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Hank Lueng: Why Is There a Need To Do This?

Posted on Feb 5, 2016 in Membership, Community 0 Comments

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Photo Credit: SUHornets.com

Hank Leung is the assistant technical director for Vienna Youth Soccer (Va.). He is a former U.S. Women’s National Team and U.S. Women’s U-19 Youth National Team coach who won the NCAA collegiate women’s soccer championship in 1985 with George Mason University. Leung is a three-time winner of the National Coach of the Year honor awarded by the NCAA, the W-League, and U.S. Youth Soccer, respectively.

Here is a letter he sent to the NSCAA regarding the new player development initiatives, specifically the birth year mandate, announced by U.S. Soccer a few months ago.  The views expressed are those of Hank Leung, and do not reflect Vienna Youth Soccer.  

As you probably know, youth soccer is going through some turmoil again with these new “player development” initiatives. Something new, right? Specifically, I am referring to the new birth year “mandate”.

This is the fourth time in my soccer life this has been brought up. Twice the U.S. followed the world and made the change – calendar year then to school year. With the third change, when the world went back to calendar year – approximately 20 years ago, the U.S. said nay, nay. Since that time, in the ‘90s, we have held to the school year – August 1 to July 31, for youth player registration. This form of player registration has served us well as kids that live in the same communities and go to school together get the chance to play together. That’s the way it is in community clubs – not talking about the big super clubs. However, remember, it’s the community clubs that are the masses when it comes to youth soccer. The club I currently coach at would be a period on this page. A totally insignificant entity.

First question I have is, why is there a need to do this? Kind of funny that this is US Soccer mandating to US Youth Soccer about something that is totally about youth soccer.

We have been “out of sync” with the rest of the world, regarding youth player registration, for approximately 20 years. WHO CARES? The folks overseas don’t care what we do internally.

Players in our ODP teams are all registered on a calendar year basis. So, as these players filter through the system – state, regional and national teams, it’s all taken care of. With regard to youth player registration and ODP, there is no added player development benefit realized in making the change to January 1.

For the youth teams that travel overseas, they adjust their rosters accordingly to fit the event they’re traveling for. So, no added player development benefit there in making the change.

Switching to a calendar year registration will do nothing for the “relative age effect” as the players born in the second half of the year will generally always have a slight disadvantage, early on, competing against those born in the first half of the year regardless of whether the player registration year begins on January 1st or August 1st. This is already being addressed at ODP Regional Camps as states are encouraged to bring in two teams for any given year – one representing January thru June and one representing July thru December. So, again, no added player development benefit in making the change.

If we really wanted to do something regarding the “relative age effect” and its significance to player development, the national leagues, regional leagues and all the local leagues across the country, as well as tournaments, would be encouraged to have half year age registration brackets (older six months / younger six months) up to U15 – the freshman year in high school. And, we would stop it there because at the high school level, there are freshmen trying out against, and playing with, players up to four years older than they are – depending upon whether they make JV or varsity.

As far as “making it easier” for national selectors at tournaments, all the national selectors have to do is look at the date of birth for any player that impresses and look at one thing – the year of birth. Now I know some folks think soccer coaches aren’t the sharpest tacks in the box, but really?

The number of kids that get involved with ODP – state, regional and national teams, is a very small percentage of the number of kids that play the game. The number of youth players that travel overseas with their teams is also a very small percentage of the kids that play the game. So, are we making the 95% change for the “convenience” of the 5%?

And, with the “relative age effect” argument holding no water, all that leaves us with, as a reason for making the change to a calendar year registration, is the “need” to align with the rest of the world.

And, soccer moms and dads have no problem with that. If US Soccer feels the need to force youth soccer in the United States to go to a calendar year registration, then, so be it. But WHY mandate it all to happen NOW – in the short term?

As noted earlier, we have been “out of synch” with the rest of the world, regarding youth player registration, for approximately twenty years and the youth soccer world has been just fine. With this mandated change going into effect so quickly, you’ve got teams collapsing, teams scrambling for players and players being forced to switch rosters if they’re going to play at all now.

WHY? Just so we can be like the rest of the world? We ARE in line with the rest of the world youth player registration-wise when it counts – when we compete internationally.

With regard to players playing up so they can stay with their teams? First, leagues and / or tournaments only allow a specified number of players that can play up. And, as a rule, this is limited to one year. Second, due to the year the older kids on a team are born, teams are now being forced to skip a year.

Using the matrix, for example, teams with players born in 1999 will have to jump from U16 to U18. Now how fair is it for any team, in that position, when they play against a legitimate U18 team? And, that’s presupposing that team’s roster can be kept together with that two year jump. Know, this disparity is happening and impacting teams at all age levels – everywhere!

Why not do this sensibly? For example, why not begin this mandatory January 1 registration with the 2003 age group and younger? The 2003s are the rising U13s – teams just starting at 11 v 11. Coming from their small sided teams, they are now joining / forming new teams of 11 v 11 for competition this coming Fall, as they move into middle school and begin the ODP process, in some cases. To really do it right, start this change when travel soccer first starts – with the rising U9s.

There is absolutely no logical reason to break up high school age teams that have been together for almost a decade. And, the impact is really being felt on the female side of the house – where the growth of the game has exploded here in the U.S.

If FIFA was giving US Soccer $100,000,000 for getting youth soccer in the United States fall in line with the January 1 registration date and that money was going to be doled out to each state based on registration numbers and then trickle on down to the clubs, the speed with which we’re slamming this mandate into effect might not create as many waves. Is there any money involved? Is that why youth soccer is being held to this deadline? You, as a soccer leader, can ask that question.

Right now, this mandate is hurting a lot of kids and creating a lot of ill will unnecessarily. And, that’s over and above all the administrative work being done by leagues, tournaments, etc. It’s a PR fiasco. Combine this with the new lawsuit involving the USWNT and US Soccer is shooting itself in the foot again.

Why is it so important we make this change so rapidly? Who cares if the total change isn’t in place fully for another 5 or 6 years – when the 2003s finally age out? Or, 10 years, when the rising U9s age out.

Just look at any youth soccer site that brings up this issue and look at the comments. This is a very emotional issue. And, it doesn’t have to be IF the change is made slowly.

So, presupposing the January 1 change is made gradually, that means all player rosters as well as tournaments – state cup and otherwise, would begin instituting a calendar year registration with the 2003s – if we institute this with the rising U13s. That’s all I’m suggesting to avoid the drama and turmoil this mandate is causing.

Every day soccer moms and dads don’t feel they are being heard. [NSCAA], that’s why I’m coming to you. You can be their voice because you are able to gain an audience with the decision makers.

Will you help? Please ask the questions.

Let US Soccer know the change is fine. Just ask them to do it with some sensitivity and phase it in.

Thanks for listening.

Continued Success,
Hank Leung

The mission of the NSCAA is always to celebrate, support and serve soccer coaches at every level. You’ve asked the questions well and we are happy to create the forum for coaches to share their perspectives with both fellow coaches and the larger soccer community. Here are some recent resources developed by the NSCAA that may also be useful: 

Small Sided Games - 4v4, 7v7 and 9v9 Special Topics Diploma

Implementing U.S. Soccer's Player Development Initiatives

Changing mentality: Small-Sided Games and Birth Year Changes

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