Dure: U.S. Soccer’s birth-year plan is shortsighted, helping coaches, not kids

BeauDure-HeaderThe U.S. Soccer Federation’s intervention in the messy world of youth soccer is surely overdue. We have a miasma of ego-driven and money-driven decisions that leave a bunch of confused parents shuttling their overburdened kids through long-distance road trips with dubiously qualified coaching gurus. Someone needs to step in and lend some clarity to the situation.

The decision to rearrange age groups, though, was neither the most important issue to address nor an elegant solution to a minor problem.

+READ: U.S. Soccer phases in new youth development standards

From the viewpoints of Tab Ramos and other U.S. staffers, aligning age groups by birth years must seem sensible. They’re taking kids into international competitions in which age groups are long-established. USSF coaches have to sort through player pools full of kids who play under age groups more closely aligned to the school year. With every player, they must ask whether Player X is really eligible to play U-17.

+ QUIZ: Do you agree with U.S. Soccer’s new youth mandates?

The problem with instituting birth-year age groups all the way through youth soccer, though, is that 99.99 percent of kids who play youth soccer aren’t going into such serious competition. And it’s high time the needs of the “elite” stopped trampling the needs of the recreational player, especially when it’s so easy to address everyone’s needs.

For the U-6s through U-12s I’ve coached, the current system works quite well. The cutoff is August 1, two months ahead of our local schools’ cutoff date. Most kids play with their classmates, easing the transitions into school and soccer and making things … apologies if this is a dirty word to some people … fun.

If your kid is born in August or September, you have a choice. You can play “up” with the kid’s grade level so he or she is with his classmates. Or if your child isn’t physically ready to play in that age group, he or she can be grouped by age instead.

Tab Ramos. Photo property of U.S. Soccer.So not only does the current system allow most kids to play with their peers, it gives parents a tool to combat one of the pernicious problems of youth soccer: the “relative age effect.”

With a hard-and-fast cutoff, you’re likely to see the kids born in the first two months of an age-group year excel (January and February, if you’re going by birth year) while the kids in the bottom two months (November and December) struggle. Having a loose cutoff, with August and September kids free to go either direction, parents (with coaches’ input if desired) can drop their kids with late birthdays to the next year. No harm.

And here’s the kicker: There’s no reason USSF can’t keep such a system in place while still simplifying things for Ramos and company.

When youth soccer kids get older, they’re often grouped into age groups of two years, anyway. The Development Academy’s age groups are U-14, U-16 and U-18.

So when kids hit those years, then you can start with the Jan. 1 cutoff.

+READ: SoccerWire Q&A: Kevin Payne on US Club Soccer’s new “Players First” program

Here’s how it could work for this year:

U6: August 1, 2009
U7: August 1, 2008

U12: August 1, 2003
U13: August 1, 2002
U14: Jan. 1, 2001
U16: Jan. 1, 1999
(U17 cutoff for 2015 World Cup is Jan. 1, 1998)
U18: Jan. 1, 1997

And so on.

Carson, Calif. - Saturday, July 18, 2015: FC Dallas defeat New York Red Bulls to win the 2014-15 U-16 US Soccer Development Academy Championship at Glenn "Mooch" Myernick Field at StubHub Center.

The reality is that national team and Development Academy staffs looking for U-14s are going to be sorting through a lot of different rosters, anyway. A good U-12 will be playing up at the club level. So the shifting cutoff date from U-13 to U-14 shouldn’t upset any of those coaches.

(And if you look at the U.S. U-17 men’s national team player pool, you wonder if they’re looking at anyone born after April, anyway. See “relative age effect” above.)

So you can meet the needs of your elite-level coaches and the rec-level parents at the same time.

That should be a template for how youth soccer is organized in general. If U.S. Soccer is going to take a long-overdue lead role in that organization, why not set the tone right away?

Beau Dure’s new book, Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game, is now available for pre-order in electronic form at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online booksellers. The paperback edition will be available in September.

By | August 25, 2015 | 51 Comments | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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  1. VA-703 says:

    This is for parents like myself:

    This is mandated. It must be done. I just saw that Loudoun
    soccer posted the USSF announcement on their website. I’m assuming it’s to trickle the information out there instead of it being one big smack in the
    face. However, it’s very concerning that other local clubs are not doing the
    same. Just announce it, be done with it, and be prepared re-align teams next year. Educate the parents beforehand so they can be prepared. There is no choice other than delaying it until 2017. Either way, it’s going to happen. It’s a horrible way to institute change, but parents and players have no say. If you are a parent of an Aug to Dec birthday, be prepared to skip an entire year of development and move to a team where you kid will be the youngest and less developed. For example, your u12 player will move to u14 next year. No exception. Entire “A” teams are about to be ripped apart and those top Aug to Dec players are now at a huge disadvantage on their new teams. But don’t worry, every Aug to Dec
    birthday child in America will miss an entire year of development with your kid. Thanks USSF. I know you guys are all about development. Oh, and they want to reference, “RAE”? Well they just created “RAE” on steroids for the AUG to DEC kids.

