Going for goal benefits young players in many ways

Let’s get something straight: Defense does not win championships.

Defense can get you a tie. But at some point, the ball has to go in the 8x24 thing at the other end of the field.

In league play, if you concede a goal or more per game, you can still finish mid-standings or higher. If you can’t score at least a goal per game, you’re in a relegation battle.

In a 24-team tournament like the Women’s World Cup, three 0-0 draws might get you to the knockout round, where you can start forcing games to kicks from the mark. But then you have to convert from the spot.

The 1999 final finished 0-0 and is best remembered for Briana Scurry’s save and Brandi Chastain’s final goal in the tiebreaking kicks from the mark. Forgotten is the fact that four other players -- Carla Overbeck, Joy Fawcett, Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm -- converted their kicks as well.

All of this should be obvious, right?

And yet in youth soccer, for all our talk about encouraging players to attack, we often reward teams that do the opposite.

In the rec league my son’s team won this spring, I was told by a fellow coach that we had only made it to the championship game because his team tied their last game instead of winning, which would have put our teams level on points. I pointed out that we were way ahead on goal difference. Yes, he said, but the tiebreaker was actually goals allowed -- because they didn’t want teams to run up the score.

(The head coach and I were unaware of this rule and would have approached things a bit differently had we known, but that’s another issue.)

Sure, no one wants to see a bunch of eighth-graders hanging 13 on a hapless opponent. But is it somehow better to strangle the game when you’re up 3-0 than it is to give the other team a chance to keep playing actual soccer?

As someone who has endured dozens of blowouts, I can tell you it’s better to lose 8-2 than it is to lose 5-0. If it’s 8-2, at least you have two moments in which everything came together. You’ve applied all that practice in dribbling, passing and finishing.

And that’s what we’re supposed to be teaching, isn’t it?

In training, we do. From an early age, we’re introducing players to the ball. Learn to dribble. Learn to pass. We don’t use goalkeepers until U-9.

But then organizers change the game. It’s not just my rec league. Tournaments, including a few major ones, use goals allowed or shutouts high up in their list of tiebreakers, just after or even ahead of basic goal difference. Some tournaments actually award a bonus point in the standings for a shutout.

Do we really want teams to shut things down and park the bus once they take a 1-0 or 2-0 lead?

Rephrasing: Do we want *youth* teams to do that? Aren’t they supposed to be developing their creativity at this age?

Telling kids to cling to that shutout at age 14 is a sure way to develop one-dimensional destroyers. Such players don’t last long at higher levels. Defenders and defensive midfielders have to be able to play the ball, especially in an era that prizes possession. They don’t learn such things when they’re just part of an eight-player pack in their own penalty area.

Teams and tournaments can still take steps to limit those 10-goal romps. Tournaments that use goal difference as a tiebreaker often cap that goal difference -- maybe five goals per game, so that an 8-1 win is no better than 6-1.

Even with that rule in place, teams can continue to play actual soccer. Switch players around from defense to forward. Pull back on opponents’ goal kicks so that the ball is in play in midfield and not just picked away from a terrified defender on the edge of the area.

Just keep playing. Keep trying to score, but let the other team have a chance as well. It’s better sportsmanship than reducing the game to a dour defensive exercise. And it’s better for development for both sides.

Maybe that development will win championships down the road. Defense alone won’t do the trick.

7 comments about "Going for goal benefits young players in many ways".
  1. Barry Tuck, June 27, 2019 at 3:24 p.m.

    as a coach and referee, I've seen all different approaches to dealing with these situations.  Putting restrictions on can be great, but if it's real obvious, like the coach yelling across the field "you can't shoot till you complete 20 passes", or having the goal scorer drop and do 20 push-ups, it's even more abusive than just running up the score.  The best tactic I've seen in Youth Soccer is subbing out 3 players but only putting 2 back on.  Might need to quietly tell the AR what's going on, but that way, the losing team starts to think they're suddenly doing just a little bit better.  Meanwhile, the winning team has to work a little harder.  Should the tides shift too dramatically, the winning coach can always put their extra player(s) back in.  

    I do agree with all the sentiments expressed.  You don't want to "train" players to take their foot off the gas, and goal scoring is ultimately what the game is all about. We saw a high school coach who's team was destroying a clearly inferior opponent tell his team to NOT score at any cost.  So one of his players dribbled through all the defenders into the Penalty area, turn around and dribble back out.  The ref stopped the game and yellow carded her for UB, for taunting. 

