Over the past six years, the Land Park Jaguars dug their cleats into goal boxes and prepared for penalty kicks, relishing the thrills and spills of recreational youth soccer. But now, after all the Saturday games and post-match pizza parties, the Land Park Jaguars are no more.
It’s not that the team wanted to break up, but a new mandate from the highest echelons of national soccer is significantly changing the way youth soccer teams are grouped by age, leaving some longtime teams as casualties.
The United States Soccer Federation, the country’s governing body of soccer, announced in August that youth soccer teams will now be grouped in age by calendar year, meaning kids born between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 of a given year will play together. Traditionally, age groups were based on players born between Aug. 1 and July 31, a division that better enabled kids to play soccer with their classmates.
This new mandate officially kicks in for the 2017 soccer season, though the USSF recommended that youth soccer leagues around the country get a head start and institute the rule now.
All youth soccer leagues organized under District 6 of Cal North, the Northern California wing of the California Youth Soccer Association, will switch to calendar year age grouping for the upcoming 2016 season. That includes most of the youth soccer leagues around the Sacramento area, including the parent organizations behind Greenhaven Soccer Club, Arden Park Soccer Club and numerous others.
As youth soccer registrations loom in the spring, the rule change is causing much chatter and some concerns by local coaches. For Scott Silva, coach of the Land Park Jaguars, the squad he’s groomed over the past half-decade will be no more because of this mandate.
“It broke up the whole team,” said Silva. “Since my son is a December birthday, he was playing as the oldest player on the team, and now he’s going to be the youngest player on the team. People are frustrated, but accepting that they don’t have any control over this.”
In its August announcement of the initiative, the USSF described the move as a way to “align registration with the international standard,” and a way to simplify the registration process.
“You are constantly finding parents and players confused about what age group players belong in,” said Tab Ramos, head coach of the U.S. under-20 national team, in a USSF statement following announcement of the rule change. “It also puts our players on the same age-playing calendar as the rest of the world so they will be used to competing in the right age group. That makes it much easier for us to scout for the national teams and find players ready to compete internationally.”
But not every kid wearing shin guards hopes to become the next Landon Donovan or other U.S. soccer star. For the bulk of young people playing the sport, youth soccer is akin to Cub Scouts, a way to blow off steam and learn values of teamwork while surrounded by their school buddies. According to the most recent figures from U.S. Youth Soccer, more than 3 million young people registered to play in 2014.
Paul Marquardt, coach of the Land Park Golden Lions, said he sees the sport primarily as a way to keep his son active and encourage bonding time with his pals. With the calendar year rule change, Marquardt will lose most of the core players he’s coached for the past four years. His son has since decided to step away from soccer.
“I think he might have stuck with it if we could have kept the team,” said Marquardt. “At least a couple of other teammates have transitioned into golf. It’s not easy for the parents, either, and there are a lot of frustrations. Over time, you get comfortable with all the families you’ve met.”
Representatives from leagues affiliated with District 6 of Cal North voted in the fall to adopt the calendar age change for the upcoming soccer season instead of waiting until 2017. Those leagues included the Sacramento Youth Soccer League – which oversees clubs in East Sacramento, River Park, West Sacramento and other local neighborhoods – and River City Youth Soccer League.
As president of River City Youth Soccer League, which includes clubs from Arden Park, Sierra Oaks and Rosemont, Eileen Peebles says that team breakups won’t necessarily be the norm under the new mandate. Some clubs already have rules in place that prevent coaches from keeping the same teams for multiple years. Players also have the option in many cases of “playing up” to an older division if they insist on sticking with their soccer friends.
“At first everyone was nervous, but for my particular league, my manager’s on board and we’re working on the minutiae to make sure it’s rolled out in a way to mitigate angst,” said Peebles. “There are some naysayers, but it’s not that bad. There will be solutions.”
But some teams will be sacrificed for the time being, and Silva’s reconciled that his Land Park Jaguars are now just a memory.
“I understand the need for competitiveness, but ideally when you’re playing (recreational) soccer you’re playing with kids in your class,” said Silva.