US Youth Soccer screws over 1/3 of its kids

US Youth Soccer is changing. Soon, all youth soccer leagues will use calendar-based teams.

This is a mistake. In most states, the new system gives around a third of its youth new reasons to quit. It also makes determining age levels more confusing.

First, some background. I am in Texas. We use Sept. 1 for the cutoff for kindergarten. Children start kindergarten if they turn six between September 1 and August 31 of the following year. More than half the states use the same or a close date. (source)

The soccer year starts a month earlier: August 1 through July 31. This creates a small “twilight zone” for August birthdays: they get grouped with prior-grade kids. The fix is easy: August kids can “play up” with same-grade friends.

Here’s an example: I coach a U7 soccer team. U7 means the kids turn 7 this soccer year.

One of my boys has an August birthdate. He’s U6 in soccer despite being in the same grade as most U7 boys. Again, the fix is easy: he plays up into U7 to be with his same-grade friends.

The new, calendar-based system expands this “twilight zone”. It is 300% larger now, affecting 1/3 of my team instead of 1/12. It is also less forgiving. Here’s why.

Starting fall 2016, 1/3 of my team becomes U9, and 2/3 will be U8. This will happen to all existing teams with evenly distributed birthdates.

You can’t “play down” in soccer. That means my team’s older 1/3, who will be U9, cannot stay with their same-grade friends in a U8 team.

The younger 2/3, the U8s, could “play up” into U9. That’s unlikely: I doubt they will be ready.

If that’s not enough, you also have the relative age effect. This effect is where kids who would be the youngest on a team–birthdates towards the end of the selection period–are less likely to participate.

This makes sense: at younger ages, a many-month spread can mean a great deal in readiness for sport, both physical and psychological. This is not a new problem.

In a FAQ, US Youth Soccer downplays the relative age effect. They say calendar-based teams weren’t designed to address it. They omit that the change will make it worse.

Why? Remember the third in the “twilight zone”? They have a double whammy! They are the youngest on their teams. In addition from being separated from 2/3 of their friends, they are also hit with the relative age effect!

Calendar-based teams makes things more confusing for parents. The year used in the calendar-based system is the second year of a season. That is, for the 2016-17 season, 2017 is the year used for age eligibility.

At least in Texas, recreational soccer follows the academic year. Fall ’15 and spring ’16 are one soccer year. The current system, with the August 1 cutoff, complements the academic year. Same-grade kids are generally put in the same soccer age division. I can’t imagine anything easier.

Currently, the x in Ux stands for the age your kid turns during the soccer year. In the calendar-based  system, Ux is arbitrary and hard to figure out. Suppose a child has a November birthdate. When he enters soccer in the fall, his age division is based on the age he turns in two Novembers!

Suppose Little Sammy was born in November 2008. When you sign Sammy up for soccer in August 2016, Sammy will be seven years old. However, the age chart shows that Little Sammy will end up in U9 soccer! In other words, when Sammy signs up in August 2016, his age division is based on the age he turns in November 2017!

Why is US Youth Soccer doing this? Two reasons.

First, the “new calendar year system makes soccer easier”. (source) Except it doesn’t!

Second, it “makes it much easier for us to scout for the National Teams and find players ready to compete internationally.” (source) Wait, we’re increasing confusion, creating a new disincentive for a third of youth players, butchering teams, and making life hard for coaches, all for something that is a concern for vanishingly few players?

I’m not clear who’s best interest is in mind here. It’s not the families, the players, the teams, or the coaches!

(A note: US Youth Soccer is also switching to small-sided games. I support that change.)