After posting this recommendation on changing the structure of youth soccer in the U.S., I thought of a few more thoughts to add.
Pickup soccer in the U.S. is lacking
Much of the 5-a-side played in the Top 10 FIFA countries is unorganized (e.g. street soccer). Similarly, a lot of the play in the U.S.’s beloved sports is also unorganized (e.g. pickup basketball).
We underappreciate how much skill development takes place in pickup play.
Progressing players to larger fields by age, rather than skill, may not be as detrimental if kids supplemented their organized play with pickup play.
I believe more pickup play is another step in the right direction, but getting more of it is not a straightforward problem to solve.
Playing more 5-a-side in organized play might help their skill development and help them see different ways to play soccer.
When kids think of soccer, they think of a big field, lots of players and two large, netted goals. If those conditions aren’t met, they don’t play.
When I first started playing soccer, as an adult, I met with a group of other adults in a local park to play pickup. We played on the youth fields with small, netted goals and marked sidelines.
There was a group of Latinos who played pickup at the same time on the next field.
One day we showed up and the goals and lines were gone for the winter. We couldn’t imagine playing without these props! What were we to do?
We started laughing when we looked over to the Latino pickup group and they were moving trash cans and setting up their gym bags as make-shift goals.
This example demonstrated how much their soccer-playing culture had taught them to improvise and play no matter what, while we still were operating in the domain that we must have marked fields and netted goals to play. But, we learned to improvise that day.
This is no different than ‘our’ sports. I’ve watched my son and his friends improvise with baseball and basketball in the same way.
For example, four or five of them get an impromptu game of baseball going in a sloped driveway, complete with make-shift bases, using ghost-runners to keep the game going. They didn’t need a ball diamond, with nice bases and a manicured outfield to play baseball.
These same kids, who had been playing organized soccer for years could not and would not improvise with the soccer ball.
More exposure to the small-sided, small-court game might help players realize that they don’t need a full field, marked sidelines and netted goals to have fun, just like generations ago kids discovered that playing 1-on-1 or ’21’ with a hoop on the driveway was just as fun, if not more fun, than the regulation game of basketball.
The answer is hiding in plain sight
Every winter soccer coaches tell parents how indoor soccer and futsal will help their children’s foot skills.
Each Spring, I hear parents comment at the better ball control their kids display on the soccer pitch after a winter of futsal.
Many already know the benefits of futsal, but go ahead and resume full field soccer in the spring and fall and watch many of their kids bumble around with sloppy ball control instead of sticking with the thing that is making the most impact until their child is competent to move on.
Playing more 5-a-side will help prevent position specialization too early and make more creative players
Pushing kids into 7v7, 9v9 and 11v11 at young ages has another downside, it pushes position specialization too early.
With 6 to 8 fairly distinct positions it becomes difficult for players to rotate and learn the responsibilities of more than a couple positions.
5-a-side is much simpler, yet has the base elements of tactics used in 11v11. It gives players ample opportunity to play different roles during a single game.
I shudder to think how many players don’t find their potential as a striker because their strengths at age 10 or 11 suited them more for another position. Over the next 7-8 years those players get a fraction of shot attempts than the players suited to be a striker at age 10.
In 5-a-side, all players get multiple shots each game, building their database on multiple ways to finish.
In 11v11, the majority of players can go for seasons without taking a single shot.
It’s not surprising to me that scoring creative goals is not what U.S. teams or players are known for. The pool of developing scorers in the U.S. is unnecessarily restricted at a young age by the structure of soccer, itself. Lack of pickup play doesn’t help that.