Full disclosure, I’m a soccer nut. I’ve traveled the world to support the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams and never miss a televised game. I’m also a dad and a hater of dumb laws that aren’t well thought through. So while I am soccer crazy and want the U.S. Men to win a World Cup in my lifetime, I have to call out the United States Soccer Federation (“USSF”) for putting in place a mandatory rule that will discourage kids from playing soccer.
Currently there are approximately 3 million youth soccer players aged 5-19, 85% of whom are under the age of 14. This does not include more than 600,000 who play AYSO, which is pure recreational soccer. The great majority of these players will never play professionally, and having been a youth coach for five plus years, I can tell you that the great majority don’t have that as their goal. I coached a pretty competitive team last year full of amazing kids, and when I asked them their favorite thing about playing, the runaway winner was “playing with my friends.”
From that list of 3 million youth players, 52% are male, which comes to 1,560,000 players. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 559 male professional players born in the United States playing somewhere in the world for money. From that list, there are 26 players from Illinois, four from our neighbor Indiana, two from Iowa and six from Wisconsin. So your odds of becoming a pro, even if you are a stud player, aren’t that great. I watch a crazy amount of soccer, and I’ve never heard of any of the six from Wisconsin. None of them play for major clubs so while they may have aspirations, they aren’t yet making a real living at soccer.
The point I’m trying to make is that while it’s great to strive to be an amazing soccer country, the rules of YOUTH soccer should not be changed to help the .036% that will play professionally, most of whom will not even play for Major League Soccer.
What the USSF wants to do is to group kids by the calendar year in which they were born. That may not sound like a big deal to you, but currently, the USSF groups kids by the grade they are in. The calendar for the current grade-level system runs from August 1 to July 31st which mirrors (or is at least close to) how most schools recommend you place your child in a grade. So a child born October 20, 2005 would currently be a u10 player, as would a child born March 10, 2006.
The way age brackets are currently set up makes sense, because the two kids in my example would likely be in the same grade. Most youth clubs enroll kids from a relatively small geographic area, and the kids I’ve coached love that they get to play with their classmates and friends from their neighborhood. It encourages their soccer development because it’s more fun and they may end up playing soccer together at recess. It also gives them more common ground on the soccer field. The experiences of a 5th grade elementary student are much different than that of a sixth grade middle school child. In general, these kids just want to be with their friends. If they can’t do it in soccer, they’ll do it in basketball, lacrosse, baseball or something else. Most of these kids, even the amazing players, don’t just play one sport and the USSF shouldn’t motivate them to pick a different sport.
As kids get older, it also makes sense from a practical standpoint to organize by grade. Once you hit high school, club soccer stops during the high school soccer season. I’m in favor of that, because only the elite kids should be playing club ball year round at that age and the rest should be encouraged to play for their school. What will happen with the USSF change to calendar year, is that club teams will be made up of 8th graders and freshman in high school. The 8th graders won’t have enough teammates to play during the high school season (which is about four months) because you aren’t allowed to do both at the same time. So what will happen is good players won’t be able to play and develop which is surely against the goal of this reform.
The same problem will happen to older high school seniors. Anyone who is going to turn 18 before December 31 would be considered a u19 player, whereas before they’d be considered u18. In most places, their former teammates will be off to college or working, so they too will have great challenges when it comes to fielding a complete team. Many just won’t be able to play.
The goal of this change is to mirror how leagues are run in other countries, as well as to align with how national team age groups are made. That might work well in another country, but the difference is that in places like Brazil, England, Germany, Spain, etc., soccer is “the sport.” You don’t make it “the sport” in the United States by forcing kids away from their friends.
I also wouldn’t discount the fact that many kids in the U.S. are signed up for teams not because their parents love soccer, but because they hear that one or more of their kid’s classmates signed up to play. Your social circle as a parent often becomes the parents of the kids who go to school with your kids. If they learn that their six year old can’t play with their friend, just because they were born in different years, they’ll be more likely to have them do some other sport or activity, especially if they can only make it work via carpooling.
Growing up in Chicago, I was a lousy back up goalkeeper on an amazing team. My senior year we finished second in the state. The top juggler on our team had a high of around 200 juggles which we all thought was amazing. Now the top nine year old on my son’s team has a high of 700 and there is another kid who can do 400. Kids today are much more talented than the ones I grew up playing with, and I played against US soccer great Brian McBride, and with and against a bunch of kids who played high level college soccer.
The point from the little juggling tale is that the soccer development for interested kids right now is incredible. I didn’t start playing year round soccer until high school. Now kids as young as six can play year round. I used to think that was nuts, but then I met some dance moms and learned about their daughters’ crazy schedules. American kids now are amazingly more skilled, and thanks to all of the soccer on TV and on the internet, they get to watch incredible players all of the time. So the foundation has been laid to create some incredible, world class players, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all, if in 10 years, there were more than 1,000 American citizens who played professional soccer.
What the USSF has done well is create competitive academies where the best players can be pushed and thrive. This, in turn, has lead to great instruction and technical and tactical development. They are changing the focus from winning to development, and having younger players participate in games with fewer players (e.g., 4v4 instead of 6v6) so they get more opportunities to touch the ball. I would like to see them also mandate roster sizes so kids get more playing time.
What the USSF has done terribly is change the rules for the sake of the .036% at the expense of the three million who will never play professionally and don’t want to. This new rule, which will be mandatory by 2017 if it’s not reversed, does not meet the goal of developing better players. It simply serves to discourage good young athletes and drive them to choose other sports or activities. It’s no better than a terrible law on child support or anything else. And if you see a terrible law, you need to speak up before it causes great harm. According to U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director, Tab Ramos, this change will help the Federation identify potential players for national teams. So again, we are going to mess up the experience for almost everyone for the sake of a few. It’s also a cop out as the rule does nothing to identify the strongest players as most of those will be playing up an age group anyway.
In my own life, I have a son who is pretty talented at soccer, although I have no illusions of him going pro and, quite honestly, just want him to love the sport and hopefully play it or something else in high school. He’s also a strong basketball player and, unlike me, is not destined to be a six-foot power forward. His two best friends with whom he has played soccer with since they were five, are born in different calendar years. My son was born in 2006, and was told that when this is implemented, he can choose to play with the 2006-born boys or the 2005-born boys since he’s a strong player. Either way, one of the three amigos will be without the other two. His two buddies also play hockey and baseball. It would not surprise me at all if the one who gets left behind focuses on his other sport.
Of course kids can play soccer without their best friends, and one day it might happen anyway. But why would USSF make that happen sooner than it has to, especially for pre-teens? It’s a terrible rule which hurts kids, hurts the game and should be reversed.