After posting this recommendation on changing the structure of youth soccer in the U.S., I thought of a few more things 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, wouldn’t hurt if kids played soccer pickup to supplement their skill development. 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. When kids think of soccer, they think of a big field, lots of players and two large, netted goals.
More exposure to the small-sided, small-court game might help them realize that they don’t need all that 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 continue with the traditional soccer calendar instead of sticking with the thing that is making the most impact until their child is competent to move on.
This idea will help prevent position specialization too early
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 often, even during a single game.
I shudder to think how many players don’t reach 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 will only 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 how on ways to finish. In 11v11, some players 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.