O’Sullivan: Some thoughts on U.S. Soccer’s mandatory changes in youth soccer

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The U.S. Soccer Federation recently announced sweeping changes in the way that youth soccer will be organized and run in this country, and it has caused quite the debate.

Many pundits believe this is the panacea that is needed to take our men’s international players to the next level. Others think this spells the doom of the game in our country.

The federation has asked all its members to get on board with the changes, support them, educate their members and help with the transition. I think unity in player development in this country is long overdue, and a great thing.

+READ: O’Sullivan: 3 myths that are destroying the youth sports experience

But I do wonder: Are we being asked to get behind an initiative that may gut our player numbers at the same exact time we are finally creating an environment that will allow those players to flourish?

Let’s take a look at the two most impactful new U.S. Soccer mandates, which are recommended for now and mandatory by August 2017. One is exactly what the doctor ordered; the other, I am not so sure.

Small-sided game mandate

The new small-sided game mandates are fantastic, and long overdue. Players become better by not only moving faster, but by thinking faster. Players also enjoy the game more when they get more touches, score more goals, and those who do not grow first but have great technique can still influence the game.

“Youth soccer in the US persisted in playing 11v11 far too young because state associations knew that if they mandated small-sided play, clubs could simply take their ball and leave.”

There is ample evidence of the benefits of small-sided games, whether it is simply to look at the South American futsal culture, top European academies’ focus on 9v9 until Under-12 to U-14 ages, or studies such as this one done at Manchester United about the increased frequency of goals, assists, passes, tackles and actions per game in smaller vs. bigger games.

In the Man United study, playing 4v4 instead of 8v8 yielded:

  • 135% more passes
  • 260% more Scoring Attempts
  • 500% more Goals Scored
  • 225% more 1v1 Encounters
  • 280% more Dribbling Skills (tricks)

I have often wondered why U.S. Soccer did not take this simple and very effective action long ago. Watching undersized and under-strength 9-year-old kids unable to get out of their end playing 11v11 soccer should have been eliminated years ago. US Youth Soccer state associations have been tackling this on a state-by-state basis for almost two decades, but even today some states still allow 11v11 at U11.

VESBRoll-sideline-refereeSadly, youth soccer in the US persisted in playing 11v11 far too young because state associations knew that if they mandated small-sided play, clubs could simply take their ball and leave. When I was a club director in Oregon, for example, the state mandated small-sided games until U-12. Most clubs in Portland started their own 11v11 league through US Club Soccer, which was glad to take their money and let them run whatever kind of league they wanted.

Colorado Youth Soccer recently feared the same, so for the past two years they sponsored both a 9v9 and 11v11 league for U-11s. Both moves were not beneficial to soccer in their respective states.

Thankfully, U.S. Soccer has stepped in and mandated smaller field sizes, smaller player numbers, and more developmentally appropriate rules such as “build-out lines” to encourage play from the back, and discouragement of goalkeeper punts. This has made the decision an easy one for all USSF affiliates, and is a home run for youth soccer in the U.S.

Watching my 9-year-old daughter play this weekend with these rules in place was so much better than watching a diminutive goalkeeper last year trying to take a goal kick with a 17-player wall on the top of the penalty area, and the referee constantly restarting the play because she could not kick it out of the box.

+READ: O’Sullivan: The early specialization dilemma in North American soccer

What I do hope happens next is some flexibility and creative thinking, though. Just because it says a U-11 should be playing 9v9 does not mean every U-11 needs to be. I think this is especially relevant with kids on the lower end of the playing spectrum physically and technically. Keep them playing 7v7 with more touches on smaller spaces!

Also, just because the roster says “maximum of 14 players” does not mean you need to fill it! Last year I watched my U-9 daughter and U-8 son playing simultaneous games. The U-8s were playing 5v5, and their roster of 12 was playing two games side by side (two subs total and 200 percent more touches). The U9 girls were playing 8v8, and their six subs sat idly on the sideline awaiting their turn to play.

How much better would it be to have 18 kids on a roster and play two 7v7 games side by side? Your best coach could now train 18 instead of 14 players, and you could have the flexibility of playing an A and B group, mixed group, even moving players around.

Overall, though, this is a hugely positive move by U.S. Soccer, and they deserve an A+ for it!

