Some of the initiatives U.S. Soccer has rolled out over the last 10 years are well-researched and sensible.
Restrictions on heading the ball are simply a safety issue, and coaches should be able to adapt to teach proper technique and judging the flight of the ball. (Or, just as a wild notion, maybe playing the ball out of the back instead of blasting it 70 yards up the field and yelling “win it!” to a tall person.) Small-sided games are globally accepted as a better idea than tossing a bunch of first-graders into an 11v11 game.
Other initiatives are worth discussing. The new coaching education system is an improvement in many ways but could use a few tweaks, most of which shouldn’t be decided by one person’s experience.
Then you have The Dumbest, Most Wrong-Headed Thing U.S. Soccer Has Done To The Youth Game And There’s Really No Debating It.
That would be the mandate on birth-year age groups.
U.S. Soccer can say, with some justification, that we don’t have hard data linking birth-year mandate to the stagnant-to-declining youth soccer participation numbers. (Note to Soccer America commenters: Gripe about the methodology of the study all you want, and it’s a good point that Spanish-speaking communities may not have been adequately represented, but it’s awfully difficult to see those numbers and come up with a way that youth soccer participation is increaing.) Fine. But at some point, it’s a bit like eating three party-sized bags of potato chips each day and pointing out that we don’t know the heart attack we just had was directly the result of eating all those chips. Sure, there may be other factors, but we have plenty of evidence to show this was not good.
Maybe the evidence is anecdotal. But it’s an awful lot of anecdotes. In my case, it’s every parent with whom I’ve talked. Every coach. Every administrator who is not directly employed by U.S. Soccer.
Conversely, no one has made the case for extending the birth-year mandates from the Development Academy and ODP all the way down to U-Little soccer. No one has explained why a child’s first experience with soccer has to be, “Oh, sorry, you can’t play with your kindergarten classmates because you were born in November and they were born in February.” We may hear coaches were confused because some players in a U17 scrimmage were born in one year and some in another, but they don’t seem to realize some gifted players may be playing up anyway, and they don’t understand how confusing it is for parents and club registrars to deal with this stuff on a grassroots level. I don’t mean to impose, coach, but if you can’t take a few seconds to ask whether that player you’re scouting is a 2002 or 2003, your time management skills suck.
In fact, U.S. Soccer has tried to avoid saying such things with a lot of corporate-speak. “We’re not saying you can’t have a kindergarten league, but you can’t have a kindergarten league.” That sort of thing. Initially, at least one club was able to clarify that its rec league could continue on school-year age groups. Another admin told me otherwise but agreed that U.S. Soccer wasn’t going to send the police or even kick that club’s top teams out of the Development Academy.
It’s telling that AYSO, the mostly recreational organization, felt compelled to go along with the mandate. (Don’t tell anyone, but some clubs’ “House” leagues do not. Shhhh.)
United Soccer Coaches’ Lynn Berling-Manuel, formerly of AYSO and Soccer America, points a finger at U.S. Soccer in yet another can’t-miss Soccer America interview. Here’s the key paragraph:
Let’s reframe the conversation from player development to cultural development. We’d like to redefine “preeminent” in the U.S. Soccer mission statement “to make soccer the preeminent sport in the United States” to: ensure that every player falls in love with soccer. And that “fun” is defined by a player at any age or level saying, “I want to do it again.”
If we have a better soccer culture — one of the goals of everything from soccer field-building to promotion/relegation — does anyone doubt we’ll end up with better players?
U.S. Soccer can’t simply flip a switch and repeal the birth-year mandate. They’ve asked thousands of teams to reconfigure once already. No point in making them do it again.
Here’s what USSF can do:
Make a distinction between elite leagues and everything else, and let the elite leagues stay on birth-year groups.
The Development Academy and ECNL will be “elite.” Leagues that feed into U.S. Youth Soccer national championships — most likely just the top divisions — will be “elite.” (Leagues that feed into U.S. Club Soccer national … look, U.S. Club Soccer shouldn’t be running “national championships” aside from ECNL in the first place, but that’s another rant.)
These leagues start at U12 (probably should be U14, but that’s also another rant) and attract players who have advanced well past the introductory phase of the game. They have to get through intense tryouts to make it this far, and playing with friends isn’t the priority here.
Other travel leagues and recreational leagues can start phasing out the birth-year groups at will.
This process won’t really take that long. The reason we’re not making an immediate transition is because we don’t want to break up teams — again. But under the birth-year groups, you have to break up teams when they hit high school or college anyway. A team might have half its players taking a season off to play high school soccer, and then you have to reconfigure anyway.
So maybe next fall, if we’re talking about a league that starts travel at U9, have birth-year groups at U16 and U17. (U19 is often combined U18-U19 anyway — frankly, there’s no reason to have U18 at all.) Let U15 go back to school-year (or Aug. 1 or whatever makes sense). Have birth-year at lower age groups where you’re trying to keep teams together.
Clarify, once and for all, that recreational leagues never had to be on birth-year in the first place.
Again, a few of them weren’t. AYSO should’ve simply said they’re not going to do it. They can go back to school-year or other age groups immediately — they bust up teams every season already. (Which they shouldn’t, but that, too, is another rant. Actually, I recently ranted about this and some of the other “another rants” above.)
So if you run a rec league for middle schoolers, great. Kindergartners? Great. High schoolers? Great. (Tons of players don’t make their high school teams, so a rec league can keep them involved.)
One question some of you surely have by now: Why do we care so much about “teams”? Aren’t we all club-centric by now? Shouldn’t we want kids to move up and down between teams?
A lot of clubs say they’re club-centric and will move players from B-team to A-team from week to week. How many actually do it?
And that’s OK — to an extent. Ideally, a club would have the following in each age group:
- An A-team in an elite league with a fluid roster, calling players up from lower teams as needed.
- Several teams in other leagues and lower divisions. (As argued in the last rant, the pyramid should ultimately reach down to rec teams as well.)
- A no-commitment free-play option. And maybe some of these players can fill in on the other teams.
If a player moves on to a DA, ECNL or other elite team permanently, so be it. We certainly don’t want to slam that door. Everyone else should be allowed to play with friends at convenient practice fields — as they will when they play college intramurals and adult amateur soccer.
And then we’ll build that soccer culture, which is quite clearly about something more than forcing kids into a soccer-development machine at age 4.