Same Game, New Guidelines

By Andy Patton

The Brazilian athlete Pelé popularized a nickname for soccer: “the beautiful game.”

PRB0918_Patton_Soccer1.jpg

As a landscape architect and life-long soccer player, these two worlds came together in 2016 when the U.S. Soccer Association standardized new field and team sizes for youth soccer. This means school and park districts will be modifying fields while program directors modify sports offerings to comply with these changes.

A New Horizon
I began playing soccer at four years old— though calling it “soccer” may be overly generous. Like in most leagues for four-year-olds, my team played “mob ball.” I played this version until I was old enough to join an 8v8 league.

With the new guidelines, 8v8 leagues have been split into two groups: 7v7 and 9v7. Youth players today won’t play the same 8v8 game I did until they are 12 years old. This change aligns U.S. standards with international youth-soccer organizations.

New Standards: Smaller Fields, Smaller Team Sizes

The number of players per team is now determined by age groups with reduced field sizes for each age category. The youngest kids—age 8 and younger—play 4v4 games on fields that are15 to 25 yards wide by 25 to 35 yards long.

After the first few years, team and field sizes gradually increase, allowing more physically advanced players to increase their skills and heighten the competition. Nine- and 10-year-old players are on teams of 7v7 and play on fields that are 35 to 45 yards wide by 45 to 55 yards long. These fields will also require a “build-out line” striped from sideline to sideline 14 yards in front of each goal. This encourages younger players to play the ball up the field quicker.

Lastly, 11- and 12-year-olds will play on teams of 9v9 and on fields 45 to 55 yards wide by 70 to 80 yards long.

PRB0918_Patton_Soccer2.jpg

Adjusting Fields For Smaller-Sided Games
Sod fields. If current fields are open, rectangular sod fields, re-stripe them based on the new dimensions and restructure programming. Beginning at the under-9 age level, a “build-out line” should be striped.

Synthetic-turf fields. Adjusting synthetic-turf fields is trickier. There are many options to consider, from fiber type to infill mixes:

  • For faster ball roll and play, consider using a slit film.
  • For a slower ball roll, consider a monofilament.
  • For the best combination, look into hybrid systems.

Hiring a landscape architect to design new synthetic fields is a good idea and usually produces excellent results that last the longest time. Field designer Erik Spring has written a helpful blog on synthetic-turf options (https://www.dcla.net/blog/synthetic-turf-basics).

Improvements For Better Play
There are several benefits in realigning field sizes:

  • Smaller-sided games encourage skill development that follows the natural stages of physical development.
  • Young players spend less time running and more time executing creative plays. 
  • Tighter age brackets allow players a greater chance to focus on individual skills against peers more closely aligned with their physical development. 
  • The “build-out line” on the 7v7 pitch encourages the backfield to “play up” and not sit back in a “defense-only” mindset. After all, the defense is just the beginning of the offense.
  • The smaller pitch and player count force players to think and act quickly. This encourages better ball control and technical finesse, and gives each player a chance to have a meaningful role in each game. 

Impacts On Programming Costs
Moving from two to three youth-soccer leagues will bring a moderate increase in programming coordination and costs. There will be more teams and more fields to schedule, and the additional age bracket will increase the number of games by one-third: one-third more refs, one-third more games to schedule, one-third more fields to stripe.

But it’s all worth it to those of us who develop a passion for the beautiful game.

To learn more, visit the U.S. Soccer Association at www.ussoccer.com.

Andy Patton, CPSI, is a Designer at Design Concepts, a nationally recognized leader in creating and re-imagining spaces that embrace recreation and play, community gathering, connections to nature, and a focus on the environment. Reach him at andy@dcla.net To learn more about the firm visit www.dcla.net.