Shortside Rules for Long Term BenefitsPosted: January 29, 2017
Last year the USSF, which controls a heavy majority of the youth soccer in this country, issued two major changes in the structure of the game in regard to our youth. Although the changes are not required until August, 2017 ( next soccer season) most associations have begun adopting the rules now. As this is somewhat of a transition year for these new rules, different leagues and tournaments have their own versions of the changes, but by next year things should be fairly standard around the country. This month the Soccer Yoda watched some of the youth affected by the changes and it was very interesting to see where we are in regard to the improvements that the changes were designed to inspire.
Change #1 involves the date of birth used by the USSF to place children in age-group teams. For about 40 odd years the birth date used to group players was August 1. The reason was simple….it is the same date or very close to the same date as that used by our schools to place kids in the many school districts in the country. It also mirrors the playing season since a summer break is typical for teams and leagues. By using the school birth dates players generally played with and against classmates and players in the same grade. From a socializing standpoint this was a good thing. Youth players shared their experiences, played with school friends and, since most opposition players were in the same grade, there was a sense of fairness about the grouping of players. But, in all the world, only the USA and Canada used August 1. The rest of the world uses the calendar year of birth in their groupings. January 1 is the date which separates one child from another in their competitions. This difference made it awkward when USA teams played teams from other nations. Either our kids were half a year ahead of the competition or half a year behind. True, as I experienced a number of times, this was a minor difference among teenagers…..in our games overseas the difference in age of the players never really played a major part in the competition, except in attempting to explain our team age to people. After a while we just said u-14 or u-16 and didn’t worry about birthdays. Of course, when we did well the home folks often had a ready excuse if the situation fit…..we were older and therefore had an advantage. Unlike the US, in the rest of the world school and soccer are not intertwined. School teams are rare, club teams are the important place to play and a calendar year grouping is easy. This year, being the first year of the change , a lot of teams and clubs experienced a regrouping of players and a difference in the makeup of longstanding teams. And this produced the resultant angst that such a change causes, especially among youngsters. But in a couple years calendar year grouping will be the norm and it will be easier for young teams to play internationally and for parents to figure out in what age group their children belong.
The second change, or group of changes to be more exact, makes a far greater impact on the game for our youth and their coaches. These changes standardize and reduce the number of players on the field particularly for u-12 and u-11 teams. In addition, the size of the field is made substantially smaller and so is the goal. The reason for the changes involves the observation that despite the boom in the number of youth soccer participants in our country, the overall quality of play of those children and particularly the skill level of our top players is not improving. And the reason for this leveling off of our kids soccer ability? None other than the good’ol American will to win.
Up until this season our 11, 10 and sometimes even 9 year olds have often played on adult size fields. Putting these kids on an area that averages 110 by 70 yards tends to negate skill development and create wide open spaces for players to run in. In order to cover that space, to advance the ball to the goal, the most effective thing to do is find the biggest, fastest player and fire the ball to that player who has lots ( and lots and lots) of room to run forward to the goal. Once there, that player would simply kick the ball up so as to clear the heads and hands ( goalkeepers) of the opposition and into the adult size goals that was the target of these players. A coach could spend the days and weeks and months needed to develop the physical and mental skills that youth of these ages are fully capable of learning. But on the big field , even after a great sequence of dribbling and passing, the diminutive size of the players would leave them looking at a figurative mile of space still to travel to reach the goal. It was much easier to get a super fast forward and smack the ball as hard as possible and get to the goal quickly. Ever since the USSF has been conducting coaching classes, they have extolled the virtues of teaching the game and not worrying about wins and losses ( I was there back then so I know !) But we are Americans, we believe that draws are like kissing your sister and sports aren’t life and death…..they are much more important than that. And winning by pace and power is still winning. So….the USSF has finally changed the game for our youth so that teams with skills of mind and body can stand a better chance of winning.
