Why So Many Non-Competitive Games?

By Randy Vogt

I hate to be a Grinch during this Christmas season but there’s a problem with a good minority of college and high school games, at least the ones that I have been officiating. Earlier this year, I wrote about Preventing Lopsided Scores in which I partly took leagues and tournaments to task for grouping teams that are not competitive when they play one another.

One of the reasons that the U.S. Soccer Development Academy has prohibited its players from competing in high school soccer is it says that too many of those games are not competitive. I am not in favor of this ban for most kids as the publicity and community support does wonders for many high school players but on the issue of how competitive some of their games are, they certainly have a point.

I have refereed high school games in two states, briefly in Florida 25 years ago and in New York during the past decade, and have been a college official since 1986. In New York, high school soccer is played during the fall, the same season for the college season, so it’s a very busy time for refereeing. I also officiate high school teams in a summer league as well as college teams in exhibition games before the season.

Referees are to officiate the game the same way whether it’s 0-0 or 10-0. Not whistling fouls in favor of the team leading by many goals or calling phantom fouls in favor of squads on the losing end of a rout will get the referee in trouble as the ref can never favor one team.

It turns out that many of the high school, junior college and college games that I have officiated this fall have not been competitive, much more so than the youth or amateur games I have officiated. The main reason being that conferences are formed based on a combination of geography and competition in all sports plus possibly religious affiliation while soccer league divisions organized under the U.S. Soccer umbrella are based on competition in just soccer and possibly geography. So with high school or college play, the schools might be competitive in basketball and volleyball but not in soccer.

Here are statistics of my games. I am considering a rout to be a win by five goals or more:

• College, junior college and high school games played this fall -- 34 games officiated and 35% were routs

• College, junior college and high school games played before the season that the coaches set up -- 28 games officiated and 4% were routs

• Youth and amateur games played this fall-64 games officiated and 8% were routs

I should point out that any Division 1 college games I officiated were competitive and routs were more of an issue in the lower divisions and junior colleges.

Exacerbating the percentage of routs in college, junior college and high school games is the fact that official time is kept on the scoreboard and the clock stops after every goal. With official time on the field, the ref would do the common sense thing and not add time after every goal in a blowout. It’s just another reason why college and high school soccer should get in sync with the rest of the world by using FIFA rules with official time being kept by the referee.

Also exacerbating the percentage of routs is the fact that there is no roster size limit in college and high school soccer so you sometimes have 25 players playing against 12. The subs of the larger team are fresh and often very hungry as they might not get on the field much, all while the smaller team is tiring.

In a Division 3 women’s college game that I recently refereed, I got the impression before the game that the visiting team did not expect the game to be competitive. They had lost to the same team, 11-0, last year but their team’s record had improved this year. The home team attacked from the opening whistle. The final score was 8-0 and there was a 61-1 differential in shots.

But the most surreal game that I officiated recently was at Macombs Dam Park in the Bronx, on the site of Yankee Stadium from 1923 to 2008, across the street from the new Yankee Stadium and right near the latest proposal for New York City FC to build a stadium. I did not think the game would be competitive as it was between a nationally ranked junior college and another junior college that was winless. Only nine players from the winless team showed up.

Before we could start the game, high school players came for their game. Their coach also had a permit for the same field and same time, signed by the same woman as the junior college permit. After some of the high school players tried to stage a sit-in on the field to prevent our game from getting started, cooler heads prevailed and they left as we were at the field first.

Our final score was 19-1 and the shot differential was 33-4. Despite that loss, the winless squad went on to win a couple of games. Three teams make the playoffs in their very small conference and these teams finished in second and third place so they played in the first round. The final score of that game was an also unbelievable 20-0.

It’s about time that schools do not schedule games when one team is so much better than another as it does not benefit anybody. As seen in the statistics on my games above, the college and high school coaches have it right regarding who their team should be playing but the athletic directors often do not as they are taking into account other sports.

I would be interested in knowing if Soccer Americans, through their comments below, have noticed a large number of non-competitive games on the college and high school level as well.