Calendar-year age groups

The most controversial mandate by U.S. Soccer is the change to birth-year age groups, as opposed to the August 1 through July 31 age groups we currently use. The latter groups were introduced to more closely align with school cutoffs, allowing children to play with their classmates, and have contributed greatly to the growth of the game at the U-12 and under levels (kids want to have fun and play with their friends, according to research).

Tab Ramos. Photo property of U.S. Soccer.US Soccer is changing registration to calendar year to align with the rest of the world. In the words of USSF Youth Technical Director Tab Ramos, “It makes the process easier. Over the years you go through coaching youth soccer and you are constantly finding parents and players confused about what age group players belong in … It also puts our players on the same age-playing calendar as the rest of the world so they will be used to competing in the right age-group. That makes it much easier for us to scout for the national teams and find players ready to compete internationally.”

The birth-year logic certainly makes a boatload of sense in the elite player realm, and from the ages of perhaps U-12 and older. Here we are starting to identify top players on state, regional and national levels, and having them grouped and playing all their soccer with those similar age groups makes perfect sense. Yet the new U.S. Soccer mandate sets these rules for all USSF affiliates down to U-6, which would include all recreational players in AYSO, SAY Soccer, US Club and US Youth Soccer, and this could potentially be a huge mistake.

The overwhelming majority of players in this country are not elite, despite what their team name or league name says. According to Tom Farrey of the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Initiative, nearly 20 percent of all U.S. 6-year-olds play soccer, but by age 12 that is down to 13 percent. As soon as we sign them up, we start losing them, and telling these kids that they cannot play with their classmates any more because they were born in different years seems counterproductive.

“We are not failing at the international level because we have an August 1 cutoff date…We are failing because we are not properly developing these players once we get them.”

Telling them they can “play up” against kids in a different grade makes no sense either. For example, my 8-year-old son is born in late May, meaning he would have to play against kids nearly 18 months older than himself to play with his classmates. This may make sense for some kids; it certainly does not serve the vast majority of children.

Youth soccer in the U.S. competes with so many sports for players. Every other youth sport in the U.S. will allow them to play with and against age-level classmates. What do we think many kids will do, play soccer with kids they don’t know, or play other sports with their friends?

Changing to birth-year at very young ages, I believe, will damage one thing that soccer has done very well in this country, which is to attract vast amounts of youth players. Other countries are envious of our player numbers, especially given all the other sports choices kids have. We are not failing at the international level because we have an August 1 cutoff date. We are not failing because hundreds of our top players have not been identified because we are unsure of their age. We are failing because we are not properly developing these players once we get them.

In order to develop the type of culture that will allow us to compete better internationally, we first need millions upon millions of soccer fans, lifelong players and future coaches. The youngest ages are first and foremost about instilling a LOVE OF THE GAME and intrinsic motivation to keep playing! We need to continue to reduce barriers to play, and make the focus on the needs of the kids at these very young ages. This means (1) having fun (2) playing with their friends (3) learning new things (4) having an exciting time.

To be clear, I completely agree with aligning elite U.S. player development with the rest of the world, at an age where identifying and funneling the top players into the best environment is more appropriate, and the player has some ownership and say in the decision. Until then, it seems counterproductive when it takes them away from their school friends.

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

The argument made by U.S. Soccer – that this helps to combat the “relative age effect” by making organizers more informed – seems weak at best. There will still be a relative age effect; only it will positively affect players born in January through April, instead of August through November. The idea that organizers are unaware of this effect does not seem to be a compelling reason for such a drastic change, as the effect has been well documented and there are very few, if any, club directors I have met who are unaware of this.

Instead, why doesn’t U.S. Soccer use birth-year age groups as a defining line in player development? This could be a huge opportunity. They have been advocating for decades the need to improve the environment for players 12 and under, by taking the emphasis off winning and focusing on technical and tactical development. They are well aware of the overemphasis on results at the youngest ages. Isn’t this an opportunity to draw a line in the sand by essentially saying, “everything your team does prior to age 12 means nothing, because at age 12 we switch to birth years for top level players”?

alexandria-sa1122sw1If we do this, at age 12, there is now a reason for players to move onto a more competitive team, travel more, and devote more time to their game, for the select few players ready to make this jump.