So…the Soccer Yoda decided to look at a number of u-12 matches , both boys and girls, because this age group is probably more affected by the changes than the younger groups. Here are my observations……
Number of players: Instead of the full complement of 11 players, u-12 teams now play with 9. This means a drop of 10 field players to 8 ( not counting the goalkeeper) or 20% fewer participants occupying space on the field. This creates more opportunity for kids to touch the ball and be involved in the play. Combined with the smaller field, the space between players is much smaller, the ball gets to each player more and therefore the chance to be involved is greater than before the change. But the biggest change I saw in regard to the number of players is in the imaginations of the coaches. Last year the number of teams playing 4-3-3 was so numerous this observer began to wonder if there had been a rule requiring that system that I had missed. Other observers agreed, 4-3-3 was THE formation of American youth, at least in the western half of the country. Its true…..there is nothing wrong with that setup… but there are others and many players would thrive and more important…learn …from playing other formations or at least seeing other formations on occasion. But now…what about having only 9 players? I have seen 4 backs, 3 backs , 2 backs…….3 forwards, 2 forwards, 1 forward. The u-12 age group now has a plethora of formations. I am skeptical enough to believe that some coaches either don’t know how or absolutely prefer not to play with anything other than 3 forwards, but with only 8 field players, having 3 forwards forces adjustments elsewhere and those coaches will still be forced to think about their team and their system of play and teach their kids some fundamentals of offense and defense to counter those opponents using different formations and the combination of skills that those systems and the other rule changes require. No more “play tough defense, beat them to the ball and send it up to our forwards as soon as you can.” if a coach wants success.
Field Size: The u-12 and u-11 field is recommended to be 75 yds long and 47 yds wide. This is easy to set up by playing across the width of most adult fields and allows for two games to be played at the same time on one full size field.
The shorter field allows players to get into the attacking third much much quicker than playing on full size areas. There is less room to run so pure speed has less positive effect and solid possession and passing play actually pays off in attempts at goal. But I noticed another outcome of the smaller field that will require a major switch in coaching emphasis. To appreciate this let’s look at some geometry: the area of a 110 x 75 yd soccer field is 8,250 sq yards. The area of the recommended 75 x 47 u-12 field is 3,525 sq yards. So, while the number of field players has been reduced by 20%, the playing space of the field has been reduced by 56%.
This means, despite the reduced number of players, that more players are closer to each other and there are tighter spaces during play. Good players can work in tight spaces, they keep possession, find teammates and get the ball into the more open places on the field, ideally in more advanced positions. This does require technical ball skills, but perhaps even more important, players need the knowledge to move into positions to help mates who have the ball but who don’t have much room. It takes hours and hours of work for teams to know how to create and solve 3 v 1 , 4 v 2 , 5 v 3 situations during play. I observed many youth players with the ball skills to play through these situations but saw few teams with the knowledge to work in the many tight spaces that the new field size creates. Coaches who spend time developing the short game with their players will reap benefits that were not there on adult size fields. Granted, its only been 6 months since the new rules were implemented, we must give coaches a chance to adjust. To the Soccer Yoda, it is this facet of the new rules that carries, perhaps, the biggest gain to the development of our youth.
Goal Size: This change is almost monumental in its effect on the youth game. Adult goals foster two things: 1) shooting high…..kids can strike a ball well and keepers are very small compared to an 8 ft by 24 ft goal. Shoot up in the air and goals are scored. 2) Shoot early from distance….again, the power possessed by u-12 and u-11 players allow them to reach the goal from 20 yds , 25 yds… even farther. Big goals and small goalkeepers means easier goal scoring. Free kicks from anywhere in the attacking third become very dangerous and not because of well designed set plays. A player with a big foot can just hit a high ball in the general direction of the goal and score often. Of course, when these children grow to adult size they 1) can’t keep a shot down and on goal …and…2) have little concept of how to create true scoring opportunities because those type of chances haven’t been very necessary when firing high anywhere near the goal can be successful. The new goals are 6.5 ft high by 18.5 ft wide and the smaller target changes the game for sure. Players must learn to shoot accurately ….low and on goal.
Perhaps even more important, teams must learn to develop real scoring chances by actually creating shooting space in cramped areas ( remember, there is much less room)….just like adults! This means quickness, ball control, shooting skill and creative team play…..exactly what young players need to learn.
Topics for future posts involve some other new rules for younger players and the fact that heading has become restricted for younger players. But for now, it is my belief that the new rules are a terrific change in the right direction which will pay off in those all-important wins IF coaches develop the ball skills and tactical knowledge that , in the opinion of the Soccer Yoda, they should have been developing all along .