I’ve been covering youth soccer issues for many years, even before I became a Soccer Dad. Even before I was Ranting.
A few issues that have come up and probably will come up again …
In the beginning (1913), there was U.S. Soccer. The national federation is recognized by international soccer body FIFA (yes, the name of the video game) as the rightful Sender of National Teams to the World Cup and the Group That Governs All Soccer We Care About. It’s also recognized as The Officially Official Overseers of Soccer in the USA by the U.S. Olympic Committee by the power vested in it by the Stevens Act in 1978.
Decades after U.S. Soccer was formed, youth groups started to organize — first, recreational groups AYSO (1964) and SAY (1967), then U.S. Youth Soccer in 1974. But there was a boys’ Under-19 championship dating back to 1935 and named after James P. McGuire since 1975. For the last 40 years, U.S. Youth Soccer has been ubiquitous — your state association is part of it.
In 2001, US Club Soccer split away (sort of) from U.S. Youth Soccer and earned U.S. Soccer national affiliate status, citing issues with roster and travel restrictions. From the Soccer America piece about that, quoting then-CEO Bill Sage:
“US Club Soccer was born of a sense from many club programs that the 55 state soccer associations have different constituencies,” Sage says. “Their main interest is recreational soccer, which hampers their ability to develop players and move forward.”
That’s debatable, and things have been a little tense at times between Youth and Club, with the occasional grievance being filed.
In 2007, U.S. Soccer joined the fray. That’s odd, because U.S. Soccer is also the umbrella organization.
As a parent, why should I care? Two reasons:
- Your local club may claim a bunch of “national championships” that have become nearly as diluted as boxing championships. (See “TROPHIES!” below.)
- If you have a local turf war between leagues, you’ll often (but not always) find one is affiliated with Youth and the other is with Club.
If you’re not affected by either of those, you can generally ignore the turf wars, and you may be happy to know that these groups come together on things like …
THE AGE-GROUP AND NATIONAL MANDATES KERFUFFLE
U.S. Soccer has long had a laissez-faire attitude toward youth soccer. That changed with the Development Academy (again, see “TROPHIES!”) in 2007. Then they got quite serious with a series of mandates. One, the 2015 legislation on heading, was folded into the resolution of a lawsuit, so people can grumble but can’t organize against it. Others mandated small-sided games (4v4, 7v7, 9v9) at younger age groups, which most youth groups were doing already. (Concurrent rules on field sizes were a little unrealistic at first. You can’t just tell your local schools and parks to reconfigure all their fields because U.S. Soccer said so.)
The most controversial was changing the age groups. Players used to be placed in age groups based on an Aug. 1 cutoff. The school cutoff is typically sometime in August or September, so it was no problem to “play up” a month or two and play with your classmates, which is important to families in rec soccer, low-level travel soccer and even higher-level travel soccer. A lot of professionals today speak fondly of their tight-knit youth teams, so it’s quite aggravating when arrogant coaches and administrators say such things don’t matter.
U.S. Soccer said we needed to switch to birth-year groups to match what’s done internationally. (In that link, I offer one of several counterproposals.) Never mind the fact that it’s not unanimous internationally. Or the fact that a kid playing rec league soccer at age 14 probably isn’t going to be in the Under-17 or Under-20 world championships. And the idea was so badly coordinated that the Development Academy spent a year with its kids on a different “birth year” than the rest of U.S. Soccer.
Some rec leagues actually don’t follow that “mandate,” and U.S. Soccer is probably smart enough not to levy any punishment on, say, a middle-school league. But it messed up a lot of travel teams. Imagine you have a team that’s half high school seniors and half juniors. In June, half of them graduate, leaving the rest of the team stranded. Or a team of eighth- and ninth-graders in which some of the ninth-graders take a season off to play for high school teams.
