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The Official American Youth Soccer Organization Handbook

The Official American Youth Soccer Organization Handbook

4.5 4
by Vincent Fortanasce, John Ouelette

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The first book endorsed by AYSO — the organization that soccer moms and dads trust most — that presents all the basics of youth soccer
If you are a soccer parent, coach, or referee, or just a youth soccer enthusiast, The Official American Youth Soccer Organization Handbook is for you. Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, Lawrence Robinson,


The first book endorsed by AYSO — the organization that soccer moms and dads trust most — that presents all the basics of youth soccer
If you are a soccer parent, coach, or referee, or just a youth soccer enthusiast, The Official American Youth Soccer Organization Handbook is for you. Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, Lawrence Robinson, and John Ouellette, the National AYSO coach, have written the book that will help everyone to better understand the rules, regulations, and skills that are essential to the game and a rewarding soccer experience for the children who play. In a straightforward, easy-to-follow style, The Official AYSO Handbook covers:

  • the five philosophies of AYSO: everyone plays, balanced teams, open registration, positive coaching, and good sportsmanship
  • the responsibilities of each position
  • the complete rules of youth soccer, including offside, throw-ins, and penalty kicks
  • skills such as ball control, goalkeeping, heading, and shooting
  • short-sided soccer rules for children between the ages of six and twelve
  • information for the prevention and treatment of the most common soccer injuries

AYSO is the best and most trusted youth soccer authority. And now, Fortanasce, Robinson, and Ouellette have collected AYSO's expertise in this indispensable book — a must-have for anyone who embraces the important role that youth soccer can play in a child's life.

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Introduction: The Beautiful Game

That beautiful game I love so well, the game I live to play...

— Pelé

We are obsessed. And we have been since the first time we kicked a leather ball. By the time Lawrence was 5, for example, he was playing every evening after school with the neighborhood kids on a thin strip of grass that fell away in an alarmingly steep slope beyond his backyard fence. "We threw coats or sweaters down as goalposts," he remembers, "and played until dusk, when my mother's calls became too loud and insistent to ignore."

John's parents proudly remember how conscientious he was as a youngster, always arriving at elementary school early. "I never told them that all the kids met up every morning to play soccer." The game, consisting of a swarm of kids chasing a ratty tennis ball around the school playground, started before their first class, resumed at recess, and concluded during lunch. "It seemed that there was always a soccer game to be played."

Vince played for the elementary school team, the Cub Scout team, and a Saturday morning team whose name he can't quite remember. Then there was high school. Because of the size and reputation of the school, making the junior varsity team at the age of 14 held all the prestige of playing for one's country. "When I pulled that crisp polyester over my head for the first time," he says, "I felt like Pelé preparing to play for Brazil or Cruyff for Holland."

Lawrence recently met up with two of his closest friends in Los Angeles, and as they so often do, they reminisced about their years playing for the Danbury Boys Under-10s (U-10) through Under-16s (U-16). Richard ("Babs") is now a farmer. Back then he was the team's striker (primary goal scorer), a player best described simply as "an enigma" in front of goal. Dave, on the other hand, was a more consistent performer, usually beside Lawrence in defense, who went on to become a successful broker on Wall Street.

They all remember those Sunday afternoons with nothing but warmth — which means that youth soccer played the role it was meant to in their lives. They don't have mantlepieces littered with trophies or careers as professional players to look back on. They don't even have memories of winning many games. But what they do have are bonds of friendship that were formed on the soccer field and that have remained unbroken by time or geography. The best we can wish for any child playing youth soccer today is that in 25 years he or she will be able to say the same about their childhood teammates.

Groups of men and women, boys and girls, kicking a leather ball around a rectangular patch of land may seem like a silly pursuit to some. But the game of soccer has a way of generating such emotional intensity in those it touches that each game becomes a brief reflection of the muddled blend of drama, competitiveness, joy, and tragedy that saturate that other silly pursuit: the game of life.

Soccer, football, futbol, futebol, calcio, fussball, fußbal, voetbol — call it what you will, no other sport has the rich history or heritage to match "the beautiful game." No other sport breeds the passion, the insanity, the ecstasy, or the despair. Forget the hooligan reputation of a minority of soccer supporters — that's a social problem that has nothing to do with sport; ignore the allegations that it's a game for wimpy, bespectacled geeks — most soccer players, men and women, are supremely fit athletes; and dismiss the notion that the game is un-American — it's certainly no less American than golf.

