Small-sided push from USSF promises long-term benefits

By Charlie Slagle

The U.S. Soccer Federation looks like it is getting ready to mandate small-sided games. My comment: what took you so long? Youth player development is, or at least should be, the goal of the soccer clubs in this country and playing with too many players on the field, on too large a field, shooting and goalkeeping with too large a goal, etc. are not achieving the desired result … player development.

The advantages of having fewer players on the field is that it will maximize the number of touches that each player might have during the game. It will, also, help diffuse any boredom that a player might have from not being as involved in the game. Remember, we are, also, trying to instill a love for the game with these young players that will last a lifetime. The gist is for players to learn the skills of the game and the more touches each player gets, the more skill development that can happen. The pros may play 11-v-11 but that isn’t what got the pros to their individual skill level. European clubs play small-sided games and it should be mandated here.

If you have fewer players on the field, then the field should be smaller or you lose the benefit of the small-sided competition. Playing on too large of a field allows for too much space for players thus negating the skill development of the players. On too large of a field, fast players will have space to the side and forward and will use their physical attributes to get past players instead of developing the skills needed for later in their career. As the other players get bigger and faster and the field becomes relatively smaller at the older age brackets, this kind of player’s speed advantage lessens and the lack of skill development will hurt their development and success.

Playing on a regular-size goal will also retard skill development. In youth basketball, until a certain age, the basket is lowered to allow for success by the players. It is the opposite with too large of a goal on the field. A smaller goal allows for more success by the goalkeeper as and 8x24-foot goal has areas that are unprotectable by a smaller goalkeeper. The bigger goal allows for easier scoring without an emphasis on the skill development of shooting.

Other sports have varying degrees of changes in the younger age brackets. Most pee-wee football allows coaches on the field to instruct but play on a bigger field where long touchdown plays can be the norm. Baseball has coach-pitch, machine-pitch, etc., to allow batters, with smaller bats, to see more good pitches but haven’t solved the boredom problem of players in certain positions getting very few balls hit to them. Youth basketball does use, in most cases, the lower basket and also makes the court smaller where possible.

All this being said, the USSF can mandate smaller-sided games and it is a great idea. However, it can’t mandate eliminating coaches who put too much of an emphasis on winning at an early age or coaches taking short cuts to achieve victory. Monitoring this is a club’s responsibility.

Also, skill development will be enhanced by small-sided games but it is not a substitute for organized, well-planned and well-executed training sessions that stress skill development. The combination of good competitive games with small-sided numbers on appropriate-sized fields with appropriate-sized goals and great training sessions will propel our players to higher levels.

Bravo USSF! Happy Holidays!

(Charlie Slagle, who served as CEO of North Carolina’s Capital Area Soccer League (CASL) for more than 12 years, is the owner of Charlie Slagle Sport Consulting LLC, specializing in working with soccer clubs to help them reach their potential -- with emphasis on working with clubs' professional staff and board of directors. Slagle, the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Vice President of Education, was Davidson College head men's coach in 1980-2000 and tournament organizer of 14 NCAA Division I College Cups.)

22 comments about "Small-sided push from USSF promises long-term benefits".
  1. Bob Dawson, December 12, 2014 at 1:23 p.m.

    AYSO has been playing small sided soccer through U12 for going on 15 years. In southern California, the clubs resist small sided soccer because it threatens their business model - smaller rosters would mean that coaches and clubs make less money.

  2. James Froehlich, December 12, 2014 at 1:46 p.m.

    Bravo Charlie and bravo USSF! Having a mandate is key to bringing clubs and tournaments in line!

  3. Kent James, December 12, 2014 at 1:57 p.m.

    I certainly agree with the points Charlie made. Two additional benefits to small-sided games; first, it takes off some of the pressure to make it as competitive as the EPL, since 3 v 3 or 4 v 4 games are hard to keep track of, remember, and are often on jury-rigged fields, no goal keepers, etc. More like a neighborhood pick-up game, as it should be. The other, more nuanced opportunity having more small-sided games allows is the opportunity to mix up the group of players. You can take your 6 best players (from each teams) and let 'em play 3 v 3, and you'll have a very high quality, intense game. Likewise, having the 6 worst players on the field lets them play more significant roles. And mixing the skill levels encourages the good players to try things (because they're not under such intense pressure by being surrounded by good defenders), and allows the weaker players to see what the good players do (and hopefully, emulate them). I know the USSF has recommended small-sided games for a long time (so it's not like they didn't know), but sometimes it's necessary to mandate things to make sure important things are truly universal.

  4. Mark Torres, December 12, 2014 at 2:33 p.m.

    I love it, but how will they enforce it??

  5. mike renshaw, December 12, 2014 at 8:27 p.m.

