A couple of years ago, I wrote a Recreational Soccer Manifesto for SoccerWire. At the time, I was focused more on the younger age groups, having just written Single-Digit Soccer, and I was pushing the idea of having no full-time travel soccer (just All-Star tournaments and other interclub matchups) for kids under age 12.
But I did have a few ideas for older age groups, even though I had not yet coached there. Now I’m in my third year of coaching at the U14 (middle school) level, and I’m now coaching at the U16/U19 level (don’t ask — it’s a long story).
And I’ve found that I was right. Somewhat. I’ve learned a few things that have made me want to revise and expand the Manifesto.
One thing I’ve learned that I had not taken into account: You’re simply not going to be able to keep everyone. I have some ideas for giving all high schoolers an opportunity to play without being totally overwhelmed by all the players dropping back to rec soccer after several years of travel, but even then, high school kids tend to explore new activities and/or shift their focus to the activities at which they’re really good. The kids playing multiple sports may choose one. They may choose to run cross-country and march in the band instead. We have to be OK with that.
(Losing kids before age 12 is a different story. When that happens, it usually means the soccer community messed up.)
I’m also seeing in even more vivid detail just how counterproductive it is to have all these different leagues stuck in silos rather than a pyramid. In my area, kids from U11 on up have these choices:
- The Development Academy, which is taking more and more kids at the younger age groups.
- ECNL, which is fighting back against the DA. We can talk about that some other time.
- EDP, which has taken over U.S. Soccer’s regional leagues in the region and offers a lot of tiers for teams to find a competitive level.
- Club Champions League, a self-appointed elite league with club vs. club scheduling that seems less relevant now that we have three leagues at a higher level.
- Virginia Premier League, a U.S. Club Soccer league that also does club vs. club scheduling and is at a lower level (with even less parity) than CCL.
- NCSL, the traditional local promotion/relegation league that still has a handful of good teams and reaches downward to include teams that are demonstrably worse than a lot of “rec” teams.
- ODSL, which some clubs consider “travel” and some consider “rec.” It’s supposedly a lower level, but after reffing a fantastic U13 game punctuated by a legit bicycle-kick goal, I’m not sure I’d agree.
- Suburban Friendship League, the interclub “rec” league that has a few teams that would clobber the “travel” teams.
- Local clubs’ rec leagues.
With so many artificial divisions, is it any wonder these leagues and clubs fail to offer the wide range of programs and competitive levels players and parents want? Several of these leagues try to have multiple tiers, but they don’t have teams to do it.
And these leagues end up imbalanced. Your local rec league may have some juggernauts, with players who’ve stuck together for a few seasons while doing all sorts of extra work. Can we let these friends stay together while giving them a challenge other than destroying the less serious rec teams? Why can’t they play the low-level travel teams who aren’t any better?
So the basic points of my previous manifesto still seem OK to me. But I think I can distill things down to a couple of simple points:
DA/ECNL: With some hesitation, I’ll exempt the DA and ECNL from what I’m suggesting below. They should merge, of course, with a simple compromise — the ECNL accepts the DA’s limits on the number of games each team plays in a weekend or a week, while the DA gets over itself and lets kids play in high school if they choose. That should give them enough teams for two tiers, and at the pivotal age of U16, they could have a truly national league. (After U16, players that are ready to go pro move into the USL or straight to MLS, while everyone else travels less so they can hit the books and get ready for college.)
As for everyone else …
One pyramid in each region: One. The top level would play throughout the region, though we’ll still try to keep travel reasonable — usually 1-2 states, or half a state in California’s case. The farther down the pyramid you go, the wider the base. (In other words, an actual pyramid. Not a ladder.) Professionally coached teams with committed players who practice 2-3 times a week and don’t mind a bit of driving will end up in the upper tiers. Teams we would now call “recreational” will be at the bottom — if they prove to be a bit better than their peers, they can move up a tier or two. Any team can decline a promotion to a level that would require too much travel. (Within reason — if a team is beating everyone 10-0 in Division 9, they should move up to Division 8 or disperse their players.)
Guest players/available subs: In my adult league, we had a roster of full-time players that was big enough to field a team if everyone showed up. They all paid full freight, and so they had first right of refusal for each game. If a few players were absent, we could call on a list of players who hadn’t committed to the team but would be willing to play on occasion. (I’ll draw once again on the curling example — a curling team usually has four players but can go with three or possibly five — so my local club lets teams call in subs who pay a small fee for each game they play.)
Free play, free play, free play: Some kids simply aren’t going to be able to commit to any team, no matter how low the commitment might be. You can still keep them playing on occasion and give your full-time players a fun break from their league schedules by having free-play days.
You could also offer a change of pace for everyone with small-sided tournaments (tiered) open to all.
Speaking of tournaments:
Set up any tournament you like: In the example above, CCL and VPL could reinvent themselves as organizations that offer club-vs.-club tournaments.
The bottom line is this: Offer a wide variety of clearly labeled programs. Parents have no patience for this alphabet soup. What I’ve outlined above is far simpler and friendlier than the dystopian mess of leagues I listed above that.
Clubs may argue that they’re moving from the “team-centric” model to the “player-centric” or “club-centric” model. You’re not fooling anyone. You might move the occasional player up to fill in on the top team, and the DA has provisions for part-time players who can be called up (and there’s no reason to discontinue that practice). But for the most part, you’re handing parents a schedule at the beginning of the season, and they’re scheduling everything else around those games. You’re not going back and saying, “Hey, let’s bump Maddie down to the C team this week. Game time is 8 a.m. Sunday in Farsburg. See you there.”
In any case, we’ll let clubs continue what little internal movement they have with the “guest player” provisions. Your Division 3 team can call up a Division 6 player if needed. But players and parents at most levels of soccer identify with a particular set of teammates. You can’t change that, nor should you.
So we’ll accomplish the following:
- We’ll make this more fun for everyone.
- We’ll make this less confusing.
- We’ll encourage more players to stay in the game.
And we’ll even provide that elusive “pathway” for all. Maybe a kid comes out to one of your free play sessions, decides to join your Division 10 team and catches on to the game. In a couple of years, that kid is in Division 3 helping you win a State Cup and going on to play in college. Stranger things have happened.
For the other 99 percent, youth soccer will be something other than a major annoyance. And that’ll be progress.