The tricky challenge of managing routs

By Mike Woitalla

Our previous YouthSoccerInsider, “Preventing Lopsided Scores” by Randy Vogt, addressed the issue of how coaches should react when their team is routing an opponent. Vogt offered some excellent suggestions. But it’s a tricky issue indeed.

I once coached in a league that, for the youngest age groups, had a rule that when a team went up by four goals, the leading team was to remove a player after each additional goal. And while I comprehend the spirit of the rule, I had problems with it.

The main one being quite obvious: less playing time for children who had come to the park looking forward to enjoying soccer.

I’ve been on both sides of routs as a coach. When my team was on the winning side, I’d suggest to the other coach to add players -- instead of having us take players off the field. If we were getting routed, I’d ask the other coach to let us add players and urge them not to remove kids.

This usually worked, although once a ref said we had to stick with the rules. I’m all for small-sided games at younger ages, but prefer a crowded field to sidelining eager players. And especially at the rec level, one should be able to improvise, such as mixing up the teams at halftime. Maybe borrowing a goalkeeper from the stronger team.

I’ll never forget the look on an 8-year-old boy’s face, after scoring yet another goal, and the ref yelling at the coach, “You have to sub him!” He was near tears and it was understandable. He was thoroughly confused at being punished for succeeding.

For sure, coaches who encourage their teams to run up the score of a game that’s already a rout are jerks. But even if you don’t want the rout to continue, it’s a tough situation to manage. Vogt’s suggestions -- eg: telling players only to shoot on goal with their weaker foot – are on the right track.

Other options include asking the team to string together a certain number of passes before shooting. Or moving the high scorers in defensive positions; having defensive players who hardly ever score play forward.

Whatever strategy the coach employs to prevent humiliation for the opponent, I think it should be done as discreetly as possible. That’s based on my sense that an opponent feeling sorry for you hurts more than getting beaten badly.

Like so many things in coaching, there’s no perfect formula. You try your best to balance all the factors. How do you prevent embarrassing an opponent without punishing your own players for excelling?

A reasonable solution I’ve believed in is whispering to the players who are the most likely to score to resist the shot and look to set up teammates for whom scoring is rare.

Youth soccer in America at the competitive levels has gotten pretty sophisticated in methods of flighting teams so that major mismatches are rarer at the older age groups, it seems to me.

The last time I coached a game that was pretty much decided with time left -- although not a terrible rout yet -- I told a defensive-minded 13-year-old player who’d never scored in my memory to go in at center forward and get a goal.

“I don’t want to,” she said. When I asked her why not, she said, “They don’t deserve to lose that bad."

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United/Bay Oaks in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at

25 comments about "The tricky challenge of managing routs".
  1. Frank Trovato, January 31, 2013 at 12:44 a.m.

    Great comments and thoughts. Good discussion of ideas here. I like the suggestion of that instead of pulling a player off the winning team in the case of a blowout, add a player instead to the team that is being blowing out. However as is pointed out in the article, it likely wont work due to the rules of the game and the referees as he points out. Not an easy solution even from some of the best thinkers. So all in all, after all is said and done, coaches you can control a blowout by pulling a player from the team who is blowing a team out. If one has an issue with playing time, simply schedule a couple of extra friendlies in the season to compensate for any missed times for the players. Remember this suggestion is only for games that are 5-0 or above and after the game has been decided.

    I encourage clubs to take a long look at this issue and take control of an issue that causes problems with the long term growth of the game as a whole.

    Good Stuff Mike!

  2. Frank Trovato, January 31, 2013 at 1:54 a.m.

    Just to add, my experience tells me that placing conditions on a team who is blowing a team out doesn't make a better game for both teams. It only serves to keep the ball from the team being blown out. By playing a player down, the game will even out and both teams will get a better game with restricting your own players including the strong teams GK. Forget the conditions and create a good game for all players on the field by pulling a player off. Again if playing time is an issue, schedule some friendlies to make up the time.

  3. Al Micucci, January 31, 2013 at 11:31 a.m.

    I have always had my teams play two touch. Although it is the measure of a very good team, at the young ages it is diffficult to accomplish. This helps my kids get their heads up, but also lets us lose the ball enough that the other team gets to play. Also, having them shoot from outside the box lets them have at the goal but from a distance that they have difficulty reaching and or cannot be accurate.

  4. Tom Merchant, January 31, 2013 at 11:48 a.m.

    Discreetly pulling players off the field serves two purposes. It allows a more even finish to the match and it challenges the winning team to play more thoughtfully. Certainly switching backs and forwards helps but it frequently just puts hungry sharks in the pool.
    While the short sided team's players are getting less field time, the losing teams players are hopefully getting more time on the ball. They had come to the park to enjoy soccer as well.
    I have found my parents are not angered by the loss of time for their kids but appreciative of the lesson of respect.
    We teach our players more than just soccer skills.

