I had the opportunity of attending a soccer coaching licensing program recently. One of the topics was soccer player development in the context of practices and game play. There was much discussion about the number of players on the field for certain age groups and the corresponding field size. By coincidence I had also just reviewed the FIFA Youth Soccer Training Manual as well as Youth programs in England, germany, USA and Canada.

Before sharing my findings I would like to reflect on the game when I was a youngster playing soccer in Germany, and later in Canada. At all age groups organized soccer was played 11 v. 11 on full size fields and practices were on the same full size fields. Organized team soccer started at age 8, in today’s terms U9. Before that age soccer was played in school yards, in parks, just about anywhere one could fabricate goals and kick an object (not always a ball). Even while playing organized soccer street soccer was played every day after school. From a very high level point of view one could say that most of the skill, physical, and mental training happened outside of organized soccer. Arriving at U9 the training focus shifted on formations, player’s roles in the formation, and team play (i.e. passing, using space, etc.). Certainly skills were maintained and fitness improved, but the assumption was that the base was built between age 3 and 8 on the street.

Fast forward to today where the street soccer development doesn’t happen so much anymore, certainly not in the developed world. Therefore organizations and countries have had to rethink how these basic skills are developed. What I am seeing is that organized club soccer is now available from U3 up. Coaching curriculums have developed all over the globe and from a high level perspective they are consistent. The emphasis is giving kids maximum touches on the ball in practice and fostering the same during games. Fields and goals have been scaled down for games to allow 3 v 3 to 7 v 7 play. This philosophy has extended to U 12 as well where fields are about 3/4 size, nets are smaller, and play is 9 v 9.

The concept behind smaller fields is to allow more opportunities to touch the ball by restricting the size of the playing field. At U13 every country I have observed is playing full field 11 v 11. Here is the complication. Most European soccer countries start their national youth teams at U15 with international competitions. USA and Canada start national youth programs at U14. Now to be identified, invited, and selected for these national team takes a few years, you typically don’t just walk up for tryouts. This means that in North America players have had one season of full field soccer (U13) before they are supposed to be ready for U14 national teams. In Europe they have two years. I am not sure how a player can scale up the skills and learn game systems and formations in that short a time. I am also not convinced that the players being scouted are able to demonstrate their full potential.

So I reflected on the rationale for smaller fields – more opportunities to play. I made a point in the last 12 months to watch many U3 to U12 games and I could not convince myself that there was more action for each player. Recall that the training objectives for these ages (and up to U12) are skill development, not strategy or tactics. The kids are encouraged to apply these skills in games. Not surprising then is that the more skilled players still “hog” the ball and unlike in the past, no coach is encouraging them to pass. All the other kids move around a lot but they don’t necessarily get to touch the ball much. On top of that, with the smaller teams kids spend most of their time off the field. At U6, for instance, a lot of clubs play 3 v 3 but each team has 10 or more players. By definition the kids spend 2/3 of the game on the sidelines. At U12 and 9 v 9 rosters are often up to 18 players and kids play half a game.

I am not convinced that the basic premise for small fields is working. I believe the number of touches are generated in practices, not so much in games.

I do believe in playing on smaller fields and nets up to a certain age, probably up to and including U8. But even there I would encourage teaching players positions, line-ups, and team play so that they understand it’s not about the most skilled player running with the ball. I would also try to find a way to ensure that kids play at least 75% of the allotted game time. This may mean smaller rosters, split squad games, or other means.

Starting at U9 I would transition to full field with regular size nets. It isn’t as difficult on the goalkeepers as it might seem because chances are that the shots aren’t all coming in under the cross bar anyways. This would allow at least four or five years to get ready form the national U14/15 programs.

To recap:

We moved from playing full field 11 v 11 soccer at U8/9 with national teams starting at U18 to starting full field soccer at U13 with national teams starting at U14. Ten years of learning full field soccer to one or two years.

Food for thought ??