Soccer is a wonderful pastime, an unstructured, flowing game that at its best blurs the line between sport and art. There's an intrinsic balletic quality to a sweeping passing move that carries the ball from one end of the field to the other and climaxes in a perfectly executed volley or a crisp diving header on goal. No, the scoring in soccer isn't as high as in other American sports, but that's part of the appeal. The scarcity value increases the importance of every goal, every missed shot, every fingertip save. The fact that goals are rarer and harder-earned than runs in baseball or points in basketball adds to the excitement and anticipation every time the ball is played in close to goal.

So, it's no wonder that today, more kids in America play soccer than any other youth sport. The Soccer Industry Council of America estimates that more than 26 million children under the age of 18 will play soccer at least once in 2001. More than 4 million kids are registered to play with American youth soccer organizations, half a million more than with Little League, and that number is increasing at an annual rate of 8 to 10 percent. The sport is no longer reserved for first- and second-generation Americans, the sons of immigrants clinging to a tradition from their homeland. It's a game for everyone, a philosophy that the American Youth Soccer Organization, or AYSO, has taken to heart. Boys and girls are not registered on their merits as soccer players, but rather according to their interest and commitment.

"Enthusiasm," said the great Pelé, "is everything." To that end, the objectives of AYSO are to enthusiastically teach, promote, and cultivate youth soccer in the United States and to develop American youngsters in both body and character. Winning always comes second to enjoyment. With the beautiful game, everyone plays and everyone has fun.

Whether you're already a devoted soccer aficionado or, like more than 70 percent of AYSO's parents and volunteers, you've had little or no previous contact with the sport, this book is for you. It's an ideal reference to the game of soccer, its rules and the philosophies and regulations of the American Youth Soccer Organization. We hope it will also stand as a testament to a group of kids half a lifetime ago who learned the most valuable lesson that youth soccer has to teach: The results soon fade from memory, but the fun and the friendships can last forever.

Copyright © 2001 by The American Youth Soccer Organization

Chapter 2: The Team

Part of the beauty of soccer is its simplicity. All you need is a field, a ball, two teams, and a referee. The field is a little larger than the size of a football field, smaller for younger players, and the game is played in two halves, although AYSO mandates quarter breaks within each half to allow for player substitutions under the "Everyone Plays" philosophy.

A full-sided team has a maximum of 11 players on the field at any one time, although games can be played with as few as 3 on each team, which allows players more touches on the ball and enables them to learn ball control, passing, and shooting skills quickly.

Being a good teammate is [trying] to sprint down a ball that everyone thinks is going out of bounds. But you go after it anyway and you get it. Maybe you don't make a great cross with it to win the game, but you pushed yourself beyond what you thought you could.

— Mia Hamm

Being a team player is important, not only in soccer but in life. The ability to build relationships with others through cooperation, respect, and unselfish behavior is as valuable in the boardroom, on the factory floor, and at home as it is on the soccer field. Nothing in life is as important or rewarding as the forming of human relationships.

On the soccer field, kids soon learn the value of cooperation and teamwork. There's no one player, no matter how good she is, who can win a soccer game single-handedly. It takes every player on the team playing with commitment and enthusiasm for a team to be successful.

One Danbury Boys U-16 game has stayed in Lawrence's mind as vividly as any other. Eight or nine of the team had grown up together, playing together every season from the U-10 level. This particular game was an away game against the top-of-the-league team on a miserable, rainy Sunday afternoon. The usual reliable group of 9 players turned up, but the rest of the team clearly decided their time was better spent indoors, not out in the winter downpour. Rather than forfeiting the game because they couldn't field a starting 11, the 9 of them decided to play and give it their best shot.

They packed the defense with the hope of keeping the score down and maybe catching the opposing team on the break for a goal or two. But it was not to be. Their opponents were too good, and the game turned into a rout. Dave even suffered the embarrassment of scoring an own goal when he deflected a shot past his own goalkeeper and into the net. "I helped him up from the muddy goal mouth and told him we were already losing by so many that I didn't think they needed our help in scoring any more," remembers Lawrence. "He laughed and we walked back to the center circle to take yet another kickoff."

