High school soccer still gets short shrift

By Mike Woitalla

Long gone are the days when soccer in the USA existed on the fringes. Its massive popularity among the nation’s youth, among other factors, moved it deep into the American mainstream. So it's easy to forget there are still battles to be won.

Kenneth Newman, a longtime soccer referee, coach and advocate for the sport, reminds us of a blatant lack of respect for the sport: the construction of high school stadiums without regard to the optimal soccer field dimensions.

“When schools and some park districts build 400-meter tracks, they most often build narrow infields in these tracks, which renders the infield of the track too narrow for a properly sized soccer field,” says Newman, citing fields as narrow as 55 yards. That's fine for football, not for soccer.

The demands of both track & field and soccer can be easily met. It’s been done that way for decades, all over the world. The key is opting for a “broken back” track, which allows a much wider playing field, up to 75 yards.

World Cup games are played on properly dimensioned soccer fields surrounded by running tracks. The tracks on which Olympians contest for gold medals are laid out to allow for perfect soccer fields. And that configuration is also suited for football.

What frustrates Newman is that in many communities the high school stadiums or fields with tracks at parks are often the only fields with lights. “And soccer loses big time,” he says.

Newman, who is campaigning to get Miami-Dade County Schools to consider soccer when they build or redesign fields, has refereed and coached enough games to see what a profound impact a narrow field has on the game. It invites a more physical game, puts possession-minded skillful teams at a disadvantage, and, he believes, may lead to more injuries.

“It is clear to me that any high school game played on a field less than 65 yards wide is a foul fest,” Newman says. “It isn't enjoyable for the players, coaches, referees and spectators.”

Martin Jacobson, the coach of New York City’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School, says it’s been a constant and not very successful battle to get high schools to build soccer fields with suitable width.

Within the last decade, more than $100 million have been spent to upgrade New York City public schools' sports facilities through the “Take the Field” program. But Jacobson said the vast majority of the fields were constructed to suit football and track without regard to soccer.

“It’s not the beautiful game anymore when you play on a narrow field,” says Jacobson. “You take away the wings and it eliminates skill, speed and creativity. It enables inferior teams to strategically box in an opponent. It makes it easier to double-team creative, skillful players.”

The leeway in soccer rulebooks -- FIFA’s 50-yard minimum and high school’s 55-yard minimum -- is to enable games to be played when optimally sized fields aren't available. But when fields are being designed for American high schools, there’s no excuse to go with something near those minimums.

For international games, FIFA’s minimum is 70 yards and the National Federation of State High School Associations' recommended width is 65 yards.

That soccer can still get the short shrift when what it requires is no detriment to other sports is a reminder that American soccer, for all its progress, must continue to fight for respect.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Rockridge SC in Oakland, Calif. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at

What's been your experience with high school fields in your area? Do school districts give soccer respect? Let us know in the comments below ...

13 comments about "High school soccer still gets short shrift".
  1. David Hardt, May 26, 2010 at 1:11 p.m.

    Sorry if I am a negative about this but I coached high school soccer for 10 years both girls and boys and many times the players only put on soccer boots for high school practices. They never play off season. Half the season was blisters and muscle pulls, not skill. Coaches coach for the next game's win, not player development. My son played youth and his team played in the youth final 4 two years in a row. Quality soccer quality officials, quality tournament. In high school I would watch AR's simply stand there and and try to call off sides 25-30 meters out of position. The state high school associations don't get it. Ours gives an open book test to officials and you have your license. How do you call off sides and advantage with no knowledge of the game. It is a travesty. I wish committed soccer players could opt for year round club and let the rec type players play high school. I always had a couple of quality players try and play with the rest and it really frustrated them to make a great pass and watch it roll out of play while the player the intended pass was for did not make the run because he didn't get it.

  2. Tom Kondas, May 26, 2010 at 1:28 p.m.

    The trouble is not so much with the high schools but more with the High School Athletic Associations, like Ohio, which is made up of ex basketball, football and baseball players. Their mind sets do not leave room for soccer, eventually, and hopefully, in time some ex soccer players will ascend to the controlling boards. Mr. Hardt is correct in his assesment of officiating on the high school level which allows fat old men with knee braces and who have never palyed the game, to be officials. Unfortunately many of these take the beginners course offered by the State Association affiliated with USSF but never progress any further. Perhaps the USSF should police their state referee associations which so often are made up of persons hardly quailified themselves to referee a game.

