Promotion and Relegation in Youth Soccer

ncysaIf you really want to get a debate about youth soccer going these days, talk about competitive pressures and when kids should be exposed to winning and losing. There are strong forces at work in the US to take most competitive pressures out of youth soccer until kids are almost in high school. The hope is if there is no score, no standings, and no need to win, all coaches and parents will suddenly get proper perspective and let their kids just ‘play’. You want to get a USYSA national rep excited, fill his/her mind with pictures of kids showing up at soccer complexes across the country 2-3 times a week to just play soccer. No teams, no scores, just plain pickup soccer. This is an attempt to somehow replicate how generations of kids outside the US learned how to play. But it’s just not realistic.

The problem is, that’s not stopping the national organizations from continuing to push non-competitive rules down on the soccer leagues. Now, I’m all for no score/standings at U6 and even U8. Parents can lose perspective, but the answer there is education. Everyone still wants to win – it’s the whole point of playing a sport. What follows is a very long and wonkish post about promotion and relegation of youth soccer teams – so if you’re interested in that sort of thing, read on!

I don’t know how competitive soccer is handled in most other states, but here in NC we have a fairly organized system. Competitive soccer is played at 3-4 levels. Challenge soccer consists of regional leagues within NC for travel teams and is the ‘entry’ into competitive travel soccer for most. It is a completely separate level with no restrictions on joining or leaving. Above that, you have Classic soccer. Teams start playing at that level at U11 in either the 2nd Division or the 1st Division (it’s called the Open division in U11 since you can choose the level for a team at U11 to start with – so called self selection) After U11, teams move between the 1st and 2nd division each season with the bottom X in 1st Division relegated to 2nd and the top 2nd Division teams promoted up to fill the slots. At U14, a ‘Premier’ division is formed with the top 10 teams in the state promoted to it, and normal promotion and relegation to fill the 1st and 2nd divisions. And so it goes on up through U18. At U14 and above, top Premier teams are considered for regional leagues that compete against top teams from multi-state regions (Here in NC, we’re in Region III East)

There is no question that promotion and relegation can be a strong incentive for coaches to ‘play to win’. Clubs want teams in higher divisions for prestige and often higher fees. Coaches and parents want to be there for a variety of reasons. Some parents will move kids from one club to another to try and get them on a higher level team. But not all coaches and parents react this way. Plenty of coaches will work to develop their players, even if it means relegation. Plenty of parents also get that at younger ages (U10-U13), it’s about development. Many clubs also work very hard to ‘push back’ against coaches and parents who just want to win to try and keep things on an even keel. But at the top of the youth soccer pyramid, the belief is that coaches and parents who ‘get it’ are a small minority.

Yet for all the perceived downsides, promotion and relegation serve a very important purpose. They help ensure that each ‘level’ is competitive. It helps ensure the top teams rise to the top, and developing teams settle to a level commensurate with their skill, where they can better develop. Any coach (and usually the parents and players) will tell you they want competitive matches. Nobody likes a blowout – on either side. Blowouts certainly aren’t fun for the losing team and even for the winning team, they often will coast and not play at full intensity. It’s not a good developmental environment for either team. Sure – a good coach will place restrictions on their team during a lopsided match, but overall you want players to be pressured to perform on the field. Otherwise it’s little different than practice. So you want competitive matches – and promotion and relegation after every season helps you get that.

Now there will always be divisions where the difference between the top team and bottom team is big, but overall, you find that teams generally are where they should be. Honestly, with over 650 teams in NC playing at the Classic level, we probably should have 1st through 3rd or 4th divisions at the younger age levels (but that’s another post)

Which brings me to the whole point of this article. Recently at a meeting the NCYSA Classic Council, comprised of league representative from across the state, a proposal was made to eliminate promotion and relegation for U11 up through U13. Teams would ‘self select’ into 1st or 2nd division every season regardless of their previous performance. This was a huge change and a number of people are stunned that it passed. The reasons given for passing the proposal were the following:

  • To reinforce the concept of player development at the younger age groups
  • Less travel
  • Retention of players would be greater for all associations
  • Create the environment for more quality teams playing against like opponents
  • Recreate the environment at U-13 where the players have the opportunity to adjust to 11v11 without undo pressure
  • Ensure through this process of placing the best teams in Premier Division at U-14

When you read the items above, they sound great. Who wouldn’t want to reinforce player development, reduce travel, and keep players at their clubs? So the proposal passed with little debate. But once you think about the logistics of not having promotion and relegation for three years, you start to realize this may not have been thought out too well.