    You lot are having a laugh...there is NO WAY the 'big' clubs will go along with this obvious solution to developing skillful on earth could they justify 18-22 player rosters when only 7 or so players are on the field ?....they would have to reduce their squads (no they wouldn't just add more teams)and this they will NEVER agree to do...The 'big' clubs are the problem nationwide...they are a total joke and in it for one thing and one thing figure out more and more ways to get into the parents back pocket.

  6. Ref Evaluator, December 12, 2014 at 9:04 p.m.

    Mike, yes absolutely.

  7. Kent James, December 13, 2014 at 12:16 a.m.

    Mike, you can have a normal roster size and just play small-sided games on multiple fields next to each other. So you can have 11 kids on each team, one coach per team, have two 20x30 yd fields next to each other, with space between them for the subs, and you have 6 players playing while 5 are out. One coach manages each field (so each coach manages players from both teams, and essentially tries to make sure "his field" runs well. There are many other ways to do it, but one coach can easily manage a field with 6 players and a few subs. In addition to the developmental benefits, when the coach is coaching both teams (on one field), you eliminate the "we want our team to win" atmosphere and replace it with "let's see if we can get a great game going". And by running multiple fields, you can arrange the players by skill levels (as I mentioned above). It works quite well, and really changes the atmosphere (it also fosters cooperation between coaches).

  8. Miguel Dedo, December 13, 2014 at 11:21 a.m.

    “Youth player development is, or at least should be, the goal of the soccer clubs”
    What is this nonsense? Enjoying the game, the interaction among parents and kids, a sense of being part of a game played around the world, … Who’s paramount motivation for driving kids to soccer practice is that the United States win the World Cup in 2046? That person is sick. “Player development has a role, in the sense explained by The-Cat-in-the-Hat, “Look at me, look at me, look at me now! It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how!”

  9. Ref Evaluator, December 14, 2014 at 1:08 a.m.

    Kent, thats another big issue. Why do we have so many subs in USA for games?? 5 subs for 6 players?? In a sport that at the highest level only allows 3 subs total in a 90+minute game?? How can you get a great soccer game going when it is treated like its hockey? How about all these great coaches play with 2 subs max??

  10. R2 Dad, December 14, 2014 at 1:23 a.m.

    Not all small-sided games are equal. Futsal is far superior to indoor soccer.

  11. cony konstin, December 14, 2014 at 9:54 a.m.

    In 2010 the president of the Spaninsh FA spoke to a group of FIFA futsal instructors. He said, "One of the main reasons that Spain won the world cup and Euro is because he help to implement futsal in the mid 1980s in every school in Spain." The system that is in place and has been in place for years has become obsolete. $300 cleats, youth academies, nice turf fields, coaching curriculums, dvds, other gimmicks and smoke n mirrors are not going to cut it any more. Our national treasure LD is retiring. There is no one in front of him or even behind him that comes close. FUTSAL is the solution. It can be our version of street soccer. The kids need a place to call sanctuary/home. They need a place where they can be risk takers and innovators without adult interference. They are not going to get that with a pay to play model. Money should not be the issue. What the real issue is, is the lack of leadership and vision. That is what we are lacking. I have been coaching for 40 years and we have always had good players but no special ones. Why? Because the system sucks!!!! I will say one thing there is no doubt that our pay to play system is the best in the world if your focus is teaching kids life skills, teamwork, and way to fight against youth obesity. But develop to future cracks,magical, innovative, dazzeling, 21st century soccer warriors. NOT! We need radical change. We need a REVOLTION! US has always had good players but we have never had magical/great players. Why? Because we need street soccer in the US. Yes it is impossible to play street soccer in US because it is dangerous to play in the streets but our version of street ball can be futsal. Futsal is the only way that we can create special players. Pele, Robiniho, Ronaldo, Rondalniho,Neymar, CR7, Messi and many other great players played futsal when they were kids. Key word is KIDS!!!! That where it begins with kids.That is why US Soccer needs to build 600,000 futsal courts in our inner cities and suburbs. Because only from the streets will you discover the passion and magic of football. It has to come natural. Coaching kids to death is over rated. If you build it. They will come!!!!! REVOLUTION = FUTSAL!!!!! Happy Holidays to all.

  12. Kent James, December 14, 2014 at 10:41 a.m.

    Ref, I was not suggesting 5 subs for 6 players was ideal, but only saying that you can play small sided games with the same adult supervision as you have for 11 v 11 (since people have expressed that concern). In reality, anyone can manage a small-sided game, so you don't need to rely on qualified coaches (parents capable of managing children work fine, and contribute to the relaxed atmosphere), though a qualified coach should oversee the parents to make sure they're not encouraging bad habits ("boot it Johnny, boot it!"). It's best when almost all the kids are playing almost all the time, and you can go with no subs if you have the facilities for it. Some people object that it's not "real" soccer (no keepers, no refs, no red cards (:-)), but at the younger levels (U6/U8) it works quite well. By U10, the players are usually ready for slightly bigger goals with a few more kids on the field.