The heavy-handed mandates became a rallying cry in the 2018 U.S. Soccer presidential election, and it brought all the different groups — including a fifth, the multisport U.S. Specialty Sports Association (USSSA), and Major League Soccer and U.S. Futsal — together to form the Youth Council Technical Working Group.
It’s probably too late to turn back the rules on birth-year groups, at least at the older age groups. We’ve split existing teams once. We shouldn’t do it again. But we might be able to get U.S. Soccer to stipulate that it only applies to travel leagues from, say, U12 on up.
And plenty of people in the soccer community, from parents to state associations, have served notice to U.S. Soccer that such mandates need more input from elsewhere.
WE’RE BAD … WE’RE NATIONWIDE
Can U.S. Soccer even fix everything from a central location? In 2011, they unveiled a curriculum to try to get all coaches on the same page. It has quietly disappeared, and a lot of coaches don’t think we should be trying to run the same curriculum at every club.
The Development Academy said its players couldn’t play high school soccer, barring an unusual set of circumstances (say, a kid who has a private school scholarship predicated on playing soccer). Few people outside the DA seemed happy with that rule, though some club coaches also try to keep their kids from playing for their schools.
(In other areas, like my home of metro D.C., you have to be among the elite of the elite just to make your high school junior varsity.)
The ban on HS soccer was a major issue with the DA. That was one reason the girls DA didn’t manage to lure over all the best clubs from the long-standing ECNL.
It’s a moot point now. The DA folded in 2020.
Or, National Leagues that don’t include the Braves, Mets and Dodgers …
We used to have one national youth championship — for U19 boys. They added U16 boys in 1976. Then it only seemed fair to add girls. Now the U.S. Youth Soccer Championships cover each age group down to U13, boys and girls.
Those championships have multiple pathways. State Cup champions advance to regional championships. National League teams can qualify directly.
The DA had its own competition, usually won by MLS affiliates.
Other national championships should be considered to be in flux in 2021 due to COVID-19. The information here might not be current, but only because we really have no idea what’s going to happen in the next few months. By fall, hopefully we’ll have all of this sorted out. (Wear your danged mask.)
Girls Academy league: National championship format not yet announced
Girls ECNL: Has its own national finals in multiple tiers
- Champions League: Top teams from each conference
- North American Cup: The next highest-ranked teams in each conference
- Showcase Cup: Teams ranked 49th-64th in the ECNL
- Open Cup: Still more teams from the ECNL plus the top teams from the Regional League
Boys’ ECNL and NPL: U.S. Club Soccer combines these leagues into the ENPL finals.
US Club Soccer National Cup: For qualified applicants and winners of US Club Soccer State Cups, which are not U.S. Youth Soccer State Cups. (The latter is what was just called “State Cup” until US Club Soccer started doing its own.)
AYSO technically doesn’t have a national “championship,” but it does have a National Open Cup now.
Super-Y League: This is a bit of an oddball. It’s a summer league, and its teams often draw not just from their own clubs but neighbors as well. Then they play a national championship in December.
CAN YOU IDENTIFY ME?
In 1977, U.S. Youth Soccer launched a national Olympic Development Program (ODP). It’s not that the Olympics are necessarily the pinnacle of achievement in soccer (in women’s soccer, it’s roughly equal with the World Cup; in men’s soccer, national teams are limited to only three played over the age of 23, so the World Cup is much more significant), but this program is aligned with the U.S. Olympic Committee — which, again, is the grand overseer of all sports in the Olympics and many that are not.
In theory, ODP serves the same purpose as the training programs described in Das Reboot, the book on Germany’s successful youth soccer overall. It provides a pathway for players from all clubs — suburban/urban/rural, rich/poor, big/small — to be identified by and learn from the most experienced coaches. In the 2018 election, several candidates (most notably Hope Solo, who did not come from the wealthy suburbs like the stereotypical U.S. women’s player) extolled the virtues of ODP is helping their own careers.