Isn’t this a perfect way to segregate the small amount of kids who are truly pursuing (and capable of pursuing) an elite path, and the vast majority of players that should not be traveling 1,000 miles to play a similar level of competition that exists down the road?

Again, I completely agree that birth-year segregation is the way to go for elite player development for the reasons U.S. Soccer outlines. But by requiring it for all ages, do we not risk alienating our player base? Do we not risk cutting the legs out from under ourselves by reducing the number of players in the game? Are we sacrificing one thing we do very well (attract millions of young players) simply to make it easier to identify the elite few 6-10 years down the line?

Did anyone actually ask any 6- to 10-year-olds who are still experimenting with numerous sports whether they will keep playing soccer if they can no longer play with their classmates? Did anyone ask them what they would do if given a choice between soccer with older/younger grade kids or another sport with classmates? I asked my two kids, and the results were not encouraging for this soccer dad (I have a December and a May birthday in my family).

This switch has all the hallmarks of being a contributing factor to declining sports enrollment: We no longer ask kids what they want. Of all the reasons given for making the small-sided games switch, every reason is child-centric. That’s why I give it an A+.

+READ: Resentment, conspiracy theories simmer as youth soccer bodies push birth-year change

Of all the reasons given for the birth-year switch from age 12 and down, not a single one that I read says anything about how this will make it better for the kids, only for the adult organizers! That’s why I think it is a big, fat F.

So, in conclusion, congrats to U.S. Soccer, and many kudos, for the small sided games mandate that will help grow the game, and make it a more child-friendly experience.

But as far as birth-year age organization goes, I hope U.S. Soccer will look very hard at its mandate, for they clearly state that their purpose is “to make soccer, in all its forms, a preeminent sport in the United States and to continue the development of soccer at all recreational and competitive levels.”

Cramming millions of players into a one-size-fits-all age grouping designed to specifically help in elite player identification does not seem to fit this mission.

How do you think these changes affect the beautiful game in this country? Let’s continue the debate.

By | September 18, 2015 | 116 Comments | Tags: , , , , , ,

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  1. Jack F says:

    I understand your point of view and can relate to the classmate/friends argument, but if the switch is not made across all age groups, our “best” players will continue to be born in August, September, October, and December. This puts US Soccer at a disadvantage when competing on an international stage. Yes, there is a goal to develop technical skills of young kids, but the “older” kids within an age group will have a built in advantage and continue to dominate in the younger ages. When your proposed switch to an elite team occurs at 12, the age skew has already happened. That is, we will continue to foster the development of kids who will be younger and weaker against international teams. Of course, this is just the start, until we place technical development above winning in the young ages, adjusting the birth-year can be considered swatting at gnats while elephants fly by.

    • John says:

      Fantastic comment Jack, see my comment above!

      • shustis says:

        Small Sided Games does deserve an A Rating.

        Calendar Year Grouping for the Recreational Players deserves an F-.Calendar Year Grouping for the Competitive level of play will probably not affect the number of players as these are the kids that play first for the game of soccer. Recreational Players often, yes not always, play for the social connection with friends.

        For Recreational Players in most leagues the age range of teams is Two Years as opposed to Single Year formation of the Competitive Teams. By going to Calendar Year the Recreational Teams will now span Three Grade Levels instead of basically Two Grade Levels. Yes the Teams will continue to span the same Relative Age, but kids connect to each other more by Grade than specific birth year.

        Grouping by Calendar Year for teams that are formed by two age groups we will now have a U12 Team with the younger 7th Graders playing with the older 5th Graders. The classmate of that same 7th Grader with a Birthday in January will be playing with 9th Graders and the younger half of 10th Graders..

        I believe the Calendar Year team formation will have the older Recreational players quit earlier than they do now. 7th Graders are just not going to engage with 5th Graders in what they often consider a social active more than a sport development activity. If you have ever coached a Recreational U12 and U14 group of girls you will find that the social aspect seems much more important than the actual soccer. Engaging with kids Two Years below your grade is generally considered “uncool”.

        I have discussed this with many of the decision makers at US Soccer and all the reasons for Calendar Year Grouping is focused on Elite International Players. There is no consideration for the Recreational social aspect of players. I would guess that the highest continued playing Soccer expectation for these Recreational kids might be to play on their College Dorm Intramural Team and some Adult Leagues. This would be a great goal for the majority of the players that come through Youth Soccer.

