North Carolina finally gave in to peer pressure and joined the rest of the country in prohibiting the enforcement of offside in U10 travel soccer (Challenge). I know this is old news for those of you in NC, but I felt it was still worth sharing for everyone else. Longtime readers know that I’ve talked about this issue in depth a few times before:

The meeting to discuss this was interesting. The state brought out the big guns, including Dr. John Thomas, Asst Director of Coaching Education for the USYSA, who was in town helping teach a National Youth License course. They advocated strongly for the elimination of offside in a way that made you feel like we would be destroying kids if we kept it. It was odd, because when questioned, we never got a direct answer as to why calling offside at U10 was such a bad thing. Probably the most articulate response was from a very experienced coach and DOC here in central North Carolina. In his view, offside was allowing teams to push their defense up to midfield too easily and taking away open space because you had 10 players crammed into half the field most of the time. The hope was that without offside, the defense would be less likely to push up so aggressively, opening up the field for more passing, etc. Yet when cherry picking was brought up as a major concern, the national folks argued that teams should ignore the cherry picker, gaining a player advantage – i.e. continue to push your defense to midfield. So we eliminated offside to open up the field, though if teams cherry pick we should pack it into half the field anyway and gain a one player advantage. Huh?

There was a lot of this up is down discussion. They’d say one thing, then you’d raise another concern and they’d contradict what they had just said to address your concern.

This decision was driven primarily by the larger soccer associations in the state, which is fine in that they are welcome to their opinion like anyone else. The problem is, most had already made the decision to pull out of U10 Challenge and only offer U10 Academy programs instead. So they would be unaffected by this decision as the Academy program had already been organized without offside. Yet they voted to do away with offside in U10 Challenge anyway, even though they would have no U10 Challenge teams.

I wrote up a fairly detailed post over at the NC Soccer Forum highlighting some of the other things I observed at the meeting. The discussion thread related to this issue was very long, and it wasn’t the only one.

So where does this leave things? Well, the argument that eliminating offside would save leagues money went out the window pretty quick. At least in our scheduling league, they gave ‘home’ teams the option of having one referee or three. Many chose to pay for three because they wanted to help ensure more accurate out of bounds calls. It will be interesting to see how many other leagues go with just one official or pay for three anyway.

As for our Recreational league, where we call offside at U10, we had a decision to make. Offside hasn’t been specifically prohibited in recreation (yet), so we could still call it if we wanted to. The main concern was that we might confuse the kids if they learned offside as U9 age players in Recreation, then moved to U10 Challenge where it wasn’t called, only to have it called again in U11. However, most of our board agreed that it probably wasn’t a huge issue and the concept of ‘teach the kids right’ was more important. So in our Recreational league this year, our U10 matches will have offside called like always while the U10 Challenge matches going on at the next field won’t. It should be interesting to watch the differences and see how it plays out. It’ll also be interesting seeing if the U11 matches next year have offside called more often because the players are less used to adhering to it. Finally – most of the big leagues advocating for the elimination of offside host large tournaments where offside is usually called for U10. It will be interesting to see if they decide not to call offside and risk lower attendance at the U10 level because of it.

As I noted in my forum post – this is not going to wreck the game either way – just take something away from it. I personally think U10 players can learn offside, at least the basics, and that not calling it probably won’t have the desired effect of opening up the small sided field. I expect teams will cherry pick some, but more teams will probably push their defense up, gaining an advantage, and hopefully scoring enough to offset the cheap cherry picking goals they might give up. What will be fun to watch is if any U10 keepers are confident enough to run out to intercept a pass to a cherry picker, in effect playing defense and clearing the ball before it reaches the cherry picker. I also think we might see more 3-2 formations, or 2-1-2, where you leave the strikers up and rely on your midfielder to break things up. Sure, you may face the occasional 5 on 3, but if there are two strikers hanging by your opponents goal waiting for the ball, I just don’t see many coaches leaving them all alone. One silver lining may be much higher scoring matches!

I’ll keep you all posted as we embark on our first season with no offside. I happened to walk over to my daughter’s U10 Challenge practice the other night and was trying to figure out which team was going which way. I ended up having it wrong – the two players I thought were defenders were actually forwards who were way offside just waiting for passes from their defense. They play in a pre-season tournament this weekend whose rules simply say ‘U10-U12 will adhere to NCYSA small-sided rules’ without specifically saying if offside will be called or not. The rules seem to infer ‘not’, but I’ll laugh if we get there, having practiced all month ignoring offside, only to have it called in a tournament run by a league that voted to eliminate it at U10!