Curriculum confusion: Academy drama, new field sizes and the biggest issues facing U.S. youth soccer

ISI Photos-Robin Alam

The annual NSCAA Convention brought another gathering of confused coaches trying to navigate the youth soccer waters.

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Perhaps this was the perfect year to hold the NSCAA Convention in a building as massive as the Los Angeles Convention Center, where attendees needed several minutes to trudge from the thriving South Lobby and Exhibit Hall to the U.S. Youth Soccer Workshop, which actually backed into an art show also taking place in the Convention Center.

The vast distances may have help spread the apprehension and tension within the youth soccer community, which is dealing with a few upheavals that go beyond the usual constant change in the landscape. In both the literal and figurative senses, youth soccer clubs and leagues will spend much of 2017 drawing lines -- between leagues or on the field.

A few of the issues in the mix:

Another Development Academy

Through the 2010s, U.S. Soccer has built up a Development Academy program for boys, taking scores of top soccer clubs into a national competition in which players are expected to train and play exclusively within that environment -- no State Cup, no Olympic Development Program (ODP), no high school soccer.

With no similar program for girls, U.S. Club Soccer has filled the void with the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), which doesn’t have quite as many restrictions as the Development Academy.

Naturally, U.S. Soccer has entered the fray with a Girls’ Development Academy, with former U.S. women’s national coach April Heinrichs undertaking a polite but firm public campaign to tell parents that if they want their kids to go on to college scholarships and so forth, they’re free to do what they like, but they really ought to get their kids into the DA. Talks to get the ECNL and U.S. Soccer on the same page proved fruitless.

At the NSCAA Convention, symbolically but surely unintentionally placed in the middle of the long hallway between the two wings of the convention center, North Carolina and former U.S. national coach Anson Dorrance moderated a panel that brought Heinrichs and the ECNL president Christian Lavers together in the same packed theatre.

But Dorrance proceeded to grill Heinrichs about taking players away from college teams to play international tournaments. He also grilled Lavers about various ECNL issues, beginning one segment with, “Chris, this is going to be an uncomfortable question …”

Again, there was little clarity regarding how the new landscape of competing leagues will work.

Small-sided and smaller-sided and smaller still

The talk of last year’s convention was a set of mandates from U.S. Soccer, which is itself a rare occurrence. The federation has taken a laissez-faire attitude toward youth soccer, letting organizations be fruitful and multiply throughout a chaotic landscape.

Last year, the biggest issue was a switch to birth-year age groups, splitting up teams that had been largely organized by school year. This year, the issue is adapting to small-sided games, a popular concept in principle but one with devilish details.

U.S. Youth Soccer’s Sam Snow had the unenviable task of describing the new realities at the convention. The general concepts of gradually building youth players up to 11-v-11 play caused little consternation, and Snow had some helpful ideas for what to emphasize at which ages. The field sizes, on the other hand ....

Imagine that you’re running a local soccer club. You train and play your games at local schools and parks. As it stands now, things run smoothly -- you toss your U-5s through U-8s on any patch of flat land you can find, your U-9s through U-12s generally use half of a full-sized field turned sideways, and your older kids play on the full field?

Now? The little kids are still easily accommodated. Then we hit the problematic years:

10 and under: Width 35-45 yards, length 55-65. The goal area is 4 yards out; the penalty area is 12 yards out. Goals are 6 feet by 12 feet, but 6x18 goals can be grandfathered in. Also, each half of the field will need a “buildout line,” behind which the other team must stand on goal kicks, that’s placed halfway between the top of the penalty box and the center line.

12 and under: Width 45-55 yards, length 70-80. Goal area is 5 yards out; penalty area is 14. Goals are 6x18, but 7x21 can be allowed. No more buildout line needed.

So if your local middle school has a turf installation that already has lines for two sizes of soccer, two genders of lacrosse, field hockey, football and maybe even baseball, you now have to go out and ask for another set of lines (you might be running out of paint colors). Or you have to find another school just for the U-9 and U-10 age groups.

Fortunately, clubs and leagues have a while to figure this out before the mandate goes into full effect in the fall. But your local administrators and coaches will be devoting a lot of time scrambling to get this done, one year after they’ve redrawn all their teams to comply with birth-year mandates.

NEXT: Does the curriculum even still exist?