I am firmly against having young kids play "positions" that are part of the adult game. I coach a U-9 team in a league that plays 8-v-8 (including keepers) and my players are now at the transitional age when they can begin to grasp the concept of positions.
The challenge is introducing players to positions without stifling their involvement in the game. They need to comprehend positioning without being restricted to specific areas of the field. One of the worst situations is when young players, labeled as "defenders," stand idle in empty field space, watching the action from the other end of the field.
I've taken the following approach regarding positions:
I have one goalkeeper and two "back players." The other players have no specific assigned role (i.e. there are no "midfielders" or "forwards"). All players are told to stay close enough to their teammates to support them, and close enough to the ball to be engaged in the game at all times.
The two "back players" play slightly behind the "pack" at all times. If the pack advances near the opponent's goal, the "back players" are only a short distance behind. This maximizes their touches on the ball and teaches them the important lesson of linking up with the players in front of them.
When the "back players" fall too far back, I tell them to "join the game." (They understand this instruction better than the order to "pull up.") This instruction also gets them to decide for themselves where exactly they need to be, which fulfills an important coaching guideline of getting the players to think for themselves.
The other players are only told that they are "not in the back." This means they are not to linger next to the "back players" when the ball is further upfield.
The keepers come fully out of their boxes when the ball is at the other end of the field. This teaches them proper positioning for the adult game, and gives them the opportunity to play balls that are kicked far behind the "back players" with their feet - another crucial skill for goalkeepers in the adult game.
This scheme leaves us open to the counterattack, especially against teams that play kickball and run fast on over-sized fields. This is because the "back players" do not hang back with the "cherry pickers" on the other team.
However, I strongly believe that the fear of conceding goals must never trump player development. I'd much rather keep young players engaged in the game, put them in situations that foster creative play, and give my keepers experience with breakaways and positional play, than limit the players' game experiences in the name of achieving a soon-forgotten winning score.
(Chad McNichol is a U-9 boys coach in the Gilbert Youth Soccer Association of Arizona.)