"I can't remember for certain the final score — something like 9 or 10-0 — but what I do remember are the words of the referee after the game. As we trudged off the field, he called us over and said that in all his years as a youth soccer referee he had never seen a team play with such a great attitude. We never stopped smiling, and we never stopped trying, even though we had no chance of winning. When Dave scored that humiliating own goal, the rest of the team didn't criticize him for making a mistake. They just picked the ball out of the net and kept on playing.

"The referee shook each of our hands and told us we were a credit to both Coach Gravett and to the league. I forget the names of the players who didn't show up that afternoon, but I can name every one of those who did," Lawrence recalls. Twenty years later that same team spirit remains. "Some of those players remain my closest friends, and even though we live thousands of miles apart, dotted around the globe, we speak every few weeks and see each other as often as possible. Whatever mishaps have befallen each of us in the intervening years, we have always been able to rely on each other. We're as much a team now as we were then." And, as ever in life, it hasn't always been a winning team. But you learn more about a teammate who commiserates with you after you put the ball in your own net than one who only congratulates you for scoring at the right end.


When your child decides to join a team, it means he has committed herself to being part of a group, a group that is aiming to achieve the same goals. Not everyone can be the captain, the star player, or the leading scorer. But each member of the team has an important contribution to make. The star striker can only score if her teammates play the ball into the right place at the right time. No striker scores goals without help from her teammates.

As a coach, Vince never allowed his players to criticize each other. "There's no place on a soccer team for either a player who is jealous of a more talented teammate or one who becomes angry at a teammate who makes too many mistakes," he says. When a very talented player on the opposing team kept dribbling the ball through Vince's team's defense, rather than criticize the defender charged with marking (guarding) her, Vince encouraged all his defenders to back each other up every time this opposing player started to dribble toward one of them. Similarly, if the player received the ball in midfield, it was up to Vince's midfield players to stop her before she got as far as the defense. In other words, he made defending against that player a team responsibility. That way, if the player kept scoring goals, it was the team's fault, not an individual's. Likewise, if the player was prevented from scoring, it became the team's achievement rather than an individual's.

The defender who regularly wanders out of position leaving his or her goalkeeper exposed or the petulant, ill-disciplined midfielder who keeps getting sent off in games, leaving the team to finish the game a player short, are playing for themselves, not the team. The talented player who hogs the ball instead of passing to his teammates usually succeeds only in making his teammates angry and frustrated.

The skillful but greedy striker, for example, is almost a cliché in soccer. We've all seen them. To say that the Danbury Boys striker Babs fit this mold may be a little unfair — we don't believe anyone would ever have described him as skillful. He was certainly a greedy player, though. Babs always took the shot whenever he was close to the goal, even when a teammate was in a better position to score if only he had passed the ball.

The defenders' frustration at Babs for being greedy and missing easy chances was matched only by his frustration at their awful defending. But that's the crux of teamwork. Neither kids nor pros can play every position at once. They have to rely on their teammates to do their jobs. And of course, they're going to make mistakes, just as every player does at all levels. As Sir Alex Ferguson, the famed manager of the English team Manchester United, once said, "Trust begins with understanding the other players' roles within the team. That lays the foundations for respecting each other and developing camaraderie."

Players can either get angry and annoyed with a teammate when he or she makes mistakes, which will only make the offending player feel even worse, or they can smile, pat their teammate on the back, and get on with the game.

Coaches and parents must remember:

  1. Ridiculing or making fun of a teammate who makes a mistake only damages a team. Players who score an own goal or miss an easy chance or give away possession that leads to the opposition scoring know they've made a mistake and don't need their teammates rubbing it in. This will only erode their self-confidence and increase the likelihood they'll make other mistakes as the game progresses.
  2. Every player is an equal partner in the team and so should put in equal effort and share equally in the team's success or failure. Whatever a child's position on the team, she shares the blame if the team is thrashed by ten goals and, likewise, shares the credit for winning the championship. Every player is in it together, win, lose, or draw.

Coaches lead the way by demonstrating through example. Praise the individual, criticize the group.

What Makes a Team Player?