  3. John Molinda, May 26, 2010 at 1:56 p.m.

    The author articulates a number of ways that a narrow field all but ruins the beautiful game (i.e. takes away the wings, eliminates speed, skill and creativity, creates a foul fest etc). Now if you overlay onto that scenario an artificial turf surface that has been deliberately cut short for field hockey and football, you magnify these problems while significantly increasing throw ins. The game reduces to a "direct" play approach that often looks like a huge volleyball game with long balls and long headers.

    Commenter Hardt points out how the high school game gets further degraded by poor refereeing. Not only does it encourage sloppy play but from what I have seen it significantly increases the likelihood of concussions and other serious injuries. On top of all this, many high school associations will not allow players to play with their clubs in critical college recruiting tournaments during the HS season. All of this begs the question as to why the higher level players even consider playing High School soccer. The answer is simple. The players have a strong sense of pride for their schools and want to represent them. They also like to play with their friends. These simple factors overcome all of the other extremely compelling reasons for the quality players to forgo HS soccer. Pride and comraderie are good reasons to play for their schools and to be fair it should be pointed out that it is a wonderful opportunity that is unique to American soccer. I just wish that the high school "athletic organization" in general would show a little more interest in trying to improve things for the serious soccer players rather than take a "like it or lump it" attitude.

  4. Brian Something, May 26, 2010 at 2 p.m.

    I'd still rather have a bigger field because it's easier to play a technical game there but a game on a smaller field can still be of quality if the coaches and players have the right mentality. The relation between field size and style of play is largely dependent on the coach.

    You can adapt to a small field either by lumping the ball forward to a big target man or by playing a short passing game that requires good foot skills and technical ability (the whole premise of restricting space in training is to improve touch under pressure).

    You can adapt to a big field either by keeping possession and spreading the field out or by using the extra space to bang the ball into the corners and turn it into a track meet.

    In their old stadium Highbury, Arsenal used to play on one of the smallest fields in the Premier League. For a long time, they were the classic example of the crude English route one, lump it forward style. But as soon as Arsene Wenger took over, he had them playing the quick, short passing, possession oriented game with the ball on the ground 99 pct of the time... without question some of the most beautiful soccer I've ever watched. Same small field dimensions, different coaching.

  5. John Molinda, May 26, 2010 at 2:13 p.m.

    I know that the aurthor's article does not relate directly to High School refereeing but the two commenters point it out as another way that HS soccer gets no respect. I believe that it is even more serious than a lack of respect. I observed that the level of violent play and serious injuries in our high school games exceeded those of our youth soccer club games. I also observed that in 4 years of watching high school soccer I have never, I repeat NEVER, seen a red card shown for a violent foul (as opposed to spitting or swearing where they have been shown). I suggested to our Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association administrators that it is highly unlikely that in the hundreds of games that I observed there were no violent fouls worthy of a red card...especially with so many players playing who don't know the game. I further suggested that the reluctance to use the cards to control the game might be a contributor to the significantly higher number of injuries in the High School game. To my astonishment, the PIAA administrator in charge of refereeing told me flat out that they tell the referees to NOT use red cards to control the game... instead they want them to verbally coach the players to play less violently. The rest of the soccer world knows that, as nice as this would be, it does not work. The PIAA official said that they don't want games getting ruined by (and decided by) players getting ejected. And they want more players to play High School soccer evcn if they don't really know the game. Apparently these objectives are more important to them than the appropriate use of red cards to help avoid career ending concussions and other serious injuries.

  6. David Hardt, May 26, 2010 at 3:25 p.m.

    And the associations tinker with the rules and make up things that are contrary to the game. In Wisconsin and maybe other places we have a pink card, at least that is what we call it. 2nd yellow and you are done for the day but you can be replaced, really????
    Stadium clocks running with official time, so refs are talking to players, checking for injuries, as they should, teams grossly delaying, and no added on time or stoppage of time unless ref calls time out, time out in soccer ???????
    Wonder why there is no respect?
    My teams have played on football fields slightly lined wider and then there is a huge man hole cover on the field. Dangerous???
    Late in fall there are no decent fields left to play on as football has crewed up the center to a mud pile. Try passing a decent ball through that.

  7. James Madison, May 27, 2010 at 12:33 a.m.

    Peace largely reigns between soccer and "American Rules" in the San Mateo County area of Northern California. Most of the high schools have now built modern turf fields that fit inside synthetic running tracks accommodate both games. The widths and lengths are different and built in lines are of different colors. The only extra cost is for the second set of lines and that is a pittance. The American Rules players no longer chew up the fields in the fall, and the winter soccer season can be played on a decent surface, come rain or shine.

  8. Austin Gomez, May 27, 2010 at 10:48 a.m.

    Soccer is a most "Beautiful Game" --- be it at the amateur level (High School, Soccer Club teams with its intensive or recreational groups, or at the professional level within the U.S.A.

