US Soccer bans punting

US Soccer, in a document titled ‘player development initiative’, has banned punting at the younger levels. A new line 1/3rd of the way up the field will be created, and opposing players have to move behind that line every time the goalie gets the ball. The goalie is then expected to throw or roll the ball to a teammate in an un-pressured situation. This is supposedly to help younger players ‘develop’.

In other words, US Soccer has banned one of the most fun moments of the game in order to someday, hopefully, win the World Cup.

If we had a youth athlete who was neglecting anything in his current life in order to win the World Cup, we would tell him that he was being ridiculous. There’s currently less than a thousand american players that play at the international level compared to what, 10 million youth soccer players? The odds of a youth player playing internationally are something like one in a billion. The odds are much smaller if we are talking the World Cup. We would tell that kid to go watch Coach Carter starring Samuel Jackson and stay in school. Colloquially speaking, “don’t quit your day job”. Yet when the official soccer organizing body of the United States of America tells kids to ‘quit their day game’, somehow it’s ok.

US Soccer states player development is the most important thing at the youth level. False. The most important thing is fun.

I currently have a U10 team. The only reason anyone wants to play goalie is to punt the ball. Every kid loves punting the ball and the urge to do it is, for whatever reason, highest at this level. It’s the only thing they can do well as a goalie. Can they dive? No. Proper positioning? No. Coming out on a breakaway? More likely they will keep backing up into their own net. But one thing they all can do is punt. It’s fun to do and it’s fun to watch.

Parents love a good punt. The ball sailing majestically the entire length of the field… They ooh and ahh and say ‘what a great punt!’ (They never go ‘what a great throw!’) It’s an exciting moment of the game where everyone on the field starts running in anticipation of that booming kick.

Instead, US Soccer wants to take away that excitement. Why not just ban goals? If you want to change the rules of the game to force kids to get better at passing, it’s the logical choice. Just mandate a game of keepaway for an hour straight. Don’t even have points, because that is too similar to keeping score, which is focusing on winning, and therefore bad.

Or why not ban goalies? Players have to score from within the goal box. Right now, goalies don’t do much with their feet. Is learning to throw the ball a valuable skill? No. It’s not even fun. So why not just eliminate goalies entirely? At least that player will get some field time, run around, use their feet and gain ball skills.

If the goal is really to force players to do short-distance passing, it’s the logical choice. Ban throw-ins, goals, long-range shots, and goalies. Make it like some indoor soccer fields, where they paint lines on the field, and if the ball travels too many lines at once, it’s a foul. Just like the Icing Rule in hockey. Most soccer fields in america already have American Football markings on them – why not use those? If the ball travels more than twenty yards without being touched, its a foul.

Why don’t we do that? Oh, right, because that would be bloody stupid! Long passes are an integral part of the game, and so is punting. There is quite literally no other way to send the ball seventy yards up-field. It’s a valuable tactic to deliberately create a loose ball and gamble on your team recovering it, if it gains you field space. It’s why the pros do it, else they would just send the ball short every punt or goal kick. And as a tactic it is even more valuable at the younger levels.

U10 players literally don’t have the strength to do accurate passing. Forcing a team to do something they are not capable of doing well, at the inevitable cost of more goals scored against them, is a recipe for getting kids and parents to quit. This is US Soccer forcing little kids to use a tactic because they feel that’s how the game should be played.

Make no mistake. This type of short passing game is how the pros do it, not the average youth team and parent, who is perfectly content to yell ‘send it!’ and chase it to the corner. ‘Development’ is US Soccer trying to get American to compete at the international level. It’s sacrificing millions of kid’s fun to create that one superstar.

If they had disguised this ‘no fun’ initiative in the guise of protecting kids heads, that I would understand. Heading has been recently banned as dangerous, and most headers at the youth level come from punts (there’s no other moment in the game where the ball spends enough time in the air for kids to deliberately get underneath it). So I could understand banning punts because they were dangerous. But banning punts in order to force short passing?

The rule also states they want to create a ‘low pressure’ situation for passing. The rule as written will not accomplish that. Currently the rule says ‘as soon as the ball is put into play’ the other team can attack. So what this means is the other team will line up on this 1/3rd line, and as soon as the goalie releases the ball, they will charge. That’s not ‘low pressure’. That’s a free kick, or a kick-off.

If US Soccer really wanted to create a low pressure situation, they would force the other team to stay behind the 1/3rd line until the ball crosses it. That would give the team unlimited time to learn to pass. Currently it gives a player what, three seconds? That’s how long it takes a kid to sprint twenty yards.

And why draw an extra line? The 1/3rd line is just formalizing the distance the other team has to move away, which was never a problem. No little kid ever hung around the goalie hoping to intercept his punt. Why not just say they have to get back 20 yards? I like the 1/3rd idea, but what I don’t like is taking away the choice of a punt. By forcing the play to the ground, it’s like turning every punt into a goal kick.

If you’re going to change rules, why not just allow players to receive their own goal kicks within the penalty box? Goal kicks happen more often than punt situations. Teammates are already allowed to stand in the box. Why force leagues to go through the hassle of drawing new lines on the field? At the U10 level, the goal kicks are so weak they sometimes can’t clear the ball out of the box, and the referee has to stop play and tell them to take it again. It’s a stupid rule, has an easy fix, and would accomplish the same thing as this ‘player development initiative’.

Or why not just allow youth goalies unlimited time to release the ball? Often the ‘high pressure’ we see deployed by the opponents comes because the goalie rushes the release.

The rule also states the goalie can pass the ball. A pass is defined as a deliberate strike with the foot. A punt is defined as dropping the ball and kicking it before it hits the ground. I see a simple loophole here – just drop the ball, let it bounce, then kick it. It’s a pass, not a punt. Or you can be really fancy and teach kids to do the half-volley kick, where goalies drop the ball and strike it a millisecond after it touches the ground. (It gives it backspin which lets it stay aloft a little longer)

All these loopholes, discussion of ‘development’ and adding, not simplifying, rules, tells me the ‘no punting’ initiative is poorly thought through and misguided. I beg US Soccer changes their mind before making the rule mandatory in August of 2017.