The best player is always a team player. These are some attributes of team players:

  1. He is always willing to use individual skills when he needs to but also quick to put his talents at the disposal of other players on his team.
  2. She works hard for the team, even when the game isn't going so well, doing things like turning a bad pass from a teammate into a good one.
  3. Working hard for the team also means doing things away from the ball, like running into space to make it easier for a teammate to find him with a pass or dragging his marker (guard) away from the ball to create space for a teammate to run into.
  4. She encourages teammates and acknowledges every player's role within the team, which helps develop a teammate's self-confidence, boosts her performance, and in turn benefits the team.

Great teams are not necessarily the ones packed with the best players. In fact, one of the great things about soccer is that those who play better as a team often beat the teams with the best players. Great teamwork in soccer can often triumph over individual skill.

Developing Teamwork

Developing teamwork doesn't happen with a single practice session or a single game but rather evolves throughout a season. Coaches need to:

  1. Make every player on the team feel that he is making a meaningful contribution to the team. Praise defenders as much and as often as forwards. Praise good tackles, passes, or interceptions as much as goals.
  2. Encourage players to congratulate each other for a good pass or a well-timed tackle and have them continually talking to each other, calling for the ball, warning each other of opposition players approaching, congratulating each other's efforts, and commiserating with each other about mistakes. Silence is for the classroom, not the soccer field.
  3. Discourage anger, jealousy, or the tendency for skillful players to make fun of their less talented teammates. Set a ground rule that no player on your team is allowed to criticize another and regularly remind your players of that.
  4. Mix up the starting players, try not to end the game with the same players who started it.

Win or lose, Vince always bought his team ice cream after a game. "It gives the players a chance to unwind together before they go their separate ways after a game." If, during the season, the players started to lose their enthusiasm for the training sessions, he would cancel practice and take the players to a skateboard park or to see a Major League Soccer game or to play tennis. This broke the monotony and helped the girls get to know each other away from soccer.

Lawrence remembers Coach Gravett trying something similar to instill team unity and spirit in his squad of players. And it ultimately proved successful. One evening the players arrived at the clubhouse to discover that Coach Gravett had elected to cancel training and replace it with a hastily arranged team building session that took the curious form of a "surprise" disco. A net full of semi-inflated balloons hung from the clubhouse ceiling and a couple of colored lights flashed intermittently to the tinny sounds of classic show tunes. Studio 54 it wasn't.

As ever with Coach Gravett, though, it was a well-meant gesture. Unfortunately, the concept of a surprise disco is inherently flawed. Other than Coach Gravett's 11-year-old niece, who served us bowls of chips and cups of flat soda, there were no girls there. And, for adolescents weaned on the music of The Clash, David Bowie, and Depeche Mode, a static-filled version of "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" didn't exactly have us bopping around the dance floor. Instead, the evening deteriorated into a dozen or so 15-year-old boys huddling in one corner of a creaking, wooden shed, trying to shield themselves against a bitter draft.

Coach Gravett wandered behind us, inexplicably wearing a pair of bright red soccer boots that he had carefully filed the molded studs off. He was the quintessential embarrassing parent, swaying out of time to the music with exaggerated enthusiasm, urging us to "get on down" or "feel the groove" or some other such expression that he thought would help him identify with his young charges.

Maybe it was the shared experience of surviving such adverse conditions, or perhaps cunning reverse psychology on the part of Coach Gravett, but as we left the clubhouse that night, there was a distinct change in the atmosphere between the players. We had bonded and were closer than ever.

Here are other activities AYSO coaches do to develop team spirit and camaraderie:

  1. One coach remembers his players even when it's not soccer season, by sending them all Christmas or holiday cards.
  2. nother coach has her team perform charitable work one day every season. It focuses the players on a common goal (helping the less fortunate) away from any kind of competitive environment.
  3. Another coach makes a name tag for each player at the start of the season with the team logo inscribed on it.

It's not just coaches who can help to instill teamwork. Parents can nurture camaraderie and team play by remembering the following:

  1. Encourage your child to thank his teammates if he scores a goal. Remind him, if he walks off the field at the end of the game bragging about a goal that he made, that he was able to score that goal only thanks to the work of his teammates. Suggest he go over and thank them for setting it up for him.
  2. Urge your child to show compassion for a player who makes a mistake. After a game, if one player has made a mistake and is obviously feeling bad about it, ask your child how she would feel if she had made the mistake. Remind her to go over and offer her sympathy and to tell the player that no one feels angry or upset with her.
  3. Emphasize to your child that all positions on the team are important. If your kid is the star of team, remind him that he can't win games on his own, that he needs every one of his teammates to be successful. If your child is less talented than the rest of the team, build his confidence by pointing out all the positive things he achieved during the game. Make your child feel good about himself whether he is the star striker or the reserve goalkeeper.
  4. Help your child appreciate the roles of the other players on the team. Remind her that forwards can't score goals without midfielders setting up the chances and that scoring goals won't win games unless the defenders and goalkeeper manage to prevent the opposition from scoring.


