To play on age, or “up” with girls a year older? That is the question that has dogged my daughter and our family ever since U.S. Soccer’s controversial 2016 mandate that young American soccer players be grouped by their birth year rather than their school year. By then my daughter had already been playing soccer a few years and, because she was born in August and is the youngest girl in her class at school, the new rule would have taken her away from her friends and placed her back with girls primarily in first grade.
Instead, she moved into club or “travel” soccer that fall with many of her friends. My daughter joined a team whose coach promised she could play up if she proved to be good enough and unafraid of taller, faster players. She did and, within a game or two, became a starter who rarely came off the field. In my daughter’s third year with that club, the administrators enforced a hard-and-fast rule: all girls would play on age and no exceptions were allowed — even though U.S. Soccer’s mandate clearly gives all clubs the latitude to let children play up a year or two, but not down.
From a purely parental ego standpoint, those fall, winter and spring seasons were great; my daughter’s on-age team went 26-2, she scored goals in bunches and still has about eight trophies in her room from that year. Even then, though, my daughter knew she wasn’t really being challenged — so a year later she returned to her original, older team. The club didn’t like it, but finally agreed to make an exception.
For this coming fall 2021 season, what would be her sixth with the same club, the dilemma has returned; the administrators told us they would prefer to have my daughter to play on age again. Never mind that she is the starting defensive midfielder on the big field, 11 vs. 11, and plays almost every minute of every game.
Because I just wrote a book titled “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions” with National Teamer Joanna Lohman, in which we interviewed more than 100 all-time members of the National Team, I already knew how the players felt who had made it to the highest level. “I was always playing up from my actual age,” said Nicole Barnhart, a long-time backup goaltender to Hope Solo, who like Hope, started out as a field player. “You can get a false sense of yourself playing with kids your own age, especially if you’re a bigger person, growing faster or you’re just taller and faster than other children. Age is just a number. Children should be playing where their ability places them, not necessarily their age.”
THE COLLEGE PERSPECTIVE
Partly because this is a hot topic in my household right now, and partly because I knew it might lead to this column, I reached out to the more than 20 college coaches whom we interviewed in researching “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.” None of them felt like the playing on age rule should be non-negotiable; all of them agreed, as Barnhart stated, that players should be on the team that’s most appropriate according to skills, development and playing time. In other words, if a child is playing up and is starting, playing more than half the game, that would indicate the proper placement.
I put a lot of stock in the words of Chris Petrucelli, who has been a coach in the U.S. National Team youth program for more than 20 years. The current coach at Southern Methodist University, he was a two-time national champion coach at Notre Dame and has numerous international tournament trophies on his resume. “I am in favor of players playing up if they can handle it physically and can be competitive at the older age group,” he told me. “If your daughter doesn’t yield to the older players, then I think it’s a great idea to play up.”
Some of the college coaches also cited another significant reason to allow children in my daughter’s circumstance to play with her school-age team rather than a birth-year team. As she gets older, not playing with the girls graduating in her same school year could put her a significant disadvantage in recruiting. College coaches focus most of their recruiting efforts one class at a time and will be much more likely to go to a game where most of the girls on the teams are projected to graduate at the same time. “I’ve seen some players get lost a bit,” said National Teamer Sam Baggett Bohon, head coach at Embry-Riddle University. “So, for example, if I’m looking for players for my 2023 class and a team has 12 of them vs. a team that has two of them, I’m more likely to prioritize my time during a busy tournament on the team where I can see more players in the same graduating class.”
Sam also told me that younger players with experience against older players can be a distinct advantage in college, since freshman are inherently playing up in most situations. International players in particular, she said, often come to the U.S. college system with a leg up. “It’s pretty common to find a graduating (international) senior having played with experienced older players if they’re good enough,” she said. “We do value this experience over an American player who’s playing predominantly with her own age.”
THE HIGHER GOAL — If you read the volumes of debate about the playing up topic on-line and in books, you’ll see that U.S. Soccer was broadly criticized. Participation in youth soccer has dropped off markedly since 2016 and some say it’s because children want to play their first games with their school buddies and, if they can’t, they’ll pick a different sport. U.S. Soccer is also criticized because the birth-year rule, while making it somewhat easier for coaches to pick the 30 best players in each age group nationally, results in challenging conversations and circumstances for thousands families and communities all across the country who struggle with this issue. “For the detractors of the switch, it's seen as a move that inconveniences many to serve a few,” said Mike Woltalla of the magazine Soccer America.
If a young player is truly special and stays on age and dominates, an argument can be made that the player will be more likely to be noticed by a scout for U.S. Soccer. No data backs up this thesis; but if it’s your goal to be seen as a someone who might be chosen to be on the U-14 U.S. National Team, then maybe it’s more beneficial to go out and score three goals in a U13 elite tournament game than it would be to, say, be an average starter in a U14 tournament game. “If she’s a U16 thriving amongst U17s, she will be noticed by college coaches,” said National Teamer and soccer Hall of Famer April Heinrichs, who was in charge of the youth programs at U.S. Soccer when it implemented the rule. “If she’s buried amongst all the older players, it wouldn’t be good — it would be better to have her play with her own age-group.”
Given the millions of American children playing the game, however, the odds are about 100,000-1 that any given soccer-playing child will make a youth National Team. Even if a child is playing high-level soccer at age 11 and above, the odds are still stacked mightily against making a national roster. The goal should be solid, incremental development with as little mental and family stress as possible. For children still playing high level club soccer in their teenage years, playing in college, even obtaining a scholarship, is a reasonable goal. Anything more than that is, honestly, a pipe dream for almost everyone. “So many players I ask: ‘Who wants to be a professional?’ They all raise their hands. I say, ‘Do you guys even know what that means?” said National Teamer Yael Averbuch on Page 99 of our book, Raising Tomorrow’s Champions. “That means you’re distancing yourself from the rest of this group.”
At age 11, my daughter will still state privately that she wants to make the National Team, but is savvy enough to know that simply making a good college team isn’t a given. In the meantime, I’ve concluded that I’ll nudge her toward the highest quality team we can find that projects her as a potential starter. It’s not fair to limit her long-term development because of some random age rule — and I’m thankful that our club has empowered our family to be part of that decision, even if they don’t always agree with us.