    Regardless of Field Conditions (some of which are horrendous in various "Third-World" countries - regardless of the weather conditions (too hot, too humid, too cold at times, etcetera) - regardless of the quality of the Coaches, it is really up to the energetic and creative spirit of the Boys/Girls participants as well as the the qualified Referees.

    Referees must DEAL with the situations as they develop & become 'psychologists' as well as 'police persons': with their Main Objective of Keeping-the-Game-SAFE (the Number 1 Priority)& Fair & hopefully Enjoyable, via their Personality/Anticipation/Communication/ Positioning/Fitness/Knowledge of the Rules & Common Sense/ proper Usage of the Caution/Send-Off when there is 100% Misconduct present, (deserving of disciplinary handling), with the maximum result of an enjoyable/exciting Match wherein there is a constant 'flow' to the game with many opportunities to score goals, along with the displaying of decent skills with their safeguard to the Players: leading up to the conclusion that Soccer is truly a "Most Beautiful Game" (a 'Simple' Game for 'Clever' Participants) to watch & play!......... in My Opinion!

  9. B Flow, May 27, 2010 at 11:26 a.m.

    I agree that soccer fields are getting short shrift in the minds of the people in charge of building HS/community fields. Just not their priority. But don't blame it on track and field!! Anybody who knows anything about track knows that the optimum design for a track is gentle curves, and that means a _wide_ infield. If someone is building a track with a narrow infield, either he is ignorant or he is as unconcerned about the needs of track as he is of soccer.

    Let's be real, the gorilla that makes this go is football. Period. They want narrow infields, gets the fans closer to the action on their narrow playing areas. Soccer (and track) people who are smart will abandon their self-important fantasy notions that they somehow need to be in the biggest stadium in town (i.e., the football stadium) in order to validate their worth. In college we had our track inside the 45,000 seat football stadium, how often do you imagine we filled that for meets? So we crammed a track inside a stadium ill-suited for the purpose thus creating a poor facility in order to indulge our egos in front of 44,900 empty seats. The echos were deafening.

    Instead soccer and track people should just make their own facilities that meet their needs without worrying about what the football team does. Interestingly, track and soccer needs are quite complementary, and they should be able to work together. Where is the rule written that soccer needs to be played in a big stadium to be played well? Especially in the U.S. at the community level where, let's be honest, we are not going to be selling tickets to anybody other than family and friends. But for the chance to play our games in the football stadium we are willing to create an inferior facility? Makes no sense.

  10. Kirsten Allen, May 27, 2010 at 5:50 p.m.

    In my part of the world, Kansas, we share space with football fields. The maintenance people mow the soccer fields and the football fields to the same height. When I complained, the supervisor said "you can play soccer on 2 1/2 inch grass". Yes and you can play footbal on 1 inch grass. Long grass inhibits creative play, good passing and the beautiful aspects of the game. Long grass promotes long kicks, scrums, and kick-and-chase, over-the-top play that neutralizes a superior passing team. I have fought this battle for a long time but get nowhere with the revenue sports people. Soccer needs a good mainstream advocate not named MLS.

  11. Brian Herbert, May 27, 2010 at 6:58 p.m.

    Yes, another systemic, thorny problem holding back soccer in our country. So, instead of piling on another complaint, here's a vision: U.S. Professional clubs, in a tiered structure with relegation, and each with their own development academies. Transfer rights owned by the CLUB, giving them development incentive. High school soccer is dropped, and kids (and adults) go to see the hot local development teams and the hot, local, pro-prospect teenage players compete - at the clubs' properly sized fields.

  12. Adam Becker, May 31, 2010 at 10:42 p.m.

    As a long-time HS soccer official I can say that without question I have witnessed a team with inferior individual skill defeat a team that was clearly more talented due to the field being exactly at minimum width. The players were denied time and space simply because the field dimensions did not give them anywhere to go. I also agree with the statement made regarding the increase in fouls and injuries on narrower fields. A narrower field will naturally lead to more physical contact.

  13. Lamont Cooke, July 13, 2010 at 12:50 a.m.

    Brendan Flood

    I agree with you, soccer should have their own stadiums built to the optimum FIFA specs. The problem is most school district build multiuse facilities to save money. Soccer folk are not asking for 45,000 seat stadiums. They are asking that administrators, when planning said stadiums, to consider the optimal field dimensions for soccer. That means having a FIFA standard 70 yard wide field. This is not that much to ask and will not take anything away from American Football except move the stands an extra ten feet back from the field on either side.

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