Commitment, discipline, and accountability also play a vital role in building teamwork. As much as John loved soccer and being part of a team, there was the occasional Sunday when he just didn't feel like playing or a Wednesday when he didn't want to train. "Maybe I was a little under the weather or had a lot of homework. Whatever the reason, my parents always insisted that I had made a commitment to the team and now had to honor that commitment, whether I felt like it or not."

The worst thing parents can do is to indulge and encourage such apathy. John never once regretted his parents forcing him to turn up for a game. But he knows for sure he would have regretted it if they hadn't. That sense of commitment has stayed with him into adulthood. "If I say I'll do something, I'll do it, and if I ever want to change my mind or get the urge to wangle my way out of a commitment, I always picture my mother's scornful expression and hear her saying, 'You've made a commitment. Friends don't let friends down.'"

Parents should discourage their child from quitting a team unless the child has good reason. If a child genuinely doesn't like soccer and wants to quit, make sure he or she replaces it with another physical activity. Perseverance and overcoming obstacles are important lessons a child can learn from participating in youth soccer. Teammates need to be able to rely on each other — confident that they'll come to practice as well as compete in games, and that they'll all give 100 percent effort all the time. If a child still insists on quitting the team, have the child explain the reason to the coach himself in order to teach him accountability.

Not everyone can be a great player, and not everyone can play in a successful team. But everyone can play a meaningful role in a team and reap the benefits of companionship and mutual esteem.

Positions on the Team

Soccer is one of the few sports where physical size isn't important — unlike in football or basketball, small players can often get the better of taller, stronger players. Maradona, for example, was only 5 foot 6 inches, but he dribbled the ball past no end of hulking, 6-foot-plus defenders.

There are no specific physical requirements for any particular position on the soccer field. It helps to be tall if you're a goalkeeper (taller players have more reach when diving to save shots or jumping up to grab high balls), but positional awareness and agility are worth more than a few extra inches. It helps to be fast if you're a winger, but an ability to make accurate, in-swinging crosses negates the need to run past opposing fullbacks. For every tall, strong striker that's a force in the air, there's a better one who is half the size but has a great spring in his step. For every stocky, well-balanced midfielder, there's a better one who is thin and gangly. For every lightning-quick defender, there's a superior one with half the pace but a better understanding of the game.

Kids discover their best position by trying them all out. Never listen to people who say that you're too small, too heavy, or too slow for a certain position. There's always an example that will prove them wrong.

Tall, short, fast, or slow, soccer teams normally consist of players in four primary positions.

The Goalkeeper

Also known as the "keeper," the goalkeeper is responsible for guarding the team's goal, blocking and saving shots to prevent the opposing team from scoring. The goalkeeper is the only player on the team allowed to use his hands and arms, although only within the designated penalty area. If he ventures beyond the penalty area, he can, like the rest of the outfield players, only use his legs, head, and torso to control or pass the ball.

A goalkeeper's allies are:

  1. Agility
  2. Mental toughness
  3. Decisiveness
  4. Lightning-quick reactions

The idea that it's just the fat kids or the nerdy introverts who play goalie in youth soccer is ludicrous. Goalkeeping is tough. It takes a special character to play in goal. There's nowhere for a keeper to hide — he's the last line of defense. Make a mistake as an outfield player, and there's a good chance one of your teammates can cover for you. Make a mistake as a keeper and the whole team pays. So a goalkeeper needs to have a thick skin and not be frightened of making a mistake.

A goalkeeper needs to have all the skills of an outfield player as well as those unique to his position. Coaches at youth level should encourage every outfield player to play keeper some time — if only so the whole team appreciates the special pressures that accompany the position. Any player that decides to play goalkeeper regularly also needs to develop his footwork, ball control, and passing skills as well, since keepers are sometimes caught outside the penalty area where they're unable to use their hands.

