For most youth soccer clubs, the recreational, or intramural program, provides the base for the travel or premier groups. The growing push towards moving players into the competitive brackets (regardless of ability) has led to a steep decline in the quality of play at the intramural level. While nearly all kids start there, by the age of u12 (or younger, in some cases), the recreational games are almost unrecognizable as soccer.
Club coaching directors typically wear many hats; performing a litany of administrative functions while working to assist coaches and often training several of their own teams directly. It can be challenging then to make the recreational program better – to find time to train and monitor parent-coaches. I think it’s essential that clubs work to make adjustments to accommodate myriad challenges such as varying numbers, levels of ability, field availability, etc. Every kid should have a chance to play, regardless of level. Some kids, – even those who exhibit significant potential – are not interested in traveling to the next state for a game, but rather just want to play because it’s fun.
Unfortunately, at a certain age (anywhere from u12 to u14), too many youth leagues mandate that kids make the jump to the big field, playing 11v11. When that happens, many clubs – who may have had two or three teams at age groups playing 8v8 or 9v9 – are unable to accommodate all the kids, and are faced with the decision of cutting players. At that point, where do those kids go? Unfortunately, many stop playing.
SMALL-SIDED GAMES: THE FUTSAL OPTION
Who is to say that simply because players hit a certain age that they have to play 11v11? What happens when there aren’t enough kids to fill teams? Is it really that hard to organize into different numbers, such as 5v5 or 6v6 on smaller fields? Heaven forbid we work with other local clubs and facilitate a new paradigm that allows kids to play this game past the age of 13.
The development of youth futsal leagues would seem to be an ideal substitution here. A wonderful game that can be played year-round, it could provide the perfect recourse for players and clubs in such situations (never mind the fact that it is a terrific sport in its own right and should be incorporated in any young player’s development plan).
Further, we have to ask the question – what about late bloomers? While it is true that early specialization has become the rule rather than the exception in recent years, players do either: a) come to the sport late; or b) develop physically and mentally later than their peers. For example, Danny Cruz, a current professional player for the Philadelphia Union in MLS, never played organized soccer until he was a freshman in high school. In today’s club scenario, what competitive club would take an athlete like him?
Small-sided games such as futsal provide the environment players need to hone technique as well as tactical decision-making capacity. But at a minimum, small-sided games provide the opportunity for kids to play.
There is no reason any kid – regardless of ability – should not have the opportunity to play due to “numbers.” As players make the transition to the big field, it makes sense to look at different ways we can accommodate all players so that everyone has a chance to play.