    • AlienVisitor says:

      > but if the switch is not made across all age groups, our “best” players will continue to be born in August, September, October, and December.

      This made the problem worse because the Jan, Feb, Mar kids are now in a higher grade then the Oct, Nov, Dec kids. And if you don’t think that matters you need to spend time watching kids in elementary school. The higher grade kids are more focused, attentive, dedicated. Because they are taught that way in school. They’ll compete with and against kids that age all week long in school, not just soccer.

      All this does is make the issue you bring up, worse.

      • Jack F says:

        Correct – the switch must occur across all age groups for this to work.

        • AlienVisitor says:

          The problem is this change exacerbates the existing problem of “younger” kids in an age group competing against “older” kids in an age group.
          All for the benefit of a few hundred kids playing at an intentional level we’re going to take millions of kids and make them play across grade levels, up and down.
          You know what’s not a great way to get kids interested in the sport? Make them play against kids 9-11 months older then them that are also a grade level up.
          This change does not work at the lower age range. The difference between a Jan 2007 3rd grader and a Nov 2007 2nd grader is huge. Much more so than the Sep 2007 second grader and June 2008 second grader.

    • nerdknobs says:

      How is this relevant to youth soccer at the hometown / recreational level ?

      I find it hard to follow the logic, that aligning 6, 7 ,8 9 year olds against a calendar year age bracket, somehow solves an international problem .

      It sure doesn’t solve any logistics problems for the parents.

      If you make it harder for the parents, no matter how much the kids “play up” you will see people leaving youth soccer at the U5-6-7 ages in droves.

      Try getting a kid developed starting in 7th or 8th grade. see how that works out for your beloved “international” teams.

  2. Mike Wukitsch says:

    My issue with going to calendar year is with “blowing up” teams that have already been playing together for years. These kids are more than teammates, they are best friends, confidants, peer helpers, counselors and more. 99.99% of these kids are not going to be playing for a national team and more than 90% won’t even play for their club’s “Elite” or “Premier” teams. Why are we changing the entire system for US Soccer to be able to find one or two extra players per state? Seems like overkill to me.

    • Kim says:

      Mike-Exactly. Birth-year makes sense for elite players, as John states in his article, but why disrupt everyone when it’s the 0.01% that benefits…makes no sense.

    • Johnathan Archibald says:

      But there is a chance for any kid to play in an international event no matter the age or skill level if the parents want to seek it out. A club close to us plans a trip to Europe every year for the u15s their. Can’t imagine the logistics to conform to their age groups but I’m sure it is an experience of a lifetime for all those kiddos.

  3. Ryan J. Shultz says:

    Well-written. Unfortunately, this is a mandate and not a discussion. This was a bad move for soccer in the US.

    • Kim says:

      Ryan- mandates can be overturned. Little League got so much grief from grassroots efforts that they are now phasing school-year back in for registration.

  4. Mark Leasure says:

    I’m torn on the whole age thing. My son currently is playing u13 for his cup team, even though he is technically a u12. He earned his spot and has been playing up since he was 8. He is also a November birthday and while or club highly encouraged us to keep him down, he really didn’t want to. He plays at the level of his team and when they are not up to his level he feels there is no challenge. I am a proud parent to hear an 11yo want to be challenged. Physically he is bigger than most of his teammates. Everyone’s logic was that once he hit u15he wouldn’t have ateam in the fall. Part off me is fine with that because I don’t want him burning out. Sometimes kids need the break. He will still have his middle school team. So he will still be playing. He honestly doesn’t get much joy of playing with kids his age or his classmates. He just doesn’t fit well that way like most do. So I’m not to concerned how it’s gonna hit him just yet. It will still keep 2/3 of our cup team together and he keeps his coach. I do agree that anything below where we are should be by school grade in the old way, , not the new way. Not everyone is like my son. Just make it from u12 and up.