  13. R2 Dad, December 14, 2014 at 8:47 p.m.

    cony, I know you have been calling for a revolution for quite some time, but I don't see it happening quite that way. Your futsal rollout is the efficient, logical, state-sponsored process that will never happen (unless Bill Gates gets a wild hair). I see it happening in a messier, more organic way. Futsal players start becoming more frequently represented at Academies/ODP/League-of-The-Month/UMNT. Know-nothing parents, speaking to other know-nothing parents, start discussing how futsal=college scholarship. Travel soccer parents, tired of driving to BFE for tournaments and league play every weekend, push for local futsal teams that can compete against same-age and age+1 local teams to save them the misery of uprooting their family every weekend to drive 250 miles. Futsal becomes the new "Travel" team phenomenon we've seen over the past 10 years. Know-nothing parents and win-at-all-cost coaches, despite their best attempts to sabotage youth development, get swept up in this new, latest, greatest thing. The end result will be a bigger pool of players with good foot skills and shooting skills (but not much else) at the U14 level, Hopefully by then the Wild West/casino of leagues/coaches out to make a buck will evolve as parents demand real coaches who have actually played at the pro level vs lacrosse coaches who have worked their way up the old-boy ladder.

  14. Bruce Gowan, December 15, 2014 at 8:32 a.m.

    Here in FL we play small sided games through U12. Previously we started playing full field at U11. I was against the change because as I suspected the U11 and U12 teams would evolve into a some bad tactics. The small field allows a few dominate players (2 or 3) to control the game by playing end to end. The small field also allows big kicks from keepers or backs to go end to end so that the game can turn into kick ball. The concept that small sides allows more touches by more players only works in theory. I use small sided small field games with High School age players and it works great because they understand that the training is for pass and move. Younger players don't understand the concept and only want to win.

  15. Paul Roby, December 15, 2014 at 9:42 a.m.

    Bruce, the situation you describe is where good coaches like you come in. If the younger players are kicking 50/50 balls all over the small field it's for the coach to teach them to keep possession. It's hard in the short term as kids give up cheap goals trying to play the ball out of the back, but it will pay off in the long term.

  16. Ref Evaluator, December 15, 2014 at 10:21 a.m.

    Bruce, you could also throw some rules in there, like cant shoot on goal unless you pass midfield, that will help the long ball issue. In my experience, long balls on small fields does not give you the advantage over a skilled team.

  17. GA Soccer Forum, December 15, 2014 at 10:34 a.m.

    so when u12 DA becomes a reality in 2016, will they play 8v8 or 9v9??

  18. GA Soccer Forum, December 15, 2014 at 11:07 a.m.

    also, i don't think anyone questions the benefits of small sided games etc.

    the question is when to start playing 11v11 and then to standardize it! yes basketball lowers the goals etc, but typically by 5th grade, the boys are playing on 10 foot rims and full court.

  19. Kent James, December 15, 2014 at 5:13 p.m.

    Bruce, while you are right that it is a little easier for a few players to dominate an 8 v 8 game than an 11 v 11 game, those players can still dominate the 11 v 11. For those dominant players, the smaller sided game is not as important to their development (though it does give them more opportunities in front of goal, which develops their goalscoring ability, something we can never get too much of). It's the other players that get the most out of it, because at the youth levels, many 11 v 11 games are actually 8 v 8 since it is not uncommon for a few players to have no meaningful contributions to the game. The 8 v 8 reduces the number of players on the field who aren't doing anything. And those "dominant" players may not remain dominant, and those supporting players may develop into dominant players later, so it is important to keep them involved and learning.

  20. Mike Hoyer, December 17, 2014 at 5:57 p.m.

    Clearly better for player development and aligns the US with Spain, England, and others mandating short sided play. Huge difference in club structures and the power of the associations.

    AYSO recognized the value of small sided games long ago. Glad to see USSF catching up.

  21. cony konstin, December 18, 2014 at 11:25 a.m.

    R2 Dad If this revolution doesn't happen then we will never be world champions. You can't make chicken soup with chicken s#$%. You need a chicken. Coaching is totally overrated. The children need a place that is theirs. They need a sanctuary, holy ground, a home. In the song of Carlos Santana, "Let the children play." This is what the kids need not more BS and smoke n mirrors.
    REVOLUTION = FUTSAL and it is coming!!!!!!

  22. Jeff Ginn, December 18, 2014 at 7:28 p.m.

    An old video from Georgia Youth Soccer Association that makes the argument for small sided games.

    In am effort to help convert others to ssg please share with other soccer coaches and parents.

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