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New age rules 'wreaking havoc' in youth soccer

New age rules are forcing some youth soccer teams to split, and many are not happy.

His youth soccer team's season had just ended with a loss, and coach Barry Stitz retreated with the players to a corner of the field for a last huddle.

For the Fewster Football Club of Baltimore, the final game of spring wasn't just the season finale. It was the end of the 9-year-old team, one of the state's best.

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The problem? Half of his 16 players were born in 1999 and half in 2000. Under new U.S. Soccer Federation rules, they have to split up.

"I looked around and half the team was crying," said Stitz, a former pro player with the Baltimore Blast. "It took me two minutes to get myself together."

Fewster's disbanding is a casualty of youth soccer's wrenching transition to a shift in the age requirements used to assign players to teams. More than 60,000 Maryland players and an estimated 4 million to 5 million nationally are affected by the new standards set by the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport's national governing body.

"It's wreaking havoc for youth programs," said Doug Schuessler, executive director of Montgomery Soccer Inc., the state's largest soccer club with 14,000 participants.

"Our immediate reaction was probably similar to most clubs in the country, which was sheer panic," said Eddie Hegewisch, president and executive director of Crofton-based A3 Soccer, which has about 1,200 players. "It meant every team you have could be broken up."

Under the new U.S. Soccer rules, teams must be composed mostly of players born in the same calendar year. In previous seasons, teams were formed with players born between Aug. 1 and July 31, roughly following school-year groupings. Since most kids don't aspire to play in college or beyond, the old system's proponents say it kept casual players interested by allowing them to play on teams with longtime school friends of different birth years.

U.S. Soccer announced the change last August, saying a calendar-year system would help the nation identify elite talent because most youth teams would use the same age structure as teams representing the United States in international play. Officials say a calendar-year system also will be less confusing for parents. While the change was not required until 2017, clubs at the top levels — and some at the recreational level — have already made the shift.

"If you're born in a certain year, you belong in that certain age group. Simple," Tab Ramos, coach of the U.S. under-20 national team, said in a federation statement announcing the shift. "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."

The reaction was swift. In Maryland, parents and coaches flooded local soccer clubs and chat groups with anxiety-filled messages.

Some teams have to split up, they said, because large numbers of their players were born in different years. "Players you have nurtured and trained for years will be broken up, friendships severed, and sense of team culture and pride destroyed," said Dave Ballard, coach of an Under-14 girl's team in A3 Soccer, which draws mostly from Anne Arundel County.

Critics like Schuessler say that while the rule may help elite players, it's at the expense of the majority of kids who are playing for fun in rec leagues. Most of his Montgomery County association's 14,000 kids play at the recreational level. Only 5 percent play on travel teams, which are highly competitive and involve more practice time than rec teams that play all their games close to home.

Teams could choose to break from the soccer federation, but that would mean giving up the chance to participate in many tournaments.

The new mandate is "an absurdity seeking to identify national-level talent," Schuessler said. "You have this 10th of a 10th of a percent whom this is being done for."

The Maryland State Youth Soccer Association, which oversees 140 leagues, associations and clubs, said it is trying to help teams navigate the upheaval.

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"Those frustrations were very real," said Greg Smith, the state association's director of operations. "It was difficult for us at the state association. We were not included in any conversations about this. We've tried to focus on how can we mitigate and make sure as few negative outcomes occur as possible. If as a direct result even one player decides to stop playing soccer, that is not OK."

Stitz, 46, who played eight seasons with the Baltimore franchise in the National Professional Soccer League and also coaches at Archbishop Curley High School, says breaking up the Fewster team was hard for the players.

"We built so many friendships and had so many good times together, and then it was over," said Stitz's son, Ben, 16, who grew up wearing Fewster's blue-and-white uniforms and played for the team since he was 8. "I don't think people realized the magnitude and how upset everybody would be until the moment actually came."

Fewster's last game was a one-goal loss to a team from Loudoun County, Va., in a regional championship game in Barboursville, W.Va., last month.

There was one way Fewster could have stayed intact. Under the federation's mandate, boys and girls are permitted to "play up," meaning the eight youngest team members could have moved up a slot and played in their older teammates' age brackets.

Playing up can "allow players to compete in a more challenging environment, which can aid in their future development," Ryan Mooney, director of sport for U.S. Soccer, said in an email reply to a question from The Baltimore Sun.

Stitz recently took a job with another top club, Baltimore Celtic, and his son joined him on the under-17 team. The coach held the first practice recently on a sunny day at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, opening drills by asking team members to "get a little continuity and get used to each other a little bit."

Stitz said in an interview that he understands the rationale for the new rule but wishes it could have been phased in so that the Fewster team could have remained together.

Mooney said U.S. Soccer recognizes that its rule "can impact existing teams" in the short term but that player turnover is already common from year to year.

"Playing on a team with all of your friends isn't always a reality in the current environment. This is similar to not having all of your friends in the same class or classes at school," Mooney said.

There has been confusion over the timetable for the shift.

U.S. Youth Soccer, an association affiliated with the federation, has clarified that "higher performance" soccer programs — those playing in tournaments such as the National Championship Series and National League — were switched to the calendar-year guideline as of Aug. 1. It said teams that "play recreationally and intramurally with US Youth Soccer" have another year before the change becomes mandatory.

That's good news for Schuessler, who said Montgomery Soccer wasn't planning on switching its recreational teams this year. "If they tried to force us, we would probably try to find a new home," he said. "We voluntarily affiliate with U.S. Soccer."

At A3 Soccer, Hegewisch said: "I had people calling and emailing me asking why I was doing this. All I could tell them was I had nothing to do with it. A lot of parents were flat-out angry."

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Craig Blackburn, executive director of the Soccer Association of Columbia, which has about 6,000 players, said he is also hearing complaints. "Are we getting pushback? Yes. Recreational-wise, it's not great," Blackburn said.

But Blackburn said it made more sense to implement the guidelines for travel and recreational players immediately and all at once.

"It would be really confusing if we weren't all on the same standard," he said. "It's a transition year."

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