Repealing the birth-year mandate and other obvious moves

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:

  1. An A-team in an elite league with a fluid roster, calling players up from lower teams as needed.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.


10 thoughts on “Repealing the birth-year mandate and other obvious moves

  1. Sorry, I just don’t get your premise on birth year? The school year method also had problems. And frequently caused players to compete against older larger, more mature players? It produced many uneven (some would say unfair) situations I do not see how birth year grouping discourages anyone from playing. I think you’re off base here


    1. I don’t quite follow the issue with older, more mature players. Whether it’s birth year or school year, we’re talking about a 12-month year.

      The issue is that it takes kids away from their classmates and friends. If it’s a U16 elite team in which players are united by elite status rather than school ties, fine. But why impose it on a bunch of kindergarten kids? Or a team of ninth-graders who aren’t in that top five percent of players?


  2. Bill – As an example: My rec team of rising 3rd graders is now playing U-10. Most will turn 9 at some point in 2019, but some will not turn 9 until some point in the first half of 2020. The latter group of kids is, in some cases, playing against kids that turn 9 at the beginning of 2019 i.e. more than 12 months older than they are. They are effectively playing up instead of playing U9 – not because any of them are really physically and technically ready to do so, but because the whole point of being on the team was playing with their friends from school. So they typically are grossly overmatched in size, speed, strength and/or in expertise. There will always be a relative age effect, but using Birth Year instead of School Year exacerbates it if kids decide to play up to play with their friends. “Just have them play U9” is an obvious answer, but impractical because 1) I don’t have time to coach 3 teams (I also coach my younger son’s U8 team) and no other parents are capable/available, and 2) more importantly: if they could not play with their friends, most would probably quit within 1-2 seasons. So it’s either be over-matched and risk losing interest or play without their friends and risk losing interest. All this while the obvious answer that Beau presents – just go Birth Year at a certain elite level, where making it easier for elite-level coaches is an understandable goal – was there for the enacting. Of all the ways in which soccer here differs from FIFA guidelines, was this the right one to tackle first? Or at all? Virtually all signs point to no…and a summer indoor league nearby us that thumbed its nose at these rules and uses school year was just the boys’ favorite season yet – we will finish just over .500 but every game was competitive and age-appropriate for all the players in a way that has them eager for more. That’s the kind of fervor that we need to cultivate as much as we can. The Birth Year mandate, handed top-down by US Soccer for the benefit of top-level coaches at the expense of kids and parents across the bottom of the pyramid, was a one-size-fits-all solution that will ultimately hurt the game in this country more than help it, thus the plaintive howls from so many parties to US Soccer to at least modify it to what it should have been all along.


  3. I feel your comments are well reasoned and make a lot of sense. For 99.99 % of players, the Aug or Sept division is needed to get kids playing and staying in soccer. If they can’t play with their friends they lose interest. I can concede the highly gifted on the elite level playing birth year but they were likely to play up anyway. I agree with most of the changes made included coach education and small sided for younger ages, but the change to birth year for most players is not in the kids or soccers interest. Soccer has come a long way in the US over the past 10 years due in my opinion to the fact so many kids played the game and became fans. If the present generation is not playing, the interest will decline.


  4. I agree, I have volunteered in a very large soccer program that’s been established and around for a long time. The age group change a few years ago eliminated about 30% of our participants. Mostly mid-level to low level players but isn’t the sport for everyone. Who’s gonna be fans of the sport and sitting at MLS games 10 years from now? Only the elite level players and their kids? The league will get financially crushed. Nothing has slowed down or hurt the growth of our sport more than the age group change. If I’m an owner of a professional team in this country I should be very worried about the future economics of Soccer or country. People will argue that our participation numbers are still growing but I bet it is skewed by parts of our country that are still growing. Like I said my program is very large and very successful and has been around for a long time and nothing has hurt our participation like the age group change.


  5. if they are going to change this than just do it now while we have time to redo things. also participation is one thing but the trap year problem is even worse . at least with the school trap year issue it is a problem that is caused by parents choosing to start their kids late in school.


    1. My issue with the current birth year mandate is for 4th quarter players; when they reach the college showcase ages, they aren’t getting a fair comparison with their actual graduating class as the majority are one grade ahead. So, I would argue that even the elite teams should be grouped by their year of graduation.


  6. Trapped players are forced to play on a U18/U19 composite team for both their junior and senior years when they should be at their peak for college recruiting. Composite teams have 50% more players because they consist of the entire U18 players and half of the U19 players who haven’t graduated from high school yet. More players for the same positions. Additionally, some showcases don’t even have a bracket for U18/U19 composite teams; further affecting their recruiting opportunities. This system does not provide equal opportunity for those players born in the fall.


    1. Oh, and by the way, almost all players will be forced to play on a composite team their senior year. Again, 50% more players on the team. More players, same positions, potentially less playing time.


  7. Couldn’t agree more with the article. US Soccer’s decision to switch completely ignored the social aspect of player engagement and retention. Worse, it failed to recognize that in the US, most kids are still playing soccer for their middle and/or high schools, and some go on to play at college. It’s unarguable that school sports (of all types) are the pinnacle of most players career arcs.

    Thus, the switch created a bifurcated system where not only does it continue to flip back and forth throughout the year (from club to school), but it arguably gives some transition-year players an advantage of working with and being seen by high school coaches (during the club months), while other, younger birth month players get left out. On the flip side of that coin, those “trapped” Sep-Dec birth month players get ostracized by the upper-classmen in their birth year group to whom they get forced up to play with. However, those same upperclassmen born Jan-Aug feel entitled to continue playing with their older grade-level peers during the club season and act as if playing in their proper age group is a relegation. Needless to say, the politics of it are awful and are having a devastating effect on the players and clubs.

    Bottom line, it needs to return to school year cutoff immediately. Phase it in, do whatever needs to be done so it’s orderly and doesn’t screw over the older kids any more than they already have been.

    That said, most parents don’t realize this is the root of so many problems. Communicating it to them goes a lot way toward understanding, but still doesn’t solve the social aspect of the problem. I’d like more information as to how to organize parents and clubs to apply pressure in the right places to get this reverted. And I’m dead serious. Let’s get this fixed.


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