Self selection at U11 is fine. Teams don’t always start playign Classic in the U11 Fall season – sometimes they start at U12, other times there is a lot of churn as players develop and flourish at different times – so a U12 Fall team might be significantly different than what it was in U11. A lot of player shuffling can happen in U11 and U12 between teams within a league. But once teams are playing, they really should be moved up and down, if for no other reason than to ensure competitive divisions.

The biggest problem with this is what will happen in U13. In order to have a shot at the U14 Premier Division or 1st Division, you have to play in the Open Division in U13. That means a lot of teams that should NOT be playing at that level, will play there anyway because they think they ‘have a chance’ to make either Premier of 1st Division. We saw the same thing happen in U11 Girls last year, where tons of teams played in the Open division so they could possibly make 1st Division for U12, and there were every few teams in 2nd Division. The reason for this is you cannot be promoted out of a self selected 2nd Division into 1st Division. Thanks to relegation, that problem fixed itself the next season as many teams droped out of Open into the 2nd Division – but that Fall season was rough for the teams left in 2nd Division for U11. Brackets had 5-6 teams instead of the usual 9-12, so you had less games and more travel. U13 will be the same way – a huge Open division and tiny 2nd Division. Also – since promotion takes the top teams from each open bracket, and you form additional brackets as the total number of teams increases (to keep brackets between 9 and 13 teams), you skew promotion to Premier. Normally each 1st Division consists of 20 teams. Ten in an East Bracket and Ten in a West Bracket. From that, you grab the top 5 teams for Premier after U13 Spring (well six now since Premier got expanded from 10 to 12). Over the course of U12 and U13, things settle out so you really do have the best teams in U13 1st Division, fighting for those Premier slots. Now, with self selection and no limit on the number of teams competing for Premier slots, you can skew the results. Lets say you have 45 teams self select for U13 Open. Instead of the usual two brackets (East/West), you’ll have four (East/Piedmont I/Piedmont II/West) and the rules stipulate you have to  take the top 3 teams from each of the four brackets to get your 12 Premier teams, instead of taking the top five teams from two brackets. But what if there happens to be an imbalance geographically that year? Let’s say the West has 4 or 5 of the best teams in NC. Only three can make Premier if there are four brackets. So weaker teams from, say Piedmont, might make Premier at the expense of the stronger teams from the West. When it was limited to two brackets only (East/West) this was not much of a problem. But self selection will see 3-4 Open Division brackets, reducing the number of Premier teams taken frmo each. This will have wide reaching effects which I’ll touch on later.

This proposal relies on soccer clubs, coaches, and parents to make realistic choices regarding their teams, which many do but some will not. Past experience has shown significant imbalances in self selected divisions – just this season for both U11 boys and girls, there are many more teams in the Open Division vs the 2nd Division. But up until now that was a problem limited to U11 because promotion and relegation balanced things out in U12 and U13. Now that won’t happen. Beyond the logistical issues, I think the reasons given for the change were misleading at best. So let’s go through the reasons above one by one.

To reinforce the concept of player development at the younger age groups. The main concept here is the assumption that due to promotion and relegation, coaches are coaching to win. If you take it away, there is theoretically no incentive to ‘coach to win’ so teams will be developed better. This goes back to the whole carrot and stick approach to improving youth soccer. Instead of using the stick (coaching education), the powers that be think by taking the carrot away – coaches will suddenly ‘change’ and stop coaching to win if they don’t have to worry about promotion and relegation. I think this is naive at best. A coach who coaches to win at the expense of player development is going to do so regardless of standings being kept or promotion and relegation concerns. Good coaches earn wins with their entire team – promotion (or avoidance of relegation) will come. Proper player development comes from coaches who ‘get it’. Coaches who have taken the time to get educated in the how’s and why’s of coaching youth soccer and who care about player development. Coaches who just want to win will coach to win at any level, U6 up through U18 from Rec up through Classic. The elimination of promotion and relegation is unlikely to change that.

Less Travel. This is absolutely not going to happen. Currently, with the target of 1st Division always being 20 teams (10 in East and 10 in West) those teams travel more. It’s the nature of the sport at that level. But with the rest of the teams down in 2nd Division, often in three or four brackets based on geography, travel is much less. Now you just invert things. There will be less travel in the Open divisions because there will be more teams and more brackets, while the 2nd Division will see more travel with less teams/brackets, so farther to travel. And those are the teams, many newer with kids still getting comfortable with travel soccer, who should not be traveling more. The top teams in the state – that’s part of being a top team – you travel more to play top teams. Elimination of promotion and relegation completely skews that.