  5. Randolph Rompola, January 31, 2013 at 12:01 p.m.

    At the younger ages, I think it is one of many responsibilities of a coach to recognize the game flow. Before the rout is on, look to impose the restrictions. Perhaps moving players around on the field, adding on shooting restrictions or subbing in weaker players up top sooner or giving them more playing time. Maybe at 2-0 instead of 5-0. Yes, there is some risk in doing that, but I think you can teach more in the game by doing things like that than pulling kids off the field.

  6. Ken Hohman, January 31, 2013 at 12:28 p.m.

    I've found that in futsal or indoor soccer matches, where the goal disparity is often ridiculous, telling the players to do 7, 10 or even 12 consecutive touches before they can shoot works very well. It also gives the opposition more opportunities to gain possession.

  7. Jack Murphy, January 31, 2013 at 1:31 p.m.

    Great article and terrific suggestions. There are many ways to deal with a rout situation but care must be taken to not impose any restriction that might increase chances of injury.

  8. Paul Swenson, January 31, 2013 at 1:47 p.m.

    Some great suggestions here. I think this is really a big picture issue that centers around the soccer coaching culture in America. And that is promoting and nurturing a methodology whose emphasis is on player development, not winning. That means coaches care more about developing players than winning the game. One example would be if I keep nine year old Johnny up front, with his speed he is going to score lots of goals and we'll win. But I'd like to give Johnny time in the midfield as well so he can learn what it is like to play under more pressure and develop his close ball handling skills, plus Joe, though he is not as fast and as much of a threat as Johnny, deserves some time in the forward position so he can learn what is like to take a defender on one on one and try to score.

    In addition teaching kids sportsmanship and respect for their opponents at the youngest of ages is crucial.

    In my mind these needed changes in mindset for coaching youth soccer are the bigger problem. There is an excellent book out now that does a great job discussing all this, Coaching Outside the Box: Changing the Mindset in Youth Soccer. An awesome read IMO.

  9. Jaime Ramirez, January 31, 2013 at 1:56 p.m.

    Take a look at this video link and tell me who discouraged the young man on this video from scoring goals. And yet we marvel at his wizardry these days.
    Please stop posting articles that restrict or limit our kids from scoring. Did you see our National Team play against Canada the other day. We have no goal scorers. Please do not stifle our kids from learning the craft of scoring goals. Can you stop sending articles like these. No one has suggested ways to help the routed teams to improve in their own scoring ability. Really disappointed in this series of articles. We need more goal scoring in this country. Thanks,

  10. Luis Arreola, January 31, 2013 at 7:13 p.m.

    Jaime, I agree. Our kids are soft and we are encouraging it with these articles. When these routed teams do get to compete is because they are taught to bunker in the back at kick it up the field to their fastest player. They would rather lose 3-0 than 7-2. How stupid is that?? Instead of having kids at least score a goal or 2 in a game they will lose anyway they teach them to defend as much as possible to not get blown out. Losing teams should be encouraged to try and string 3-4 passes going forward without worrying about the score. Agree 100%

  11. Brian Something, January 31, 2013 at 10:30 p.m.

    Two things I never do during games where my team is way ahead are 1) tell my kids to not try to score, 2) tell my kids to not try their hardest in general. Going out of your way to not score is more insulting and rubbing it in than running up the score (like all coaches I've been on both sides). It says we're so good we can toy with you... like holding a string near a cat and then pulling it away. I never tell them to not try their hardest because really what kind of message is that sending. Plus it creates bad habits for the next game.

  12. Brian Something, January 31, 2013 at 10:33 p.m.

    When we are way ahead, I will use that as an opportunity to give weaker kids more playing time if I have a big squad. If I have a small squad or it's at a younger age where everyone's playing a lot anyways, I'll use that as an opportunity to let kids play in different positions. I'll put my normal attacking players (especially the ones who are scoring a lot) as defenders and vice versa. Or I'll tell my attacking players try to feed a kid who hasn't score a goal yet. Things like that. Things like this will by their nature keep the score down but without insulting things like being in a 1 v 1 with the GK and then turning around and playing it back to your own GK...

  13. Luis Arreola, February 1, 2013 at 10:34 a.m.

    I have coached players in top divsion at U12 or U14 where we have gotten killed 5-0, 6-1. I have had very few want to quit the team and actually want to join the winning team. 99% of the time this behavior is encouraged by the parents. I strongly believe these are the kids that probably played teams that held back from scoring more on them. Therefore they are weak minded and cant handle a blowout even at the highest levels at a more mature age. It's easier to teach a younger player to handle a loss or blowout than a teenager, be it a coach or parent. Bad habits, attitudes, personalities should be dealt with early and not until they are U12/U14. My now U14 team got killed 8-0 by the #3 Nationally ranked team when they were U9's. They didnt let up. Parents yelled at me and told me we should not have played that strong of a team. At U11 we played them to a tie. At U12 we beat them in a Semi. This team ended up recruiting 4 players from my team and 2 are now regular starters for them. They are the Chicago Magic. My players learned to take a blowout, use it as motivation, we set the goal to some day beat them, accomplished it, theyn now have great character.