But those candidates also lamented that ODP’s role has been diminished. And in some areas, ODP doesn’t have the best reputation. With so many elite players shuttled into the Development Academy (which does not allow its players to participate in ODP) or other programs, ODP doesn’t always get the best players. Some parents believe it’s now a “cash grab,” attracting delusional parents who pay for spots in what used to be an elite program but now may not be.
Yet ODP has its defenders, and we’ll have to see if those candidates’ ideas on revitalizing the program. Winning candidate Carlos Cordeiro didn’t have a playing career and can’t speak first-hand about the program, but he has expressed an interest in boosting its funding.
Meanwhile, US Club Soccer naturally has its own program, called id2. It’s also recognized as an Olympic Development Program. So we have an ODP that is an ODP, and we have an id2 that’s also an ODP. Got it? In any case, id2 claims a bit of credit for Christian Pulisic and Jonathan Gonzalez.
But Gonzalez, who spurned the USA to play for Mexico in a decision that caused much hand-wringing and hairshirt-wearing in the U.S. soccer community, also came up through a private program called Sueno Alianza, co-founded by Brad Rothenberg, the son of former U.S. Soccer president and MLS startup guru Alan Rothenberg.
And now (2020) — MLS and U.S. Youth Soccer are doing their own identification program.
PUTTING THE “TRAVEL” IN TRAVEL SOCCER
What’s the harm in having so many different travel soccer leagues, all claiming to be “elite”?
Simple. All these “elite” clubs end up driving past each other to play league games. Instead of playing a team 20 miles away that can give you a decent game, you travel 200 miles for a game that might not be so good.
“We just had a club that left NorCal for ECNL,” DA coach and league executive Benjamin Ziemer told me for a piece at FourFourTwo. “They will drive past literally hundreds of clubs to compete against the other eight ECNL clubs in our state.”
YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!
Want to win a U9 soccer game? No problem. Just make sure you have a big kid at the back who can boot the ball up the field to your fast kid up front. The other kids are just there to clog things up.
No one learns how to play when you’re doing that, and your players will pay for that lack of development when they’re older, but so what? You’re winning now!
One of the smartest things U.S. Soccer has done, borrowing an idea from overseas, is to mandate the use of a “buildout line.” A lot of U9 and U10 games used to consist solely of one team pressing the other, particularly if the other team didn’t have a strong-footed player to blast the goal kick up the field. The most egregious example I’ve seen: A coach sat idly by while his players kept pressing on the goal kick and scoring 20-some goals. The parents on the winning team were actually smarter than the coach, yelling at their kids to play actual soccer.
But we can take “winning vs. development” to extremes. Too many coaches refuse to practice throw-ins, even for five minutes out of entire season, and their games bog down in a parade of illegal throw-in calls. They’ll put goalkeepers in the game who’ve never practiced making a save. The games become farces. The coaches don’t care, because they say they’re developing for the long term. But if the kids get so frustrated that they quit (and yes, they do), you haven’t really developed anything except a lacrosse player or track and field athlete. I’m sure USA Track and Field and your local high school track coach appreciate that, but it’s not really your job.
GOT GOTSOCCER POINTS?
GotSoccer is an impressive software operation, great for running leagues and tournaments, and it has a lot of great soccer minds working for it.
The chase for GotSoccer ranking points is a driving force behind a lot of ills in soccer. Teams are rewarded for playing a lot of tournaments that have GotSoccer points at stake. To paraphrase Yoda, GotSoccer points not make one great.
If you want to look up a team’s results — which can be one factor in your team-shopping decision but shouldn’t be the only one or the primary one — try YouthSoccerRankings, which takes more games (especially league games) into account.
GotSoccer is certainly useful. But making too much out of being the “No. 1” team in your state in an age group is a foolish errand, particularly when a lot of the truly elite teams don’t play in the tournaments they’re rating.