Lawrence played in goal for Danbury Boys on one occasion when Phil, the regular goalkeeper, was carried off injured early in the first half. "We had no backup keeper, so all the players just looked around at each other waiting for someone to volunteer. I was tall for my age, had a good reach, and thought it might be fun to try it."

He pulled on Phil's yellow top and goalkeeping gloves and took up a position between the posts. The first shot he didn't even see until it hit the back of the net. The second he managed to get his fingertips on, but he couldn't stop it crossing the line. "Come out, narrow the angle," Dave suggested. By moving off the goal line towards the player with a ball, a keeper automatically reduces the amount of the goal a striker has to aim at. "Yeah, right," Lawrence thought. "I know the theory, Davey-boy, but it's much harder than it looks."

He did improve slightly as the game progressed, made a couple of half decent saves, blocked a shot or two, and even managed to move out and narrow the angle once or twice. But, despite his height, he made a mess of collecting high crosses into the penalty area and even let a shot spin through his legs for another goal. "I don't remember if Phil was ever injured on an occasion, but if he was, I know I never volunteered to take his place again."

Goalkeepers deserve a lot of respect. It's a nerve-racking position with more responsibility and pressure than any other. A keeper needs to be determined, decisive, and brave enough to throw himself at the feet of an onrushing attacker or grab high balls in a crowded penalty area. He then needs to know exactly what he should do with the ball when he has it safely in his hands. Should he throw it out, roll it to a nearby defender, or kick it as far down the field as he can manage? If there's a defender in space (not closely guarded by an opposing player), throwing or rolling the ball to him is more accurate. If there are no defenders in space or if time is running out and his team needs a goal, kicking the ball, although less accurate, is a quicker way of getting the ball to the other end of the field.


Defenders are the last line of defense and play directly in front of the keeper. They are responsible for stopping the opposition from having a clear shot at goal. They work to gain possession of the ball so that they can pass it to teammates to set up an attack on goal.

In a zone defense, defenders are responsible for marking, or guarding, an area of the field rather than specific players. In other words, each defender marks any opposing player that enters the zone the defender is responsible for. Four defenders, for example, divide the width of the field into four imaginary zones and mark one zone each.

In the zone defense, one or two center backs (also known as "center halves") play in the middle of the defense, usually with two fullbacks on either side of them — the left back and the right back.

In a man-to-man defensive system, defenders mark opposing players rather than zones. A sweeper, or libero, is then used in the area between the defense and the goalkeeper. He "sweeps" up any loose balls missed by the other defenders and pushes the defensive unit forward.

Defenders need to be:

  1. Well-disciplined
  2. Organized
  3. Focused
  4. Strong in the tackle

While defenders should carry the ball forward whenever they get the chance, they need to make sure there is always sufficient cover behind them in defense. In other words, if one center half, for example, runs with the ball into midfield, the other center half should stay back in case the other team wins possession of the ball and breaks quickly.

An integral part of a fullback's role is to make runs with the ball along the touch line (the "flanks") to give the team width and support the midfield and attack. But again, a fullback always needs to be aware of his defensive responsibilities and retreat quickly if the other team gains possession of the ball.

Most of the time, Lawrence played as a center back in a zonal defensive system. He was tall and strong, which helped when marking opposing center forwards, and he was quick, so it was rare for any forward to beat him to the ball. But the primary reason he chose that position was much simpler: he wanted to play every game, and there was always less competition for positions in defense than in midfield or attack.

Most kids scramble over the forward or midfield positions, the so-called glamour roles, but rarely want to play in defense. At team tryouts, he always took up a position in the forward line or on the wing, showed his speed, made a few passes, and had a few shots on goal, but when the coach asked where he liked to play, he always said, "In defense." He certainly wasn't the most skillful player, but guess what — he made every team he ever tried out for. There's much less competition for a place in defense.

Of course, it's great to score goals, rack up assists, or dribble the ball through the opposition defense, but you do get to do that as a defender as well on occasion, certainly more often than a forward who is stuck sitting on the bench. Good fullbacks make plenty of forward runs with the ball during a game, setting up attacks down the flanks and making crosses into the opposition's penalty area.

