If you’re involved in coordinating a soccer league and have anything to do with roster assignments, I bet you have some gray hair. Especially if your league allows some flexibility or special requests. It’s hard enough to try and create balanced teams when you only know some of the players, and parents are scrambling to get their kids on teams coached by coaches they perceive as good. It’s enough to make you want to throw all the forms in the air and let them fall where they may. This is exactly what some leagues do, but is it the best thing? Take the red pill and follow me down the rabbit hole of youth soccer roster assignments. I bet you never knew it could be such a scary place!

First some background on WHY we’re reviewing roster assignments. For those of you who don’t know, I’m the President of a small city soccer league in North Carolina. Our city population is around 8,000 people, though our ZIP Code population is closer to 30,000. Our league was started in late 2001 and we’re wrapping up our 9th season. We’ve grown from maybe 250 players the first season to over 600 this past Spring.

When our league started, we were thrilled just to have a chance for our kids to play soccer. But we also wanted to build the league and get lots of kids interested in the game. Early on we decided that we’d be as accommodating as possible to encourage parents unsure about soccer to give it a go. During registration, parents are allowed to make ‘special requests’ like ‘Jimmy wants to play with his best friend John’ or ‘These three kids should be on the same team so we can carpool’, etc. Obviously there were limits on what we could do and made clear to parents that we would accommodate as many requests as we could, but that we would not sacrifice team equity, gender/age balance, etc. for a special request. In fact, special requests were perhaps 5th on the list of things we considered when assigning teams. But in the end we found we could satisfy most of them. It worked well and parents enjoyed being able to get some accommodation when kids were assigned to teams. They were used to sports where kids got drafted or randomly assigned and then they had to struggle to juggle their schedule as necessary. We also let team ‘cores’ move up together and stay together. Since our divisions are 2 year divisions, teams split roughly in half each fall with one half moving up and another staying back. These cores often stay together. The league felt it helped the kids with some continuity to have a sizable number of kids they knew on their team each year with the rest new faces.

This worked well for the most part. Division Coordinators were given a lot of freedom to assign rosters fairly and evenly while trying to meet as many requests as possible. There were times we refused to grant a request because we felt it would unfairly skew a team or because we simply didn’t have room on a requested team. A couple parents got upset but for the most part they understood we would do our best. Most teams start off each Fall largely gender and age balanced. The biggest benefit is it meant our league developed a family and social fabric since parents came onto teams already knowing some of each other. Not all special requests were ‘I want my kids to play for THAT coach’. Many were ‘We know this family and want our kids to play soccer together’
Like all good things, however, something more troubling was brewing under the surface.

Storm Clouds Gather

Certain teams started winning, a lot, and some coaches took on multiple teams. Over the course of a couple years, we suddenly had witnessed the inadvertent creation of a ‘farm system’ where friendly groups of parents would link teams across U6, U8, U10, and to a lesser extent, U12. Parents who knew each other would funnel their kids up to older teams coached by friends or parents of ex-players. One pair of coaches actually coach 3 teams sponsored by the same business. Thus their kids have a path from U6 up through U10 with the same coaches and for the most part, because these are two really good coaches, these teams succeed. Personally, my U6 teams did very well (even though we didn’t keep score) and when many of my Nuggets moved up, my three U6 assistant coaches formed their own team which I helped as an assistant coach. Then, when my son aged up to U10, I formed a U10 team and took a number of kids that had played on the U8 team I assisted on. We weren’t constant winners by any stretch, but our U8 team was always very competitive. This was not meant to stack teams – it was more trying to provide the kids with continuity between age groups. But there soon was grumbling how certain teams were creating a farm system that was often impossible to get into beyond U6 (the upper teams had few ‘open’ slots since most openings were filled by kids moving up from the lower teams). All sorts of conspiracy theories have floated around but in the end, it wasn’t anything sinister that was happening.

Up until recently, the grumbling was minor and not widespread. Now that we face a new fall season where a lot of coaches are moving around, we find that a U10 team that has consistently won and placed first or second is hoping to take its remaining kids and join them with the older kids from a U8 team that has consistently won. This created a bit of an uproar since people felt this would create a stacked team, even if the parents were hoping to do it because they knew each other. Most of us agreed that this team would be competitive considering who was on it and the coaches the kids had played under. They were hardly the only ones. Most of my U10 team was younger kids and they were many of the stronger players so next year they likely would be a powerful team (five of them are trying out for Challenge and have a decent chance of making the U10 team). The grumbling was getting much louder, so our officers have been debating how we will handle roster assignments in the Fall.

The Problem

On the surface it would seem that the biggest risk of allowing special requests would be coaches trying to stack teams. It IS a risk, but so far our coaches have been a great group and we have not seen any overt attempt to stack teams. The interesting thing you discover is it is the parents who stack the teams, and they don’t even realize they are doing it.

What we’ve observed is parents recognize early on when their kids show a knack for soccer. They don’t have to be mini super-stars. But if the kids start to play well and grasp the game earlier than the other kids, the parents want to build on that. One way they do this is try to get their kids onto teams with known good coaches. When I say good coach – that can mean different things to different parents. It might be the coach that has had the #1 team for two seasons, or it might be the coach whose current team went 2-5-0 but has had perennially strong teams and is good with kids. It may be as simple as an experienced and knowledgeable coach who has been around a while regardless of the past performance of his or her teams.