MAKING CUTS TOO SOON
A typical big club in my area has tryouts for travel soccer starting with the U9 year. They’ll spread out 100 or so players into various fields, and everyone knows which fields are “the good ones.” You can keep coming out to play on “the bad fields,” but your chances of being noticed there aren’t great.
And your children are subject to the whims of the coaches running the tryout. Maybe your kid has a lot of skill, and the coaches are too easily impressed by good athletes who dominate a 5v5 game with size and speed. Maybe your kid likes to pass the ball, and the coach thinks U9s can’t do it. (Yes, coaching education is also an issue in U.S. soccer.)
A lot of coaches, even those who realize kids can pass at U9 because they didn’t stop learning about soccer in the Stone Age, still think we need to be making these cuts at early ages. That’s iffy, to put it mildly. The countries we say we want to emulate, like Germany and Iceland (yes, Iceland), are more inclusive.
Maybe we shouldn’t have selective teams, at least not on a full-time basis, until kids hit puberty?
THIS IS EXPENSIVE, AND WE’RE LOSING PLAYERS
U.S. Soccer numbers are flat at best, and it’s hard to get a total because a lot of players are “double-registered” — for example, they might be registered through U.S. Youth Soccer AND US Club Soccer, or maybe SAY AND U.S. Youth.
The Aspen Institute’s Project Play breaks down numbers differently, using participation surveys. Most sports are dropping. Soccer is dropping right along with them.
This concept sounds logical. Rather than having a club’s many teams in many age groups scattered across whatever region its primary league may cover on a typical Saturday or Sunday, the league schedules “club vs. club.” Club A brings its top teams, U9 (or U11 or whatever constitutes the bottom end) through U19, to visit Club B. This way, the club’s technical staff can see all the top teams in one place. (Well, maybe two — assuming the clubs have both boys and girls teams, they’ll need more than one field to get all the games done in one day. And U9s, U11s and U13s all play on different-sized fields anyway.)
It’s sold to parents as a convenient way of dealing with multiple kids. “Sure, you’re driving 200 miles one way, but you can see Suzie play at 11 a.m. and Bobby at 2 p.m., and you don’t have to travel in between!”
But what if Suzie’s on the A team and Bobby’s on the B team? Or what if Suzie’s game is at 8 a.m. and Bobby’s is at 5 p.m., forcing you to spend all day a couple hundred miles from home?
And what if your team isn’t competitive in this league? You can’t be relegated to a lower division where you’ll get better games. So instead, a lot of players quit and go elsewhere, and the team likely gets worse.
Some parents swear by club-centric scheduling, though. In many cases, they’re the ones whose kids are always on the A team and never getting blown out, but then those families are being scooped up by the national leagues. In fact, some clubs are now putting their A teams in the GA, MLS Next or ECNL, leaving their B teams in the club-centric league. Now what?
“ELITE” LEAGUES IN GENERAL
One unintended consequence of the DA and the ECNL is that they’ve accelerated the arms race in youth soccer. Clubs are scrambling to join “elite” league to bolster the perception that they can still get your kid into college soccer. In some cases, it’s nothing more than perception. The club is desperate to avoid being left behind. The league needs more numbers — and maybe the last-place teams need someone to beat. So the league expands to include that club.
But sometimes the arms race “winners” really are the best clubs. Their coaches might not be happy about being forced to leave their local leagues, but they figure that’s the way the game is played, and they have to play it.
MORE ON THE SINGLE-DIGIT YEARS (AGES 0-9)
I’ve written a book called Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game. It’s about rec soccer, of course, because almost all soccer at that age is rec soccer. But it covers all ability and aptitude levels.
And it has a few funny stories that illustrate how what we learn can make us better parents and coaches, even as we realize all the rules and guidelines we learn along the way have plenty of exceptions.
Every kid is different. This page raises a lot of questions. Some of them have answers that can or probably should apply to everyone. Some don’t. If your kid is learning and having fun, you’re doing things right. If not, this info will help you figure out the next step.