  14. Kent James, February 1, 2013 at 2:45 p.m.

    Blowouts don't help anyone. Encouraging kids to score goals against outmanned opposition doesn't help them score goals later (unless, perhaps, it's kids who've never scored before who might gain some confidence, so there may be some merit in that). But coaches discouraging kids to score goals in blowouts is not the source of our offensive difficulties. On the other hand, discouraging players from playing hard (to prevent the run up in score) is not good for their development either, so the trick is to make your players work hard, but not run up the score, and not humiliate the other team. And I think it is more humiliating when the stronger team OBVIOUSLY is not trying to score (such as when a team plays keep away, or creates 1 on 1 situations and then turns away from goal). What I've found to work is to have kids shoot from distance (at least outside the 18, and encourage shots from longer distance). Only shooting with the weak foot is also useful. Another useful strategy is to have every player take on at least one opponent on the dribble, before passing or shooting. You may even give up some goals as defenders lose possession in the back, but in a blowout, that's not a bad result. Using such strategies gets your players to try hard, work on a useful skill, and the other team will get some ball possession.

  15. Luis Arreola, February 2, 2013 at 9:16 a.m.

    Kent, that certainly works but like you stated it is hard for a losing team to feel good about an obvious loss no matter what you do. If I am losing it doesnt help that you are obviously not trying to score by hitting other coaching points. In my mind I m thinking "Wow, we suck so much this team is using us as practice". I guess it depends on who is getting blown out. If you have kids that are unrealistic about competition then I guess yes, it helps to run up score. But if you are a realisitc competitor then you know exactly when the other team is letting up on you and how they are doing it and it is more degrating to have that team treat you like a practice dummy. Respect is hsown many ways and differently for different people. As a coach I would see your solutions as an insult to our team. If I am losing 5-0 at halftime I would use those 5 minutes to "coach" and push my kids to "compete" to a 2-0 loss or tie. If opposing team has a man less or playing posession it ruins my intentions. For my team to show great character and pride.

  16. Luis Arreola, February 2, 2013 at 9:19 a.m.

    Sorry, misprint. It helps not to run up score.

  17. R2 Dad, February 3, 2013 at 12:05 a.m.

    Jaime, you're missing the big picture. We have thousands of kids who score many goals at the youth level, it's the quality of the goals that is the problem. Typical route 1 soccer does not prepare our players to succeed past age 12. You point out Messi, but he is certainly an exception and I must say not trained here in the US. I find it quite ironic that you would mention the US/Canada friendly, which was JKs effort to blood new MLS players. Perhaps you missed the US/Guatemala match, where Carlos Ruiz was the best player on the pitch but his team sucked because all they knew how to do was play kick and run like some crappy rec team. The US DOES have goal scorers--what we really don't have is a world-class playmaker in midfield who can run the show. And scoring tons of goals will do nothing to groom that type of professional. The real problem in this country at the youth level is our love of kick and run in order to win.

  18. Frank Trovato, February 3, 2013 at 4:09 p.m.

    Great thoughts. With all this create the new Messi talk, players who play numbers down are forced to dribble more. Less passing options. Messi didn't get to where he is at by playing only 1v1. He constantly has to dribble with 2, 3, even four defenders around. Playing a man down promotes using the dribble to find shots or passes, against multiple defenders. After the rout is on, using restrictions against a demoralized team does nothing for them and does very little for your team. Playing well with no real pressure against your team is counter productive for the game at the next level.

    If you are using the game as a practice and incurring restrictions I enourage you to rethink the meaning of game time. Games are to allow players to improve their skill and decision making on their own and in the team context.

    Here is an example of how conditions in games actually prevent players from making the correct technical choice and decision. Dribbling is essential at the right time and if I force my team into two touch or required numbers of passes then you take away the correct decision of dribbling, again at the right time.

    Create the next Messi......and control the rout in youth soccer in a developmentally intelligent way. Try it a few times before you judge it.

  19. Kent James, February 4, 2013 at 12:26 a.m.

    Luis: I think you misunderstood my post. I agree that when a team is so much better that it is obviously not scoring to avoid running up the score, that is more humiliating than actually running up the score. But if a team is taking shots from distance, the team can play hard, and they are less likely to score goals (since it's a more difficult task). Likewise, shooting with the weak foot can be disguised also. A lot of this is how it's done; when a team is shouting out the limitations a coach has placed on them, that defeats the purpose of trying to avoid humiliating the other team. Some players may recognize what you're doing (and the coach might), but when the alternatives are either running up the score, or telling your players to not play hard, it's the "least bad alternative".

