Sam Snow, US Youth Soccer Director of Coaching, talks about the U.S. Soccer mandates
"Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine." -- Robert C. Gallagher
Youth soccer in America is undergoing an evolution. With that progression will come some challenges and some rewards. U.S. Soccer, the national governing body for youth, amateur and professional soccer in the United States, recently passed two player development initiatives that directly affect the youth members of U.S. Soccer. Those members, in order of the number of registered players, are US Youth Soccer, American Youth Soccer Organization, U.S. Club Soccer, Soccer Association for Youth and United States Sports Specialty Association. The player development initiatives are small-sided games as the match format for children 12 years old and younger, and player registration now based on birth year (calendar year). U.S. Soccer has a three-tiered player development pyramid, labeled by zones. Zone 1 is from U-6 to U-12, Zone 2 is from U-13 to U-17 and Zone 3 is U-18 and older.
The change is actually straight forward and no matter how you group the year, a relative age effect will always exist. The year in which a player was born is now the age group in which he or she can play. Players can play up in age groups as long as they are in compliance with club, league and/or state rules. For example, a player born in 1998 would play on a team with other players born in that year. In 2015, the player is 17 years old. Some of the current confusion may stem from our old habit of saying Under-17 or U-17, and perhaps now we should think “17 and under” as the label for the age group. We have this chart to show how the age groups will evolve.
Inevitably, there are emotions that come with change. Change can be a little scary. With the new player registration, some teams will have minor to major roster changes. Kids will still have a chance to play with school friends, but now some of them will be in the class above or below.
Soccer clubs should always provide times and places for kids on different teams within the club to get together to continue, rekindle or make friendships with others in the club. Street Soccer Day, the first Wednesday each September, is one opportunity. Other chances during Youth Soccer Month (September) present themselves for clubs to utilize, such as Make Your Own Ball Day. Check out all of Youth Soccer Month here: http://www.youthsoccermonth.org/.
Changes in the team roster occur annually with most soccer teams because of kids moving to a different club, deciding to play for a different coach in the club, making the cut on one team but not another and so on. That part of youth soccer hasn’t changed. One of the growth experiences in youth sports is playing with new teammates and interacting with new coaches — that’s a life lesson.
With the change in player registration from school year to calendar year taking place in compliance with a mandate from U. S. Soccer, there may be older teens who find that part of their team is now gone. The question is what to do for the remaining players who still want to play soccer. I have suggested that they could play on an adult team if they so desire and if adult soccer leagues exist in their area. But not all older teens want to play on an adult team or perhaps adult amateur soccer doesn’t exist in their town. The youth soccer club could provide the solution by offering 6-a-side soccer. This option could be intramural or inter-club participation. If there are other clubs in the area with the same situation, then a 6 vs. 6 league could be set up. The bottom line is this – keep an open mind. Real soccer isn’t just 11 vs. 11 at any age. Play small-sided games for these teens in high school or middle school. Play futsal. Play beach soccer. Play indoor soccer. During this transition time think of the new opportunities that may present themselves.
The change in player registration is America going back to what we did on this account in the 1960s, ‘70s and into the ‘80s. Indeed, the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program has grouped players by birth year since its inception in 1977. Many club teams will benefit from the change when they travel overseas to play, in that they will no longer have to play up in order to be in the proper age group. The same is true for foreign teams coming to play here. The objective simply is to align with international standards and the Youth National Team program.
Indeed, until 1983, all youth soccer teams in the United States were grouped by birth year. America is simply reverting to that registration process. The back story is that in the early 1980s, FIFA switched from birth year to school year. The U.S., like all members of FIFA, did the same. Within two years, FIFA changed back to birth year. But at that time, having just made a massive change, the U.S. declined to shift along with the other members of FIFA. U.S. Soccer has made the decision to once again align American soccer with the rest of the world. These decisions are made collectively with U.S. Soccer’s technical staff and approved by their Board of Directors.
These initiatives also included collaboration with various U.S. Soccer members in the youth sector. The decision was made by the U.S. Soccer board of directors and technical committee to implement the change to birth year for player registration over a two-year period. I wasn’t directly involved in the change in the early 1980s from calendar year to school year for player registration, but perhaps a similar immediate modification approach was taken then too.
"The more things change, the more they are the same." -- Alphonse Karr
This change is one that, frankly, I wasn’t sure that I would live to see happen. Personally, I’ve been working directly on this initiative since 1986. At that time, Dr. Tom Fleck asked me to chair the Player Development Committee for Florida Youth Soccer. The youngest age group formally playing in soccer clubs then was Under-8, and it included 11 vs. 11 games with a size 4 ball, fairly large field and 8x24-foot goals. We passed a change to move to 7 vs. 7 games with a size 3 ball, played on smaller fields with smaller goals. You would have thought the world was coming to an end from the emotional reactions of many people. The arguments were that it’s not the real game, how will kids learn to play their positions, we won’t have enough fields or goals, we won’t have enough coaches or referees, you’ll ruin the game and kids will quit soccer. Sound familiar? Clearly, since the mid-1980s, the game has spread far and wide across the U.S. The naysayers were wrong then as they are now.
Driven by the leadership of Dr. Fleck, whose name adorns the Excellence in Youth Coaching Education Award, US Youth Soccer has been an advocate of Small-Sided Games since the late 1980s, as evidenced in the Assistant Coach Series that he and John Cossaboon authored. Then in 1995, U.S. Soccer and US Youth Soccer jointly created the National Youth License. That coaching course was and is aimed at how to properly coach our young players in Zone 1. Both of these national organizations have long believed in the positive effects for players who compete in the Small-Sided Game format. Because of the forward thinking of many soccer clubs across the nation, they will have minor adjustments to make for compliance with the mandate on Small-Sided Games. Others who have been mired in the past have some exertion ahead, and the sooner they roll up their sleeves and get to work, the better.
The advancement to Small-Sided Games will benefit the players the most. They will have a richer soccer experience that, in time, will improve the American soccer culture. When I ask coaches to list the pros and cons of Small-Sided Games for children they are hard pressed to come up with the cons. Indeed, those who understand the game well and also understand the growth stages of children see the move to Small-Sided Games as long overdue. From more tactical experiences and touches on the ball to improved mental concentration and physical fitness, the children will be the big winners here. Those who want to learn more about Small-Sided Games should check out the Small-Sided Games resources on the US Youth Soccer website: https://www.usyouthsoccer.org/coaches/SmallSidedGames/.
A large number of US Youth Soccer affiliated clubs across the nation are already playing Small-Sided Games, so they will have minimal modifications to make. Clubs will have two years to make adjustments to field layouts, goals and reset team rosters. For solutions to many of the logistical problems, please visit the Small-Sided Games Resources center. Please keep in mind that the Modified Rules there may change once U.S. Soccer comes out with a new set of Laws of the Game for Zone 1.
"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." -- George Bernard Shaw
US Youth Soccer is prepared to assist our 55 State Associations and more than 5,000 clubs with the move to comply with the U.S. Soccer mandates. We provide more information here: https://www.usyouthsoccer.org/changes_coming_to_youth_soccer_in_2016/. With a lot of teamwork, the established soccer infrastructure in America will now change for the better. There will be hurdles to overcome. Reach out to fellow clubs, leagues, your State Association and the national organizations for help as needed. The goal is improvement to the quantity and quality of soccer across the nation. Collectively, we can do this!
"Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." -- John F. Kennedy