New Jersey youth soccer seems to have survived the first Fall season under the new birth year rules set forth by USYS. After the proverbial band aid was ripped off, we saw an increase in players shopping around for new clubs, a number of new programs popping up trying to grab a share of the market, and a distinct change in the strength of teams to those with true birth year rosters. If the completion of the Fall 2016 season has anything to show, it is that we are in for even more challenges this Spring with the High School aged teams competing and a second round of tryouts. The biggest challenge I personally foresee will result from what I have highlighted above. It is noticed through speaking with a number of colleagues that the teams seeing the most success are those of true birth year. For example, a 2005 team completely comprised of 2005 aged players are out-matching the split 05/06 teams. This recognition will push clubs and teams to seek more defined age groups, but in turn will create more chaos come tryout season; potentially leading to more shopping around of parents looking for the right developmental level for their children.
This is what USYS envisioned right? Clubs recognizing the strength in true birth year teams and creating age groups strictly within the parameters they set forth. I just doubt they predicted it happening in this way….
Predicting The Fallout:
1. Players will continue to be on the move: Winning still matters in youth soccer, but hopefully parents move for the right reasons. Ensuring their child is properly challenged, club player development models, and professional coaching should be the true influences in a player switching clubs. However, I have seen that team success still leads to entirely too much turnover in the age of the “one year contract.” Noticing that true birth year teams are finding the most success early on will influence families to tryout at those clubs implementing them, and could damage a lot of clubs that do not have the player populations to do this. Resulting in….
2. Small Township Clubs Suffering: As if they are not already having a tough time keeping up with the private clubs and so-called “academies.” With increased competition, advertising avenues and budgets, as well as an emphasis on player recruitment, how will they survive long term? The small local club is full of split age group teams. In many cases they are forced to play up an age group because they could not field a team otherwise. The worst part of it all is that out of 12 players on a 9v9 roster, it is likely there are only 4 true birth year aged kids; and they are in the younger half of that age group because they were born after July 31st. This is because it was the makeup of the team the year prior and the team was forced to stick together and move up, or collapse. How can teams like this compete when matching up against clubs with kids that are a year and a half older? It is just not feasible, and it will lead to more township teams breaking up and kids seeking to play in their own age group (the latter half of that is good, but for the wrong reasons). My advice to township clubs is to get your younger age groups 2009-2007 in strict birth year rosters ASAP.
3. A Significant Movement to Birth Aged Teams: I had to throw in a positive result of the USYS decision (with a twist of course). If clubs thought they got through the worst of it in season 1, they are wrong. I know a lot of teams (mostly High School aged) that are falling apart at the moment. I have also seen more player release requests in the winter months than ever before, all due to the negative effects of the rule changes. However, this is leading to families seeing the benefits of a player playing in their natural age group and seeking those teams out. Players are not leaving one club and heading to another to play up. When a player tries out at a new club, directors are placing them immediately with a team within their birth year. This is only a good thing, and the second season of the changes, as well as tryout season (March-May), should see far less teams form with split age groups, leveling the playing field.
4. Ranking Systems are a Mess: Teams that were strong in the Spring of 2016 are entirely different. Team rosters are entirely different period! How can anyone distinguish who the best teams in the State are right now by using GotSoccer? How can tournament brackets properly form in College Showcases based on rankings and points accumulated with entirely different team rosters and opponents? One can argue that the points will reset at the end of the season, but what happens this Spring? Hopefully league, tournament, and club directors properly communicate and sort out the flighting system, because in the Fall of 2016 it was a complete mess. I wrote an article titled “Feeling Out League Flighting This Fall,“ in which I spoke of “anti-developmental games.” Or games with lop-sided scores because teams were miss-flighted. This happened consistently in the Fall of 2016 across all leagues (from EDP to MNJYSA) and will be even more of a problem with High School aged teams this Spring. When teams are paying over $1,000 to compete in a Showcase style tournament, they had better get the level of competition right. I am not sure what they are going to do to ensure teams don’t get consistently out-matched, but relying on the coach’s assessment of their own group surely did not work in season 1.
The USYS mandates were not a quick fix, and clubs that think they have figured it out after Season 1 will be exposed to a whole new set of challenges this Spring. Of course everything I have written above is hypothetical, but I believe they are examples or real possibilities that clubs and families need to be aware of heading into the second tryout year. We are far from the end result when it comes to the the effects of the birth year movement, and with an ever-changing travel soccer landscape, clubs need to prepare for a second round of challenges, some in which we may never have predicted.