(Randy Vogt has officiated over 8,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to 6-year-olds being cheered on by very enthusiastic parents. In his book, "Preventive Officiating," he shares his wisdom gleaned from thousands of games and hundreds of clinics to help referees not only survive but thrive on the soccer field. You can visit the book’s website at

14 comments about "Why So Many Non-Competitive Games? ".
  1. Peter Skouras, December 20, 2013 at 7:53 a.m.

    Why? Because we have a non-existent domestic structure headed my the MLS. All entities are looking for fees so individuals can pay their bills. The Federation is responsible. As I've mentioned in the past to SA, take a trip to other countries and have a look a the set-up and construction. It is all based on "1." But one needs time, at least a few years, to realize how promotion-relegation operates. I believe it is too late now...the US Soccer Foundation with its thousands of leagues leading to nowhere has been set.

  2. Eric Snell, December 20, 2013 at 10:22 a.m.

    Our high school play is in the Spring. Historically, our preseason games are competitive (actively scheduled to be so by the coaches). When we enter regional play (games dictated by geography and school size), we usually will mercy rule 3 teams (score of > 10), and the games are terminated at that time. 3 more could be considered routs by your definition, and 3 are competitive (these are the three teams that historically make the playoffs every year). High school ball is nice.....but not watched/cheered by the students until playoffs as our region usually produces State champions. Last year 3 of 4 semi-finalists were from our region. Attribute that to athletes, and good club play.

  3. John Rogers, December 20, 2013 at 10:49 a.m.

    One of the best coaches my young grandson (currently U-14) had used a subtle way of dealing with one-sided situations, at least when his team was on top. When the game appeared to be out of reach for the opponents, he would quietly spread the word to go to a "transition" mode, where the boys knew they could only score on a header, or shoot from outside the box, or some other limitation pre-determined, either by the coach or by the boys themselves.

    On the losing side - grin and bear it.

    Does anyone else like this approach?

  4. Elicia Nolan, December 20, 2013 at 11:16 a.m.

    "It’s just another reason why college and high school soccer should get in sync with the rest of the world by using FIFA rules with official time being kept by the referee"

    I agree with this. I feel like when i watch my high schooler's games I'm confused half the time because its not the same as when i'm on the couch watching a professional game.

    My biggest issue is not so much the unequal/non-competitive games so much as the message a coach sends to a player when they put in a "second squad" after his team is already winning 8-0. Center Moriches boys coach is notorious for this. I'm so glad i am finished with him.

  5. Richard White, December 20, 2013 at 11:31 a.m.

    I wish you would send this article to the Tennessee high school authority, TSSAA. They have no clue. In west Tennessee we had a girls high school score of 28 - 0, which destroyed a high school program. Then, another coach wanting his star player to get the state goal scoring record so ran up scores usually in the teens.

  6. Kent James, December 20, 2013 at 11:38 a.m.

    John, your coach is doing the right thing. The important aspect of his strategy is the subtlety. Sometimes superior teams make an obvious demonstration that they could score more but choose not to (players dribbling towards the goal with an unimpeded path who suddenly turn around and pass back, e.g.). In addition to not running up the score, the benefit to your coach's approach is that his players can still play hard, and they can work on different aspects of their game so that they may still get something out of it. I think it is also respectful of the other team (much more so than not trying hard).

  7. Kent James, December 20, 2013 at 11:53 a.m.

    High School (at least in this area) is the most notorious level of competition for lopsided scores. Almost every conference has a team or two at the bottom that loses by double digits most games. It is difficult to sustain student interest in such a program, especially when conference schedules take up most of the season. I think there are two possible solutions; one, is to play fewer conference games (we play everyone 2x; if we played each team once we'd have 6 or 7 open games). I think this is done primarily because it's easy (the scheduling of conference games essentially takes care of itself, whereas non-conference games have a lot of variables and take much more effort to schedule). Conference games are important because conference standings determine entrance to the state playoffs (obviously, this is meaningless to the teams on the bottom). If conferences were determined by the power of the teams, instead of geographic proximity, conference games would be more meaningful. If each conference had the same number of playoff spots open, such a switch would be unfair. But if the strongest conferences got more slots (say 4 slots in an 8 team conference) while the weakest ones got fewer (1 for an 8 team conference), most regular season games could be competitive while still allowing a reasonably fair system of allocating entrance to the state playoffs. Determining the relative strength of the conferences might be tough, but at the very least, if there was just one "weak" conference that teams had the option to join (even if it did not have a slot for the playoffs), that might provide a means by which those teams could play soccer without getting hammered every week...