  5. Kim says:

    I think that some people are missing the point. Yes, kids do adjust, that’s not what is being questioned here. John is talking about barriers to young kids entering into soccer…. I live in Northern VA where there is a lot of youth soccer and John is right… when young kids are thinking about what sport to play, it is being coordinated with their friends (who are typically classmates)…. Additionally, why is it necessary to make this birth-year change at such low age groups as U6-U12? What administrators, coaches and managers nationwide are scouting for a U6 player? NONE. John is right, the birth-year mandate is nothing but an obstacle to getting more kids at young ages to join in soccer, remain in soccer and instill a love of the game.

  6. richpeople says:

    Kids at that age make friends pretty fast. They’re going to acclimate quickly and it will only have a negative effect on those kids who are currently 6-12 and suddenly are in with different kids. Not future generations.

  7. Shaun says:

    The age group change only makes sense of we switch the seasonal year from Fall Spring to Spring Fall. It would mean holding tryouts later in the year around November but then teams would be ready and formed by Jan for the Spring leagues and tournaments starting March. If the seasonal year stays as it is today and tryouts are still in June or July then one season a rostered team will be U12 and the next season U13. This means rosters will need to add players mid seasonal year.

    • Johnathan Archibald says:

      Yup they could actually start Justin saying the 2017 season instead of 2016/2017 season.

    • Chris says:

      I completely agree with this! My son’s birthday isn’t until mid November and is 9 years old and currently plays in U-9. Next year he will be forced to miss U-10 and go straight to U-11. With the season ending in May, he will never be 11 years old when playing as U-11. In fact he won’t turn 11 until almost 6 months after the U-11 season ends. This is strictly because the start and end of the season won’t be aligned with the start of the calendar year.
      Such a bad change for youth soccer!

  8. mike_in_nc says:

    Honestly don’t think the age chance is that big a deal. So many leagues span multiple schools anyway – it’s rare you have a team of ‘classmates’ It’ll certainly be an adjustment – but in the long run so much easier for league administrators and coaches and managers nationwide. A few years after this is implemented the kids won’t know the difference. They just want to play soccer.

    • Mad says:

      What is “so much easier for league administration”? Whi cares what is easier for them. What kind of cognitively impaired people are running US soccer. They’ll probably want a pay raise too after its made so much easier for them. They are screwing over a huge population of kids who will literally have no team next year. 13 year old boys (5 of them) from our team will have no team next year…you are so right…they just want to play and now they cannot!

  9. Courtney Black says:

    Little League is converting to calendar year from season age (May 1 cutoff). Hockey is calendar year. It is perhaps overstated that soccer will have a calendar year age disadvantage competing with other sports. And besides, youth leagues have never gotten the group by school thing done very well so the classmate issue might not be as big an issue as you might have initially thought.
    Regardless, thanks for leading the charge on youth sports reform.

    • AztecAlum says:

      Little League actually just modified to an August 31st cut off (since their season ends before then) instead of a calendar year cut off that was initially proposed. This won’t get in to effect until the 2018 season though.

    • disqus_ZvQf196GvK says:

      The problems with RAE in Canadian youth hockey is well documented.

  10. Kim says:

    John- TERRIFIC article! You sum it up perfectly here: “Of all the reasons given for the birth-year switch from age 12 and down, not a single one that I read says anything about how this will make it better for the kids, only for the adult organizers! That’s why I think it is a big, fat F.” Many parents have been voicing this very concern as soon as the birth-year mandate was announced and it is assuring to have someone as well-respected as yourself in the realm of youth soccer to bring these concerns into the open. The birth-year mandate also leaves kids with Aug-Dec birth dates without teams in the transition years of 8th and 12th grade…this is 41.5% of kids playing and it will be an issue each and every year for these age groups (and USSF gives no solution/suggestions to this problem whatsoever). I bring this up because it’s yet another reason the birth-year mandate is not better for the kids and as John states, shouldn’t that who it should be about?

    • Jamerican Gal says:

      Exactly my son has been playing with the same team for three years he’s an 03 his teammates are 02 he refuses to play with the younger 03s because they are behind him in development so say he stays with his 02s he’s fine but if he has to play down what happens when he’s in 9th grade and his teammates are 8th graders? Or when he graduates can he still play with them even though he’d be a college freshman? It makes no sense.

    • Johnathan Archibald says:

      My boy is a July 23rd birthdate so a couple years from now he won’t have a team to play for in fall. Too young for high school sports and too old for club ball in fall at that point. Will actually make it easier for kids on school cutoffs to just play year round.

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