    • highschoolsoccercoach says:

      A-team is a 80’s tv show. Soccer is about development. If the kids are developing, then there will be kids that we be flighted to their teams. Those kids that are what you call “A” team, should be challenged to play an age group up if ability wise, they are able to do so. This will make them better players, and the club would be better for it.

  2. Gerry Marrone says:

    Beau-you know I’m a fan of your writing-but I think you missed the bigger point of these changes. Those are the reduced field size, reduced ball size, reduced goal size and reduced number of players on the field. These were all designed to make sure all the kids get more touches on the ball, and develop the ball skills and technical ability that we as a country continue to lack in our player development. This will not be a panacea, but it is a step in the right direction.

    • Beau says:

      The rest of the changes didn’t really hit home for me because, in Northern Virginia, we’re already doing all that. I think it’s mostly great.

      There is one local league that won’t be in compliance — a league that is playing 5v5 at U9 and U10!

    • highschoolsoccercoach says:

      I completely agree!! Well said.

    • Hisham Kamal says:

      Gerry
      Would it make sense to you if ALL training and practices were done with reduced field size, reduced ball size, reduced goal size and reduced number of players on the field to make sure all the kids get more touches on the ball, and develop the ball skills and technical ability, BUT have games where the kids are taught how the game is exactly played, and how they will end up playing it anyway? Are not we sometimes confusing the environment where you develop skills with a lot of touches and comfort with the ball, and the environment where we teach the REAL game to the kids? Aren’t these just two things that COMPLEMENT each other? As I said, maybe sometimes we tend to confuse the two? Is there any harm in teaching the kids how the REAL game is played, (and why WAIT for years and years!) as long it is NOT at the expense of developing their skills via what you indicated?

  3. Sherry Ogg says:

    Another concern with the calendar year system is purely logistical when you get to U18/U19. If you are on a calendar year chances are you’re going to be 50:50 with seniors and juniors. During the next season you’ll lose 1/2 of your team because they graduate. This happens now to some extent but you lose 2 or 3, but not 1/2. This will especially hurt the smaller clubs that don’t have the numbers to maintain those juniors in their senior year. Those kids may be scrambling to find another team/club during their senior year of HS.

  4. justaSoccerParent says:

    I agree… the eighth graders are the ones who will be hit the hardest as their ‘older’ teammates will be on high school teams and therefore not allowed to play club at the same time. For my U17 daughter, I just told her that this will be her last year of soccer as next year when the switch occurs, the older players of her year will be in college and it seems unlikely that there will be a post-HS team to rejoin…

  5. Kempy says:

    Surely this shift means that kids born August-dec will have no team their senior year? All the Jan-July kids will have graduated.

    • highschoolsoccercoach says:

      No, it just means the younger age groups will play up in they are able to. It’s about development.

      • Hisham Kamal says:

        I honestly believe that this country will never worry about development, and this undue emphasis on when you were born is the ultimate proof and testimony.
        For me, if it were about development, nothing would prevent kids of different ages playing in the SAME team, as long as their physical sizes does not cause any hazard to others, and their abilities and soccer IQ fit the group they are in.
        However, because the wining madness starts as early as 9 year old, for coaches, parents and even clubs, rationality disappears. Everyone is concerned about the “unfair” advantage that could deny that 5 dollars plastic trophy (all kids end up having one anyway). “Unfair” advantage seems to mean the other team has a player born July 31st just before midnight, when your oldest player was born only on August 1st of the same year, but slightly after midnight. All of a sudden he is one year older than your players, and they will beat your team, which would be a catastrophe. Right?
        Get rid of meaningless competition for kids in diapers and all these problems we are debating will go away!. Very sorry for all these competitive tournaments organizers and GotSoccer. Cost a fortune to teams and bring really no value

  6. Hisham Kamal says:

    Yeatts and Beau

    I am just wondering why people believe that the choice to play up or stay in your age group is available only in the Aug 1 method. In the January method, if for instance a kid is born January of February 2008, can’t he play up with kids born in 2007?

    To me it looks like it is all the same, Just the reference point is shift by 6 months. If it is obvious to me, and not to others, then maybe I am missing something. Obviously

    • Beau says:

      Sure — a January 2008 kid could play up with 2007 kids. But when the cutoff nearly mirrors grade levels, then kids have more incentive to play up. Most kids would rather move up to play with their classmates than stay down and dominate the U7 league. (In some cases, kids stay down because they’re just not physically ready to move up, which is also fine.)

    • highschoolsoccercoach says:

      You’re a 1000 percent correct!!! The kids can play above their age group, and should if they are strong players or need to be challenged.

    • JohnCleave says:

      The difference is that, to stay with classmates, a kid born in July would have to move up 2 age groups, and hence might face a kid 18 months older.

  7. bumpassesdogs says:

    I honestly don’t understand the issue…. birth year seems much simpler to understand. I know change is different in the short term but this seems to make sense to me to manage it all the same way.