Many kids complain that they "don't get to do anything" as a defensive player. Of course, that's simply because some kids see glory only in scoring goals. But there's also a great deal of satisfaction to be gained from making a last-gasp tackle on a forward who is clean through on goal, or sliding in to make a goal line clearance. Kids need to be reminded of the importance of every position. Many games are won by defenders making important tackles in the dying seconds.


As the name suggests, midfielders play in the middle of the field between the defense and the forwards. Often referred to as the "engine room" of a team, they are usually the most hardworking players, linking defense and attack and maintaining the flow of play. When the opposition has the ball, midfield players track back to help their defenders defend. When their team has possession, midfielders support their forwards in attack.

Midfielders are also usually the "creative" players on a team, players capable of creating scoring chances. Creativity is the quality that separates a good player from a great one. It's the ability to make a scoring opportunity out of nothing, to suddenly dribble past defenders, or to make an unexpected, defense-splitting pass.

The midfield usually consists of one or two central midfielders playing in the middle of the field with wide players — a left winger and right winger — playing outside them along the touchlines, or flanks.

Midfielders need to be:

  1. Hardworking
  2. Creative
  3. Skillful
  4. Accurate at passing

The key aspect of a role in midfield is hard work. Most games are won or lost by the team that manages to take control of the midfield, so midfield players need to work especially hard. Since it's so crucial to have a strong midfield, playing in midfield can get particularly rough. Tackles fly in; fouls are made.

John was a talented midfielder, the best on the team. He could tackle and pass well, and he always worked hard. He played alongside Heath, who, while he had some skill as a midfielder, was weak when engaged in a tackle. "Every time an opposing player tackled him, he'd dive to the ground and roll around, feigning injury," remembers John. "It broke up the rhythm of the game and frustrated his teammates as well as the opposition." A player should just pick himself up and get back on with the game.

To form an effective midfield, a coach needs to get a blend of creative and hardworking players or, ideally, players who are both.


Forwards have the primary responsibility of leading the attack on the opposition's goal and, as the front players, or strikers, often scoring the goals. (Although, of course, any player in soccer may score a goal, regardless of position.) The forwards also assist the midfielders in shifting play from defense to attack.

Darryl was tall and strong and proved a handful for opposing defenses. While he scored a lot of goals himself, he was an unselfish player, always looking to pass the ball if a teammate was in a better position to score. Unfortunately for Danbury Boys, that teammate was usually Babs. Darryl set up chance after chance for him with neat little passes in and around the penalty area, only to see Babs scoop most of them wide or over the bar. Rather than become disheartened by his teammate's ineffectiveness in front of goal, Darryl always encouraged him and, for all his misses, Babs finished the U-10, U-11, and U-12 seasons with 20 to 30 goals against his name, most of them created by Darryl.

Forwards on a soccer team, perhaps more than any other position, depend on forming a close understanding of each other's movements to be successful. When one has the ball, for example, he can anticipate where the other will be. While some players immediately jell as a forward partnership, others only learn each other's habits and styles of play over a period of time.

Players in a flourishing striking partnership often complement each other's skills. Two players like Babs up front, for example, both set on shooting for goal rather than passing, would never be as successful as one Babs partnered with an unselfish player like Darryl. Their partnership worked because Darryl never tired of creating chances and Babs never let the misses affect his confidence.


There are 11 players per team in full-sided soccer, which AYSO recommends in the U-12 age group and above. There is always 1 goalkeeper, which leaves 10 outfield players to be distributed among the defense, midfield, and forward positions. The manner in which these 10 outfield players are distributed is known as a "formation" and is denoted by listing the number of players positioned in each area of the field. For example, one of the most commonly used formations in both professional and youth soccer is the 4-4-2 formation, which means there are 4 defenders, 4 midfielders, and 2 forwards (the goalie is not counted because every team plays with 1 goalkeeper).

It's important to remember that there's no one formation that is better than any other and there's no formation that is going to miraculously transform a losing team into a winning one. The formation selected is a matter of the coach's personal preference and the age and ability of the players. If a team is under constant pressure from the opposition or is defending a lead late in a game, for example, the coach may select to play a more defensive formation, that is, with extra defenders. On the other hand, if a team is behind and looking for an equalizing goal, the coach may opt to play with fewer defenders and more forwards.

4-4-2 Formation

The players in a 4-4-2 formation are positioned as shown on page 44.

