Small-Sided Games in America

By Tom Goodman, M.Ed, Director of Training and Evaluation, Mass Youth Soccer

As Mass Youth Soccer's Director of Training and Evaluation, a veteran soccer player at various levels, a veteran youth coach and father of three adult children who used to be little soccer players, I have thought long and hard about the answer to the questions, "Why small-sided games?" and "Why here in America?"

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Let me make sure that everyone understands the meaning of "small-sided games." These are soccer games with fewer than 22 players (11v11), usually competing on a smaller-sized field. These are fun games that involve the players more because fewer than 22 players are sharing one ball.

Small-sided games have always been around in my life here in America. My first experience playing soccer was in a small-sided game. I lived in Springfield, Mass., across the street from Nathan Bill Park, one of the many city parks available to my friends and me.

One afternoon, I rode my bike over to the park and I saw a man and two boys, who I later learned were his children, playing soccer. The two boys were trying to score goals on their father into a goal made of one soda can and one beer can. When the dad won the ball, he would try to kick the ball against a trash can about 15 yards away, opposite the goal at which they were shooting. They were having a great time! The dad looked over at me and asked me if I wanted to play. I said, "YES!" and so began my long career in the game. The development of my passion for the game had begun.

The dad's name was Mr. Cazavaland, a Hungarian immigrant, who lived in the neighborhood. He had played the game back in Hungary and could do many wonderful things with the ball. He was a kind man, patient and helpful. He never yelled at us, but instead encouraged us to try new things and to dribble past each other and shoot from anywhere on the field. It was great!

Mr. Cazavaland volunteered to coach my first organized team in the local Parks and Rec league in Springfield, Mass., when I was eight years old. In those days, the early 1960s, teams competed with 11 players on the field for each team (22 players). The field was a football field (100 yards x 50 yards).

Mr. Cazavaland thought that the field was too big and that there were too many players on the field for our age level. I didn't like playing as much on game day as I had when there were only six or seven players on the field during practice, because I hardly ever had the ball and hardly ever shot the ball at the goal. NOT FUN!

In practice, Mr. Cazavaland always set up small-sided activities and coached us in those activities. I looked forward to practice more than I did the games! The activities would consist of a maximum of eight or nine players. We would play 4v4 or 5v4. He would set up two or three small fields and everyone would play and have fun! Mr. Cazavaland was truly ahead of his time.

True stories like this are abundant in America. Many of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents immigrated to America having played this wonderful game in the streets of their native countries. It is their experience and our experiences, together with our research on child development, that leads me to share the following information with you.

All ages can play "small-sided games," but it has a definite developmental impact on our younger soccer players. This has to do with the stages of development that all children go through. As children progress through these stages, their intellect grows and they physically mature. For example:

Four- and five-year olds (U6 players) are very, very little people. They are also egocentric. The ball represents a toy that belongs to them — they don't share well. They love to run and jump and roll around. They have wonderful imaginations! It's not about soccer, it's about PLAY! It's about FUN!

  • Recommended game playing numbers: 3v3 (no goalkeepers)
  • Recommended maximum field size: 25 yards x 30 yards
  • Recommended goal size: 6 ft high x 18 ft wide
  • Recommended ball size: Number 3

Six- and seven-year-olds (U8 players) are still little people but are maturing and have better balance and agility. They begin to experience success technically and will share the ball a bit with teammates. Numbers on the field must be small so that they can have the ball a lot. This allows them to practice their newly learned skills in an uncluttered environment. They begin to enjoy playing soccer!

  • Recommended game playing numbers: 4v4 (no goalkeepers)
  • Recommended maximum field size: 30 yards x 35 yards
  • Recommended goal size: 6 ft high x 18 ft wide
  • Recommended ball size: Number 3

Eight- and nine-year-olds (U10 players) can play the game and enjoy playing the game. They need time and the appropriate environment to continue their technical development and begin simple tactical development (simple combinations with their teammates). Fewer players on the field provide ample opportunity to make less complicated decisions more often, reinforcing the tactical basics, so-to-speak. They enjoy being part of a team because it's a FUN environment!

  • Recommended game playing numbers: 6v6 (5 field players + 1 goalkeeper)
  • Recommended maximum field size: 45 yards x 60 yards
  • Recommended goal size: 6 ft high x 18 ft wide
  • Recommended ball size: Number 4

10- and 11-year-olds (U12 players) participate in and enjoy the game because their intellect and technical ability allows for more mature play. Midfield play is introduced at this age due to their increased intellect and improved vision of the field. Training becomes economical in nature, merging the technical, tactical, physical and psychological components of the game.

  • Recommended game playing numbers: 8v8 (7 field players + 1 goalkeeper)
  • Recommended maximum field size: 55 yards x 80 yards
  • Recommended goal size: 6 ft high x 18 ft wide
  • Recommended ball size: Number 4

At the U13 and older age groups, we believe that the players are capable of 11v11 play. Here are some of the reasons why I believe we, as soccer coaches, administrators and parents must guarantee that our young soccer players play small-sided games:

  1. Because we want our young soccer players to touch the soccer ball more often and become more skillful with it! (Individual technical development)
  2. Because we want our young soccer players to make more quality decisions during the game! (Tactical development)
  3. Because we want our young soccer players to be more physically efficient in the field space in which they are playing! (Reduced field size)
  4. Because we want our young soccer players to have more individual teaching time with the coach! Fewer players on the field and fewer players on the team will guarantee this! (Need to feel worthy … need to feel important)
  5. Because we want our young soccer players to have more involved playing time in the game! (More opportunity to solve problems that only the game presents)
  6. Because we want our young soccer players to have more opportunities to play on both sides of the ball! (More exposure to attacking and defending situations)
  7. Because we want our young soccer players to have more opportunities to score goals and make saves! (Pure excitement)

These are the reasons why we adults must foster "small-sided games" in our youth soccer programs. These are the reasons that I, as the US Youth Soccer National Director of Coaching Education, strongly recommended small-sided play at the U6, U8, U10 and U12 age groups across the board, across America.

The "small-sided" environment is a developmentally appropriate environment for our young soccer players. It's a FUN environment that focuses on the player. And it is about the player … isn't it?