Why the USSF Small-Sided Games Initiative Will Lead to Improved Player Development
The US Soccer Federation’s Player Development Initiative, a set of mandates for youth soccer programs and associations nationwide, launched in 2016 and set off a firestorm of changes in youth soccer across the country.
One of the biggest changes was the decision to implement the Small-Sided Games initiative, designed to keep soccer players on small-sided fields for a longer period to improve their individual technical skill level and soccer intelligence before graduating up to the traditional 11v11 full-size field that is customary in the sport of soccer.
So, will it work?
Only time will really tell if this initiative will have its intended effect, but the logic and intentions of this motion are absolutely the right decision for youth soccer players across the country. For those who have coached or watched youth club soccer at the ages of Under-11 and Under-12 under the previous regulations, you have surely seen very little human beings trying to cover a very large field of play.
It makes absolutely no sense for 10, 11 and 12-year-olds to compete on the same size fields as grown men and women. The game is completely warped by the dimensions of the field that don’t align with the athleticism, speed, and ability level of the players competing. The end result is fairly typical: Players with the most athleticism dominate the game, size and speed become more valuable than technical skill, and results-oriented style of play leads to essentially playing kick-ball to exploit the large amount of field space behind the opponents’ defense.
One could argue that coaches and club programs could simply choose to not focus on athleticism, size and speed, and this results-first approach, and one would be right. However, that is also naïve and unrealistic in a pay-to-play structure where team success (i.e. winning) leads to more interest in the program, which in turn leads to more teams and more revenue. This is a systemic issue, so until that changes, it is simply the nature of the beast.
With the small-sided games initiative, players at these critical younger ages of development are now being forced to play on smaller, more appropriately sized fields. In forcing children to play on smaller fields with less time on the ball and less room for error with their technical skill, youth players will be required to improve on their skill level, speed of play, and comfort level with the ball at their feet. Additionally, by taking away a number of players on the field, there will inevitably be an increase in opportunities, touches of the ball, and activity level for every player on the pitch.
Zoom out and see things from a higher vantage point and you will see that individual players will now have an additional 2 years of increased play in small spaces, reaping all of those benefits that previous generations were not exposed to.
Anyone who has watched a US National team game against the heavyweight contenders (Argentina, Germany, Spain, etc.) will have surely noticed two things: we never have the ball and when we actually get it, we don’t keep it for very long.
Our highest-level players in this country struggle to produce the same quality of play we routinely see from the best countries in the world, so clearly something is missing in terms of the youth development of players. If the areas where American players struggle the most to compete with the elite in international and professional soccer are technical skill, decision-making, and composure and confidence with the ball under pressure, then at least there is now a plan to progress and close the gap.
The decision to make a change will hopefully help this country’s youth soccer athletes improve on these areas of weakness.
Only time will tell what the repercussions of this broad-scale mandated implementation will be, but rational thought seems to approve of the USSF actions this time.