  8. Beau says:

    But here’s the point on the relative age effect — having two months of flexibility means players in Aug-Sept have options. It’s not just a question of shifting months around — it’s giving players in that Aug-Sept range a choice.

    The “hard” cutoff date of Jan. 1 offers no such flexibility.

    • yeatts330 says:

      Point conceded, but that is unrelated to relative age effect, which will exist so long as there is a cut off date whether it be 8/1. 10/1, or 1/1. This change, by itself, does nothing to impact RAE.

      The current side-effect of being slightly offset with the school year cut-off and therefore is more of a social phenomenon. I know September-born kids who could go and dominate a “younger” age but chose to play with the grade-level because that is where their friends are. But, of the course of many years this has never been more than 2-3 kids and would only be 1/6th of players who benefit. Since USSF has said that playing up is OK, everyone has a choice to play up or on age, especially at the rec levels, and can select which group of friends to play with.

      • Beau says:

        Perhaps. But I think the current system gives kids more incentive to play up. (And I say that as a parent whose kid did just that!)

        • bumpassesdogs says:

          so is your issue with it more personal than anything specific to development or in trying to have a uniform system?

        • Beau says:

          I think there is no development if it’s not fun for kids at an early age. I guarantee you some kids will quit over this. Is it worth it?

        • yeatts330 says:

          Just to look at potential positive impacts – if this starts at the younger ages and many kids are at different schools and teams are already on a calendar year basis, it won’t matter to the kids at all as they won’t even be aware of the different. They will just have friends in other grades and other schools and these friendships will be established before the middle school and high school awkwardness so they are likely to be stronger relationships.

          Granted – current teams will be impacted but would really just register to play in the older year and the younger ones play up.

          I know this means that by Senior spring, they will need to supplement with more kids but by that point the number of teams seems to dwindle as the 18 year olds may just be busier.

          I looked at my daughter’s roster from last year. If you forced the change today, the impact would be minimal. There 15 of the 18 girls are in the same year. Three are in the older year. Three are in the Aug-Sept range of the younger year. If pushed, they’d probably register in the older year and when those kids graduated, just get an extra year in the younger year.

          Interesting discussion, everyone.

        • Hisham Kamal says:

          Sorry for this reply but I truly believe that “playing up” has no meaning if based on age, unless people believe the OLDER you are the BETTER you play soccer. Or the BIGGER you are the BETTER you play soccer, which obviously makes no sense (at least for me)
          Rather, “playing up” should mean playing in an environment where you are challenged from the point of view of your soccer skills, understanding of the game (physicality being just an aspect of it and very often not the most important, unless one wants to win just by brute force)
          Ironically “playing up” could mean playing with a team of younger players, who are just so good, with high soccer IQ :)

        • Beau says:

          No apology necessary – I think all of what you said is valid.

    • Hisham Kamal says:

      Beau

      Should I understand that
      with the “hard” cut-off in the US Soccer January method, a player
      born in January 2008 would NOT be allowed to play in an group of older
      kids born in the year before 2007?

      Also don’t you think that
      all this fixation on age for young players is driven by the mad thirst for
      competition and rankings? Isn’t the focus on age and focus just so that it is “fair”
      and no teams has an “older” play, even if by just one hours Like the kid born
      on July 31 first at 11 PM. Don’t you all believe that if there was no
      competition involved and the drive for winning, and if it were only for
      developmental purpose, why on earth, a kid born in December 2007, cannot be on
      the same team as a player born 2 days later, in January 2008?

      All about winning. Always

  9. yeatts330 says:

    Beau – I usually like your articles but have one issue with this one. I take your point that the change to calendar year might have more of an impact on misaligning the school year/soccer year. However, neither the Jan 1 nor the Aug 1 date prevents relative age effect since they are tied to single dates. Just as the U17 team focuses on the early birthdates, I would bet a study of top youth team have lots of August – October babies. I posted this on another thread but I do think that USSF has a chance to further subdivide the younger ages so there are four cut-off dates early, then two, then one at the U14+ ages. Since the younger ages play smaller sided games, such subdividing is feasible as long as that one coach or parent doesn’t ruin it by deeming the Jan-Mar group as that year’s “A” team. The temptation by coaches to focus on the early bloomers would be somewhat blunted because there wouldn’t be 10-20% lifespan advantage in the Jan 1 kids vs the Dec 31 kid. Instead, there would be a smaller spread. This doesn’t address your school year problem but friends are friends and kids will adjust.

  10. jimbobv2 says:

    No matter where you start the ‘year’, you will get kids that have an advantage. Shifting to a Jan-Dec ‘year’ just means that kids born in Jan-Mar have an advantage that used to go to kids born Aug-Oct.

    And as a house soccer division director, plenty of parents are not going to be happy if kids can’t play up a division. A lot of kids do it to play on their older brother or sister’s team. I did it once with my two boys and it was awesome for us because the boys had fun and we had less running around to do.

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