  20. Luis Arreola, February 4, 2013 at 12:21 p.m.

    I agree with both Frank and Kent in using lopsided games to improve dribbling and long distance shooting and whatever else you want to improve for "your team". I just dont think as coaches we should worry about opposing tems quitting soccer because of wht they might think was a humiliating loss. It is the losing coach's and parent's job to teach their kids how to handle a loss and the way it was handled by the winning coach and players. One must show class at all times. If you play with a 1-2 men down that can instantly be seen as a humiliating tactic by someone that wants to look at it that way. In this case frank, you are doing what you think is right and more importantly what is best for your team. This does not mean the opposing team will understand it or not discourage the losing team. You cant expect to make everyone happy.

  21. Frank Trovato, February 5, 2013 at 1:33 a.m.

    Hi Luis, the goal of all this is to get an ven balanced game without restrictions. The player reduction method leaves the purity in he gam and will strengthen your players in he right way, able to make the decisions correct for the situation. He opposing team will get more of g ball and real opportunities on goal. If I know there may be a problem I speak to the other coach before the gem starts. At first they can find offense, like you, but when they try it they will find it is better for all players on the field. My intital post was regarding how leagues can set in play a Fair Play Rule if they would like. If not coaches can do so. Give it a try a few times before judging.

  22. Frank Trovato, February 5, 2013 at 3:06 a.m.

    Hi Luis, my only suggestion is that you give it a try. I have countlessly tried all of your suggestions over the years. Let it tell you if it is valuable. Remember one blowout isn't the issue. It is a season of blowouts that can truly negatively impact player retention. Great discussion, last post, best to you, look me up on Facebook....

  23. Luis Arreola, February 5, 2013 at 9:29 a.m.

    Frank, I understand your objective and it is the right thing to do. I have done this more times than not. I am all about challenging my players. I play "most" of my players up an age. I understand exactly what your saying and applaud your insight. I exxagerated about getting offended. I just wanted to make an overall point about what could happen. I would ask you to leave your full team on the field but would understand if you decided to pull some out as I would do the same as you, if we ever played each other and your team was superior. All I am saying is you cant control how the losing team will react, nor should you worry about it. I wouldnt thank you for pulling a man out or playing your bench in a lopsided game. I would still think you are a good coach for finding a way to challenge " Your Players". I would shake your hand and congratulate you inrecogntion of what your doing for your team and not for mine. If you killed me 10-0 I would still shake your hand the same way. Now if your a coach that just likes to kill teams and look for weak competition then that I dont respect. The most important purpose of your philosophy in lopsided games is that you challenge ypour own team and help them improve. That is the only thing you can control. If I am the losing team in a game that the winning team pulls players, plays it's goalie, etc. my team is not really taking much from that game. If you play me straight up both 1/2s I try to coach my team to play better in 2nd 1/2 . 4-0 1st 1/2, 2-0 2nd 1/2. We take much more from a game like this no matter what the overall outcome. If players get demoralized in a game like this and want to quit, I say leave and come back when you have a heart and want to compete. Like I said if you are having an entire season of blowouts, the league is not doing their job correctly. That sucks for every team. I would hate to play a team I know I will blowout.

  24. Luis Arreola, February 5, 2013 at 9:35 a.m.

    The only solution in a season that will see a team get blown out is move them down a division. Especially if it's a Rec league where winning usually doesnt matter anyway because every team is usually forced to play every player the same amount of time. Every division in every league usually has a team that's killing everyone and one that's losing every game. In a competitive league you have to wait to move up and down a division. Rec leagues should have no problem doing this mid season. Don't expect coaches to get on same page as you. League officials must take action to make it as competitive as they can first.

  25. Roland Van wyngaarden, February 5, 2013 at 9:39 p.m.

    I believe that if the score is rout, so be it! The other team will get over it. Maybe the coach needs to change strategy, sub or switch players around the field. To tell an 8-year old boy to stop scoring is outrageous. The boy has talent and knows hot to score. What more does a coach want. Every team has a topscorer. The coach can pull him back to midfield after a while. Suggestions such as shoot outside the penalty area, shoot with their weaker foot, does not sit well with me. Keep those for practice.
    The losing team has to realize it is just one game. It is nonsense to say they will quit playing soccer. Yes, nobody wants to lose, but lose big has the advantage to improve either strategy or ball handling (1x1, passing, shooting, etc.) Try different kids to be goalie (the most under-estimated position in youth soccer).

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