In 2016, US Soccer changed the age groups for youth soccer from a system based on school year cutoffs of August 1 (i.e. matching the grade the participant was in) to a system based on birth year cutoffs of January 1. The intent was to align the age groups with international standards. Surely the US could compete more competently on an international stage if we were developing our talent on a more level playing field. Who cares if only a fraction of a percent of the youth soccer players in America will ever sniff an international field.
While the change has not been in place long, given the state of the US Men’s National Team and its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup (not to mention the state of disarray below the men’s national team with the boys’ national teams), it’s safe to say that there has been no positive impact to date. (While the US Women’s National Team did win the 2019 World Cup, they were excellent before the change.)
Negatives of the Birth Year Mandate
On the other hand, there are several negatives to the birth year mandate:
- Children often do not get to play soccer with their school friends
- Club teams face bifurcated years when transitioning from middle school to high school and from high school to college as some players will be moving up while some players will not
- Talent identification and development get stifled because of physical and mental growth issues
With the imposition of the birth year mandate, the social aspects of soccer were clearly discounted and overlooked by the US Soccer Federation in favor of hunting results. Youth sports, however, are often not about results — at least to the kids. Kids play sports not just for the competition, but for the socialization that comes along with being a part of a team made up of their friends.
Most kids’ friend groups come naturally from school — the kids they spend the most time around on a daily basis and have the most in common with. The birth year mandate breaks up those friend groups in an attempt to force together the most talent for a certain year. The thought is that, if the player is competitive and committed enough, the player will want to play at the highest level possible regardless of friend groups. In reality, it doesn’t work that way for many kids. Even the most competitive kids want to be around their friends as much as, if not more than, they want to be on the best soccer team. There is a balancing that needs to take place.
Take my daughter, who is a highly skilled player, for example. While she wants to be on a high level team, she has turned down several opportunities to be on top level teams in favor of second level teams because she has school friends on the second level teams. If you’ve ever driven a car pool to a soccer practice, you know how important the social aspect of the sport is to the players. When the group being driven is composed of school friends, there is constant chatter. When the group is not, there is awkward silence!
Further, while there is no direct evidence, many have argued that the birth year mandate has resulted in lower participation in youth soccer primarily because of this failure to acknowledge the importance of the social aspect. A study published in June, 2018 by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association indicated that the percentage of 6 – 12 year olds participating in soccer fell nearly 14% over the 3 previous years. The study did not indicate the reasoning for the decline, but certainly the birth year mandate is one of a few likely culprits.
The High School Dilemma
The birth year mandate also causes chaos when players are transitioning into high school. If club teams are formed based on birth year, oftentimes a part of the team is in one grade while a part is in another. When the older part of the club team goes into high school, they will usually play soccer with their high school team as opposed to their club team. This leaves the younger portion scrambling to fill in the holes just so they can have a season. Developmentally, that season is almost a lost season for the younger players because of the time spent becoming a new team as opposed to progressing. A similar thing happens going from high school to college, as well.
Poor Talent Identification and Development
Perhaps the most important negative impact of the birth year mandate is poor talent identification and development. Any age cutoff is going to result in inequalities amongst the members of a particular group. The older members of the group will be more physically developed while the younger members of the group will, in many cases, be smaller and weaker. Unfortunately, the US Soccer culture tends to prefer speed and physicality over skill and creativity. So, the older players have an advantage – especially at younger and faster development ages where 11 months of growth can lead to night and day differences.
Again, those differences will result in any age grouping system. However, the birth year mandate exacerbates those physical differences by piling on social, mental and intellectual differences as well. The differences between one grade year and the next can be huge. In many cases, it’s not because a particular younger child is socially, mentally or intellectually incapable of keeping up with the grade above, it’s because they’re not in an environment where that is expected. The younger players are assimilating the culture and level presented to them at their particular grade level at school, as are the older players. And it’s just different.
Example of the Differences
As an example, the first year the birth year mandate went into effect, I had to add a group of older girls to my already established team of younger girls. I remember listening to their conversations before and after practice. They could not have been more different! The older girls talked about boys and particular classes. The younger girls talked about their pets and going to the pool. The thinking was on a different level. My younger girls were extremely bright, they just weren’t advanced enough to think like the older girls – and it showed on the field. I use the word “advanced” because the younger girls were not only bright, they were mature compared to their peers. Truly, their grade in school was the only thing holding them back.
A player that may be young for his/her age group, small for his/her age and a grade behind will have a difficult time overcoming the American soccer bias that prefers strength, speed and winning. That same player may be incredibly skilled and creative, but he/she will be marginalized by the very system that is seeking to identify the talent that he/she possesses. He/she will be left in the hands of second rate coaches and developmentally stifled. We sometimes wonder why US Soccer has a difficult time developing high level players. One of the biggest reasons is poor talent identification.
Time to Fix the Mistake!
US Soccer made a mistake by implementing the birth year mandate. Now is a good time to fix that mistake. With all of the upheaval caused by the global pandemic, the cancelling of the Spring 2020 season and the termination of the Development Academy, switching the age groups back to match the school year now makes a lot of sense. Let’s see if US Soccer can figure that out and take a positive step forward amongst all the negativity surrounding us today.