Imagine this situation. Three coaches who are good friends and good coaches are coaching teams in U6, U8, and U10 respectively. They are very good with kids, but also competitive and their kids seem to do very well under their supervision. The U10 team is usually #1 or #2 (except for one year they placed 5th), U8 team is competitive (Top 4 each year), and the U6 team wins most of their games (results aren’t kept but the parents know which teams are winning often.

The U6 coach has a child who is starting soccer (his older children play on the U8 and U10 teams already) He is friends with a few other families who happen to also have active kids around 5 years old and they all decide to play together in U6. Their team does well, loses a few, but win most of their matches. Lots of fun is had by all. When its time for the older ‘core’ of the U6 team to move to U8, the parents decide to move the core up as a group onto the team coached by their current coach’s friend. (The U6 coach assistant coaches in U8 as well) 4 parents with decently athletic kids who show a knack for soccer ask to get their kids onto that U8 team as well. Two kids from that U8 team drop out of soccer – its just not their thing and they weren’t very good. 2 of the 4 outsiders get told there are no more slots available on that team, but the team is able to take two of the four athletic kids by special request. The team does well in U8 and competes in the Championship game both years. When it is time for the same core of kids to move to U10, the parents ask to be joined with the remnants of the U10 team coached by a friend that just won the U10 Championship. The parents have become friends over the years through the three coaches so it makes sense. One kid drops out because he’s not very fast and is better at baseball anyway. The U8 core moves up to U10 and joins the core left from the old U10 team. They have no slots available even though 6 parents ask to get their kids onto that team. They win the U10 Championship 3 out of 4 seasons.

The Farm System

This is a fictional scenario that outlines a typical farm system where kids funnel up through the age divisions on a certain group of teams with good coaches, who are often friends, and a higher than average proportion of athletic kids. The intent of this scenario is to show that there isn’t any overt effort on the part of the coaches or the parents to stack a team. The parents of existing team members have become friends and want to stay together. Parents of kids with a knack for soccer want to get the best coaching for their kids, these teams often do well, and the coaches are well known. The combination of parents of a ‘core’ staying together, less skilled kids dropping out (all teams lose kids for whatever the reason), and the gradual addition of athletic kids via special request when slots open up, will over time create a strong team.

Besides the creation of a strong team, the teams with new coaches or poor previous performances don’t get parents asking for their teams. The parents of talented kids work to get most of them on the better teams so the younger teams with inexperienced coaches get assignments from the rest of the pool. Sure there are a few kids in there that are really good and/or are new to the league. But overall you suddenly find your teams diverging into the haves and have nots. Again – not through any overt or malicious action on the part of the coaches or parents. But over time a combination of factors will start to create these farm teams that will repeatedly perform well while the other teams struggle to improve.

Our league has 3 farm teams like this, one of which I am involved in. I can assure you that our teams were made up primarily of kids I coached in U6 over the years whose parents became friends and a core group of kids have funneled through our teams each year. All of these groups of teams were formed more by accident than anything else – they just sort of ‘gelled’ together over time. There was never any active effort to ‘create’ these systems. But regardless of the intent or how they formed, there is no denying that they are fielding very powerful teams. Of the 3 farm systems, here is how the U8 and U10 teams faired for each ‘system’ during a recent season.

System A: U8 finished #2 and won the U8A Championship. U10 finished #1 and won the Championship via shootout.

System B: U8 finished #3 and lost semi-final match to #2 1-0. U10 finished #7, but upset #2 and lost in semi-finals to #3
System C: U8 finished #1 and won the U8B Championship via shootout. U10 finished #3 and lost to #1 in Championship shoot-out.

As a league officer and someone who sees how the rosters are assigned, I know that these teams were not ‘stacked’ by any coach. They are primarily cores formed at U6 that move up through the U8 and U10 teams with parents trying to get onto them when a slot opens up. The parents of the cores often become friends and attend each other’s matches. But it is clear this is creating a powerful system that some of the other teams will have trouble competing against.

What Next?

We’ve reached a sort of tipping point of discontent from parents outside this system and have begun to review our options. I freely admit I’m involved with one of these ‘farm’ groups, formed primarily as parents became friends. Our teams haven’t won a Championship yet, but we’ve played strong and are always dangerous. Even so, I’m also a bit concerned about what the future holds and how our groups of teams are impacting the rest of the league.

Step one to recovery is recognizing you have a problem. Smiley Not all of our officers agree it’s a major problem, but enough do that we’re having a frank and open discussion about what to do this Fall. Many of the league officers are also involved with the farm teams as parents and/or coaches so sometimes its hard not to feel defensive about it. But the good news is we have a great group of people running our league who manage to stay objective about stuff like this.

Step two is figuring out what to do to fix it. That is an even more contentious issue, but beyond that it’s also a complex problem with many possible solutions. In my next post I’ll talk about the options we came up with by brainstorming and which ones are being considered seriously. We haven’t made any type of decision yet, so this will be an ongoing series I’m sure.