I recently wrote about our league’s upcoming movement to 6v6 in U10 (from 8v8) and how it will affect coaching strategy, practice planning, game dynamics, etc. The one thing I didn’t touch on was offside. USYS recommends not calling offside in U10 due to the short field (60 yds) and the inability of the players to understand it (among other things). Maybe our league is an outlier, but I’m not sure we’ve seen the bad things they list as reasons to avoid it. An argument could be made that while it IS a short field, calling offside in U10 can be beneficial. As long as your kids don’t believe in aliens…

(From Cleats by Bill Hinds)

Here are some of the key points the USYS uses to advocate for no offside and why it is better for the game in U10 to just let the kids be anywhere:

  • Not having offside at U10 is based on the change in the size of the field with the 6-a-side game and the general lack of understanding or conceptualization of the offside law with children this young. Indeed, most of the adults at U10 matches do not correctly understand Law 11, so why are we expecting children to do so?
  • Given the shortage nationwide of referees to expect leagues and clubs to have three officials on U10 matches seems unrealistic.
  • Due to the reduction of players the field size is also reduced. Therefore, it is conceivable that some coaches may take this opportunity to win a match by using an overtly direct style of play or by planting players permanently near the opponents’ goal due to the no offside rule. With this coach driven style matches may be won, yet it defeats the purpose of the developmental benefits of playing small-sided games. It also diminishes the players’ learning and enjoyment of the game. Children participate in sports for four reasons: Action – Involvement – Excitement – Friendships
  • Given the tendency for the offensive style for this age group to be" kick and run" then offside will be called frequently. Calling offside stops the match often; reducing the number of times a team can finish with an attempted shot or attack on goal. It restricts the creative flow of the match. Players begin to think more about offside than they do about playing the match.
  • We don’t want coaches coaching the offside trap at these ages. There are plenty of other developmentally appropriate, mentally challenging themes and lessons to teach (i.e. individual and small group tactics). Coaches tend to want to keep this rule because it helps them WIN by coaching to a rule! There is plenty of time and opportunity to coach to this rule as the players get older.

I’m not sure I agree with all the conclusions here, even if I agree with the ends they are trying to reach. I’m absolutely for concentrating on core skills and letting the kids play.

Teaching kids offside. Anyone who has tried to do it knows it can be difficult. But does that mean we shouldn’t be teaching it? Offside is a simple rule, but that simplicity (at the point the ball is kicked) can make it difficult to understand. But who says you have to teach a U10 player that they can go past the defender when the ball is kicked? Start out simple. You can’t pass that last defender without the ball or a teammate with the ball doing it first. You can teach them the basic concept and some of your kids will ‘get it’ quickly. Then you might slip in that they can be offside on a goal kick or throw in or that they can take off past the last defender after the ball once its is kicked. Even if you don’t, they’ll have a base of experience with offside that they can build on in older divisions. Do you teach them the intimate details like it isn’t offside if it comes from a defender or stuff like that? No. They’ll pick the subtle stuff up over time. But the core concept of offside (your team can’t go past the last defender without the ball) can be taught, allowing them to learn the subtleties in older divisions.

Referee Shortage. This puzzles me. If we have a shortage of referees, how will we train more with less opportunities to line judge? We recruit a lot of high school kids and even older middle school kids to line judge the younger divisions. We hope some will enjoy it enough to move up to center. But if a kid can’t get started in the less competitive and fast U10 division, they’ll be freaking out at U12 on up and for most leagues there are less U12 teams than U10. Taking the ARs out of U10 (which is the next step after doing away with offside) seems like it would take away referee training opportunities and only serve to make the referee shortage worse. Maybe I’m missing something.

Game stoppages. Is this a major problem elsewhere? We called offside in U8 (we play 6v6) and U10. I don’t recall offside being called very often. Maybe once a match and often never. However, our referees tend to call it in direct cases – the ball goes directly to an offside player. Keeper distraction and subtle infractions like that tend to be let go unless they are blatant (a kid is in the keepers face offside when another scores) But the games flow and rarely is offside called. What do you find in your leagues?

Offside Trap. This all comes down to coaching education. A coach teaching the trap to his U10 team isn’t doing a good job. USYS is right that this shouldn’t be done. But eliminating offside is a backward way of improving bad behavior. This is what DOC’s are for. So many of the new rules lately seem to be meant to try and curb inappropriate coaching. Shouldn’t that be addressed with a strong DOC and coaching education program? We’re reducing soccer to a shell at younger age levels often to combat inappropriate coaching. Why not address the root cause of inappropriate coaching – lack of coaching education and code of conduct enforcement.

Cherry picking. I’m surprised they said coaches ‘MAY’ take advantage of no offside. I know U8 coaches who would. Let’s be realistic. Even if a coach doesn’t encourage it, the kids will figure it out for themselves. Kids who do this are only setting themselves up for trouble when they reach more competitive levels of play with offside because they don’t know it. Middle school coaches shouldn’t have to teach their kids not to cherry pick and its hard if kids have done it for 6 years and it was ‘OK’. They’ll spend so much time ‘worrying’ about it, their play will suffer. If kids have dealt with offside in U10 on up, by middle school it will be approaching a second nature thing so they can concentrate on other things.

Eliminating offside also works against the goal of getting more ball touches and to me is the most important reason to keep offside. In a match without offside, kids are going to cherry pick. We all know it. Those kids will spend time standing still waiting for the ball to come their way. They will only have to do one thing, get the ball, turn, and shoot. No passing back and forth, no dribbling. This does not help them. Plus they touch the ball less. The defenders, not wanting the cherry picker to score, also hang back by the goal and do nothing when the ball is on the other end of the field. If offside is part of the game, the kids can’t just hang there. Having offside also encourages opposing coaches to push the defense up the field to keep opponents far from the goal. This, in my mind, is a good thing. It keeps more of the players near the action. The defenders near mid field will often help keep a ball on one end of the field. The other team’s forwards will be more apt to get the ball and head up field instead of hanging by the opponents ball. With defenders at mid field, the forwards have to pass more to be successful at getting by some of them and reaching the goal. If all the defense is hanging by the cherry pickers, the ball handlers will usually just dribble up field instead of passing. Offside can compress the field to get players even more into a game. It also encourages more motion on the field. If your defense is ‘fluid’ and drift up and down their half of the field, they’re getting more exercise.

We tried no offside in U8 for a while (we play 6v6), found it was a pain, and cherry picking was a problem even if coaches didn’t encourage it. The kids are pretty smart – they knew what would get them a goal. We ended up calling it this year and it worked very well. I know the experts all feel offside is too complex for kids to understand, etc., but we’ve found the opposite. The kids DO understand offside after a few weeks, even in U8, and begin to pickup the subtle parts of offside in U10. Most matches don’t have an offside call and the rest usually have no more than one and RAREly two.

Now it may be a huge problem in other leagues and there are obviously other factors driving this which our league doesn’t see. But our kids have picked it up fairly quickly. So I’m not sure what we’ll do in the fall. We haven’t observed any pressing need to NOT call offside and I think that having offside avoids keeping your defenders planted at the penalty box. It allows them to move up and participate more. I also find it interesting that the feeling is kids this age can’t reliably pass 30 yards to their teammate hanging at the top of the box. Our U10 kids definitely can. Even in U8 the pass would probably be close enough for them to chase down and quickly score untouched.

I’m all for the goals of more ball touches, continuous game play, and teaching kids core soccer skills. But offside awareness is a core skill and should be something that kids can take into account without thinking about it once they hit U12 or higher. By eliminating offside the downside seems to outweigh any upside. At least in our case. What about yours?