    And one final note, a reminder.  Brandi Chastain started out as an attacker, and migrated to Defense to up her chances of making the National Team.  Or at least that's how I remember the story.  The days of slotting players into their role at age 8 (big slow kid, stick 'em on defense and teach them to pound the ball forward; fast, quick kid, let them run on to it and past the big slow ones and shoot) should have long gone past.  They all need to learn every position because you never know where they'll wind up. 

  2. Bob Ashpole, June 27, 2019 at 6:11 p.m.

    Good article, Beau.

    There are no bad players, just bad coaches.

  3. Ginger Peeler, June 27, 2019 at 6:25 p.m.

    Agreed! When I began coaching and assisting while my daughter was in rec soccer, she attended a weeklong daycamp held by the San Diego Sockers. She emerged as a brand new player, comfortable on the ball and , even though right-footed, she passed and shot equally well with both feet. She was about 8 or 9. The rec teams consisted of 14 players per team. They played 60 minute games divided into 4 15-minute quarters and a break at halftime. All teams had players who struggled with ball control, name it. Every player on the team had to play for a minimum of 45 minutes per game. Every team we played put their weaker players in the defensive line. Of course, they were well aware of their shortcomings. While my daughter played center forward, I’d put the weaker players up front as a right or left forward. They loved it and some of them improved substantially by the end of the season while having fun. In San Diego, soccer was played through the school year, broken into 2 seasons. When my daughter made the traveling team, the team already had a center forward and the coach’s daughter always played right forward. With my daughter’s ability to dribble and shoot with her left foot, she played left forward. There were few “lefties” over the years on her teams (both traveling and junior high and high school), so she continued as a left forward. She ended her college career as a sweeper in Vermont. She was only 5 feet tall and couldn’t match the speed of all the bigger girls around her. But she still had superb technical skills! She loved it all!

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, June 27, 2019 at 9:01 p.m.

    I found girls ages 8-9 to be very easy to coach. They are more socially advanced than boys and soak up information like sponges. (The social sophistication was a shock to me, but it made me a better parent.) I just had to be positive, point them in the right direction, and then get out of their way. That was my first coaching experience too.


  5. Mike Lynch, June 27, 2019 at 7:26 p.m.


    Youth soccer is the golden age of player development and player development demands attacking ... dribbling, combining, playing between lines, etc. The coach creates this culture, feeds it’s, rewards it. Period. 

  6. Sam Bellin, June 27, 2019 at 7:53 p.m.

    Great article Beau.  Very much agree with your general theme that youth soccer should be about developing ball skills, especially attacking skills.  2 small additions:  I've been a part of thousands of blowouts as a player and a coach (probably true for all of us), and the best way that I've seen a coach of the better team keep the score down is to create a realistic obstacle for their team to score.  For instance, one coach insisted that a player could only score with their weaker foot; another coach only allowed goals scored by headers off a cross.  This enables the players to work on an important part of their game, while also keeping the score down because most youth players will not be proficient at these higher level techniques; best of all both teams are still playing soccer without the silly shenanigans (like doing pushups) that you all described above.  Second, the team I coach (pretty decent level HS Boys Varsity) almost always has 2 outside backs who were converted midfielders and often one or both center backs were former midfielders as well; much better for the team to have boys comfortable on the ball than big strong boys who struggle with the ball.  So keep coaching offense and attacking play at the youth level please!

  7. Jonas Cox, July 24, 2019 at 8:17 a.m.

    At last Fall’s EDP cup in Hammondstown, NJ, at the end of day 2, we were tied with another team for 1st in our bracket based on record.  We happened to have tied that team in our only matchup with them. We also had the same goal differential!  So, next on the list of rules was fewest goals allowed (not goals scored), and the other team went through to the championship on that basis (they had allowed only one fewer than us). Of course our players went from confused to angry as us parents dug up these rules and read out our “fate”.

    In defense of the EDP Cup, this was kind of a fluke (like the Post Master General assuming the Presidency when everyone ahead of them dies). Ideally two teams that had played so evenly should have shot it out with PKs, but organizing that would have been a hassle.

    On the bright side, we came back from a 3-1  halftime deficit and won the consolation/3rd place game 6-3.

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