your teammates. This way, all of your teammates will be on the same page and offsides penalties will become a rarity amongst your club.

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of Lacrosse Pack. I enjoy hitting the local lacrosse fields and honing in on the craft in my free time.

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