  8. Anthony Kahn, December 20, 2013 at 12:10 p.m.

    In our geographically isolated area of the far north coast os California, we do not really have many options for the high school schedule, besides early season tournament play. Another exacerbating problem is that one of our area schools attracts most of the top club players, such that there become very few competitive games in-season for the high school teams. The answer is to provide rich off season club play. This still necessitates a lot of travel for us.

  9. Tony Marturano, December 20, 2013 at 12:44 p.m.

    Good points all … but the point which most miss, including Mr. Vogt, is that High School sports are about providing competition - any competition. So ADs would rather use conference affiliation to schedule ALL their soccer games than allow their coaches to schedule based on strength … if the AD allows the soccer coach to schedule soccer, why can't the volleyball coach schedule VB and the football coach schedule FB and the track coach … suddenly the ADs would be "herding cats" rather that directing the athletic program.
    Also, in High School their really are two types of players: those that want to win and play 10-12 months per year vs. those that want to play with their friends and neighbors and play during the HS season and then go onto the next activity.

  10. Matt Stachler, December 20, 2013 at 2:05 p.m.

    Bottom line is coaching. You'll find boy/girls who will attempt to score as many goals as they can against a team that is well below standard. The team with the talent tends to play very poor soccer in their attempts to score these goals.

    As a coach, responsibility should always be taken to try and make something out of any game, whether you are losing or winning easily.

    Ultimately, this is a "game". For almost all, it will only be a blip in a lifetime. Coaches should help create life lessons.

  11. Bruce Gowan, December 20, 2013 at 3:15 p.m.

    I coach HS soccer in FL where the districts are set by the State based on school size and geography. That means that district games can be very lopsided. In the past, coaches could seek out competitive games to balance the season but the number of games has been cut back and school districts have restricted the cost of travel. At least when the top two teams in each district go into regional play the competition gets tough.

  12. Randy Vogt, December 21, 2013 at 7:38 a.m.

    I wrote about non-competitive games being an issue with games on the high school level and outside Division 1 on the college level. Soccer Americans responded that it's clearly an issue on the high school level where they live. Although a couple wrote that coaches have run up scores, in the many games that I have officiated, I have only seen this three times and not at all recently. I am happy to write that nearly all of the stronger teams that I have officiated have shown compassion toward the much weaker team. Yet non-competitive games do not benefit anybody, including the stronger team as they are not being at all challenged. High schools would not put students of diverse ability in the same class so I question why they are doing it with their athletic programs. It's not just soccer as I just read of a girls varsity basketball team defeating their opponents 71-22. So my Christmas wish for high school soccer games is that they one day all be competitive, follow the Laws of the Game and have three officials instead of two refs. Merry Christmas, Randy

  13. James Madison, December 21, 2013 at 10:59 p.m.

    The degree of competitiveness must vary by region. We do not see such a mixture of competitive and non-competitive teams at the high school level on the San Francisco Peninsula or, indeed, in the Central Coast Section of the California Interscholastic Federation. Partly this is because schools are grouped in divisins of leagues by their performance and partly because they are grouped into playoffs by size of enrollment. For similar reasons, the degree of competitiveness among junior colleges is pretty good, although better among men than women. Both the high schools and the junior colleges use the diagonal system for officiating, although the high schools use dual for frosh-soph matches. And the junion colleges play according to the Laws of the Game.

  14. Randy Vogt, December 22, 2013 at 7:23 a.m.

    According to Ric Fonseca and James Madison above, California junior colleges use the Laws of the Game. I would be interested in knowing if part of that is having the ref keep the official time. By doing so, the ref would hopefully do the common sense thing and let a shot continue to its completion if time in the half is coming to an end. With time on the scoreboard, the half ends even if the shot is in mid-air and the dilemma for officials is determining if the ball went into the goal before the half ended. It's an issue that should not come up with official time on the field.

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