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.)