Retention of players would be greater for all associations. This is the one reason I can agree with. Parents do move their kids from one club to another to keep their child on a 1st Division team. If a team gets relegated, it is not unusual to see the top players migrate to another club that still has a 1st Division team. At the older age levels this is fine, but with younger kids, change like that can be rough. But it’s a choice parents and players make for themselves. If they feel that’s the right choice, let them make it. They may discover things were better at their old club and return. However, parents will know who the top teams are anyway. Online results and standings make it easy to judge which teams are rising to the top, even with Open expected to be bloated. Parents will move their kids to those teams, even at U12 because they want their kid to be on the ‘best’ team. So ‘club hopping’ may be reduced slightly, but I still expect parents and players to change clubs to get on the best teams. And yes, I know you’re wondering, many parents and coaches know by heart who the top teams are, what their recent results are, etc. For many it’s a hobby, for others, it’s research before deciding to switch clubs. But elimination of promotion and relegation isn’t going to stop that. So expect club hopping to continue, though it may not be as widespread. But players absolutely will still move.

Which ties into the first item – player development vs playing to win. Once clubs realize that parents will usually bring the best kids to the best U12 and U13 teams, even without promotion and relegation, the pressure to win returns, completely nullifying any benefit of no promotion and relegation.

Create the environment for more quality teams playing against like opponents. I can’t believe they even included this one. Self selection does NOT ensure competitive and balanced brackets. Brackets get formed based on geography. Each bracket can have a maximum of 13 teams and once you exceed that, you add a new bracket and reshuffle based on geography. There can only be so many ‘top teams’ in a given area – so instead of the top 20 teams split into two divisions fighting it out, often in very competitive matches, you will have the top 40+ teams fighting it out in 3-4 brackets, with much more distance between the #1 team in a bracket and the #10 team – so there will be LESS competition overall, not more. This is because the brackets are formed based on geography, not team skill. The only level likely to see more ‘like’ opponents will be 2nd Division since there will be far fewer teams at that level, and most will have gone there by choice. But even there, you’ll still have a couple strong teams with coaches/clubs that want to stay out of the Open Division fray, who really should be there, and they’ll pound on their other 2nd Division opponents.

Recreate the environment at U-13 where the players have the opportunity to adjust to 11v11 without undo pressure. This is probably the most realistic reason for this change. U13 in the Fall is a HUGE change for teams. You move from 8v8 to 11v11, bigger rosters, and you’re also working to get into or stay in 1st Division so you can compete for a U14 Premier slot in the Spring. But as was noted above, the pressure to win never really goes away – regardless of outside influences. So this isn’t going to change much. Plus with the expected lopsided matches in a bloated Open Division, the change to 11v11 will be even harder for many teams who are on the losing end of them.

Ensure through this process of placing the best teams in Premier Division at U-14. This is another one I can’t understand why they included because it’s so wrong. Promotion and relegation ensure you have the best teams competing for Premier slots. As I noted above, if you let anyone play in the Open Division, you will have more brackets, which means you will take the top teams from more brackets, even if most of the best teams are concentrated in one in a given year. The elimination of promotion and relegation will absolutely dilute Premier at U14 and things will not balance out until at least U15 or U16. Since U14 is when regional play begins, we risk not sending our best teams up into the regional leagues if they missed out in U13 because there were too many brackets and they lost a close match or two and ended up #4 or #5 vs #3 or higher.

Overall this is such a bad change. I realize this is just youth soccer – and for many parents with kids in Rec, it’s hard to understand why it’s a big deal. In the end, there is a widespread belief that kids develop well playing opponents that are similar to them. Forced to use the skills they’ve been taught under pressure, they gain more confidence. So much of this isn’t about little Johnny’s team being in the ‘top division’, it’s about ensuring the brackets are as balanced as they can be. Just letting everyone choose for themselves means many will not make the right choice, which will have far reaching impacts for everyone.

It is my sincere hope that the NCYSA Classic council regains thier senses and amends or repeals this change. None of the promoted benefits are likely to be realized, and this will likely reduce the competitiveness of North Carolina’s teams on a regional and national scale.

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