The defenders mark any opposing striker who is positioned in their zone, or part of the field, rather than following a specific attacker into different areas of the field. The 2 center backs play little offensive soccer, often only going forward for set plays like free kicks and corners. The 2 fullbacks, however, in addition to defending, have a responsibility to carry the ball forward along the wings and support the midfielders in attack and supply crosses into the center.

The 2 central midfielders are often the creative hub of the team, distributing the ball out wide to the wingers (the left and right midfielders) and attacking through the center of the field. They also have a responsibility to protect their defense.

Two forwards spearhead the attack. Occasionally, 1 of the forwards might drop into a deeper position closer to the midfield to feed balls through to the other forward, or move out wide to put crosses into the box.

3-5-2 Formation

Another popular formation is the 3-5-2, which means there are 3 defenders, 5 midfielders, and 2 forwards, as shown on page 45.

The 2 central defenders operate as stoppers, marking the opposing forwards man-for-man, interchanging left and right sides as the opposing forwards interchange, as opposed to the flat-back four, where defenders mark the zones. The third defender acts as a sweeper, or last-chance defender. He marshals the defense, picking up any unmarked opposing midfielders who break forward, for example, or collecting any balls played by the opposition behind the defense.

The midfield in the 3-5-2 formation consists of 2 wing backs who play along the touch lines, as part wingers, part fullbacks. When the team is defending, the wing backs drop back to defend as fullbacks; when the team has the ball, they move forward in attack like wingers. Effectively, the 3-5-2 setup is a more fluid formation than the 4-4-2. When the team is defending, the wing backs drop back to change the formation from 3-5-2 to 5-3-2 (5 defenders, 3 midfielders, 2 forwards). When the team regains possession, the wing backs move forward, which makes the formation once again a 3-5-2.

The 3 central midfielders in the 3-5-2 formation have to work even harder than in the 4-4-2 formation. If, for example, the wing backs are in a forward position and the attack breaks down, the 3-man defense could be susceptible to a quick break from the opposition, so the central midfielders need to hurry back and forth to shore up the defense and support the attack.

Again, this formation calls for 2 forwards.

4-3-3 Formation

The 4-3-3 formation denotes 4 defenders in a flat back, 3 midfielders, and 3 forwards.

The 4-3-3 usually implies that a team is willing to concede the midfield area. Since most teams play with 4 or 5 midfielders, a team playing 4-3-3 is likely to be outnumbered in midfield for most of the game. This works for a team that wants to play a more direct style of soccer. This means that instead of maintaining possession and patiently looking for gaps in the opposition defense, a team will play long balls from defense to the 3-player attack, which effectively bypasses the midfield area, where they are outnumbered.

Again, with just 3 players in midfield, the onus is on the midfielders to win the ball and play it quickly forward to their attackers rather than to patiently play it around the midfield, where they are outnumbered and more likely to lose possession.

With 3 forwards on the team, 1 usually plays in the middle as a center forward, while the other 2 move out wide to knock crosses into him.

4-5-1 Formation

The 4-5-1 lineup suggests that a team is facing superior opposition and doesn't want to concede territory in midfield or defense. Often a more defensive formation, here the burden is on the lone striker to hold the ball up while he waits for support from his midfielders. The single forward has to fight on his own for every ball played forward and works tremendously hard during a game. If this formation is played throughout an entire game, the lone forward often needs to be replaced by a substitute with fresh legs before the game is over.

Other Formations

The 5-3-2 formation adds a sweeper to a flat-back four in another defensive lineup, as does the 5-4-1, which again calls for a lone striker to hold the ball up and wait for support from his midfielders.

The important thing to remember is that formations can change throughout a game, depending on the score and the way a team is performing. A team that starts the game in a 4-4-2 formation, for example, but is a goal down late in the second half may substitute a defender or midfielder with another forward and switch the formation to 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 in the hopes of scoring.

Copyright © 2001 by The American Youth Soccer Organization

Meet the Author

Vincent Fortanasce, M.D., is a neurologist, psychiatrist, and youth sports expert. He is also a devoted soccer dad and coach. He lives in Pasadena, California.

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If you have had the pleasure of being taught by John Ouelette, this book certainly reinforces the program. If you have not had the pleasure, this is the next best thing to being there. A great expaination to a great program.