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Global Apr 04, 2014

Colorado still playing catch-up despite limited adoption of 8v8

As United States youth soccer continues to improve in developing players, state associations are left with a dilemma: Should younger ages be played as small-sided games or as a standard 11v11? In Colorado, the plan is to do both.

Studies have shown the benefits of decreasing the amount of players on the field at younger ages. Director of Coaching for the Colorado Soccer Association Mike Freitag is in favor of a plan for 8v8 matches.

“Personally, I don’t want to speak for the state association, but as the Director of Coaching I’d like to see smaller sided games,” he told Soccerwire.com.

Although Freitag is firmly in the small-sided games camp, Colorado isn’t mandating to play that way at younger age groups. After discussions with clubs over the last few years, there were indications that some clubs were adamantly in favor of switching to 8v8, while other clubs were not. The association has since decided to offer up both options at the Under-11 age group.

“A lot of the research or recommendations from experts around the world and in the US say go to 8v8 and some of our clubs believe in that methodology and wanted it so that’s why we’re offering it to them,” Freitag continued.

“Personally I’m a believer that smaller numbers would be more beneficial, but a lot of our clubs like the 11v11 format so that’s why we’re offering it that way as well.”

With the small-sided games now at least an option, it could be the catalyst for more change in developing youth soccer players in Colorado. Freitag eventually would like to see even more use of that philosophy.

“I’m hoping this step to offer 8v8 at U11 regional will maybe be that first step to going even further,” he said.

According to FIFA, there are plenty of reason to incorporate small-sided games. Some of the benefits range from players getting more playing time, more touches on the ball and developing an understanding of the game more quickly.

Ideally, the United States Soccer Federation would step in to mandate how the game should be played in the younger age brackets. However, Freitag doesn’t believe anything other than recommendations will come down from the USSF.

Without any specific mandates, that has led Colorado as well as other state associations to cater to both methodologies. Difficult challenges remain to get the clubs that wish to remain at 11v11 playing smaller sided games. The Colorado Soccer Association wants to avoid what took place in Oregon, where it was mandated to play small-sided matches.

“Several years ago they mandated a change for smaller sided and the state association of Oregon youth soccer lost a bunch of members that went to another organization,” said Freitag.

Initially the Oregon Youth Soccer Association attempted the change around 2007-2008. Several clubs, particularly in the Portland area jettisoned from the OYSA in order to continue on with 11v11.

“Oregon youth soccer first tried to do small-sided games and a section of clubs broke off from the state association and went to US Club Soccer to do their own thing,” OYSA technical director John Madding told SoccerWire.com recently.

Although Madding wasn’t involved with Oregon youth soccer at the time, the reason for the spilt was mainly that the benefits were yet to be seen.

“What I’ve heard is that there wasn’t the belief that small-sided games was best for the players developmentally. I think now there is a lot more evidence and research that has been put into it and a lot of state associations have made the change,” he said.

Now with state associations around the country changing their attitudes, the benefits are more readily seen throughout the country. In fact, many of the clubs that left the OYSA have since returned.

“Now a vast majority of those clubs have come back to our association and are supportive of small-sided games,” Madding said. Other than Oregon Crossfire, FC Portland and Tualatin Hills United all of the significant clubs in the area have re-joined the state association and have been welcomed back with open arms.

“Absolutely, we’ve never been exclusionary. It’s always been about inclusion for us and reuniting the state. The Portland Timbers have been instrumental in helping us leverage our relationship with them to bring some of these clubs back,” he said.

Madding, who was the technical director in New Mexico previously, helped implement the changes to small-sided games before moving to Oregon. Now, OYSA will tweak its small-sided format in the coming years. At the U-11 age group, games will be moved to 9v9 beginning this fall. The following year change will be forthcoming to have the U-12 age group drop down to 9v9 as well.

“I think if we would have pushed it this year at 11 and 12 for 14, we would have seen a lot more resistance. We would have been taking kids that are playing 11v11 at U-11 and then dropping them down to 9v9.

“I think the decision to grandfather it in people understand and appreciate,” he said.

In other areas of the country, there is precedent for associations offering both ways of playing and eventually seeing more flock towards the small-sided mentality.

“I know Virginia did it some years ago and the trend that happened there was most people went to 8v8 in time and I’m hoping the same will happen here in Colorado,” said Freitag.

However, the use of offering both ways of play were due to a transition year noted Virginia Youth Soccer Association technical director Gordon Miller.

“We offered both in Virginia, I think it was 2006-2007, we transitioned to 8v8 in the 2008-2009 season so we wanted them to go to the smaller sided game, but during the transition period we offered both, but then during 2008-09, we just dropped 11v11 in State Cup for U-12 and went straight to 8v8,” said Miller.

Although the Colorado Soccer Association will allow different mindsets, that has proposed problems as well. Getting players on the appropriate sized field is still a concern.

Freitag explained, “A proportional field is good for both of them. 11v11 we have to address the field size more than the 8v8s. As we get into it they will have field sizes recommended to them. A lot of the these 11v11 games are played on fields too big for them and that’s something we are also trying to address and get recommendations for.

“My own personal opinion is [that 11v11 is] lesser of a developmental environment, but at least if we can make the field dimensions correct it would be great.”

Without going as far as mandating small-sided games, the next best thing is to educate the association’s members.

“I’ll continue to put information out there on the benefits of smaller sided games, the same information that’s out there around the world and I’m hoping some clubs will follow the player development trends for smaller sided games,” said Freitag.

Not only will Freitag need to help educate the state association’s clubs, it may very well have to spend just as much time educating parents. Both Madding and Miller experienced critical parents as they changed the game at younger age groups to small-sided games.

“We got a little pushback from the parents that said it wasn’t the real game, but after we went through it for a year then it was an accepted norm and anybody who wanted to get involved with State Cup at U-12 knew that the format was 8v8,” said Miller on the changes in Virginia.

For Madding, he hasn’t seen noise murmuring from parents about the changes in Oregon. However, he echoed Miller’s sentiments about his time in New Mexico.

“I haven’t seen it as much here, I saw it a lot when I was in New Mexico where it was ‘that’s not what they’re doing in Europe’ or ‘that’s not what we’re watching on TV’ and the funny thing is with all of the research we’ve done and everyone’s done it IS what they do in Europe,” he said. “It might not be the same numbers you see on TV, but it is the same game.”

Although some parents may feel anything other than 11v11 is incorrect or isn’t a “real” soccer game, Miller noted, “The real game is what’s in the best interest of their kids.”

Therein line still lies the problem that the Colorado Soccer Association now faces. The benefits of small-sided games continues to be proven in the US and around the world. However, it may be human nature that is keeping Colorado from moving in line with many state associations around the country.

“Change is hard for people, there are obstacles out there that can be overcome, but a lot of times they don’t want to overcome them and it’s just ‘lets keep it the way we have it’,” said Freitag.

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