ELLIS COUNTY — Aaliyah Dana Haughton released the chart-topping R&B hit, "Age Ain't Nothing But A Number," on a 1994 album of the same name.
Despite the lyrics not matching the plight of Ellis County youths, the song's title more than fits the bill.
And though it may not matter regarding the late vocalist's stylings, to the boys and girls throughout the Ellis County, age has become an all too important issue in the youth soccer world.
In 2015, US Youth Soccer, under the guidance of former U.S. Men's coach Jurgen Klinsmann, decreed all youth soccer teams must follow new U.S. Soccer Federation’s birth-year registration mandates and "small-sided" game rules beginning in the fall of 2017.
“Overall, the two things this accomplishes makes things easier and it gets us on the same calendar with the rest of the world,” said Tab Ramos, the U.S. Youth Technical Director and U-20 Men’s National Team Coach, to Washington Top News in June. “So now it becomes easier to identify for U.S. National Teams and everything else when it comes to international soccer.”
While that may be true for some, the contingent of players that make up the teams that compete internationally is a fraction of a percent of the millions involved in youth soccer. The rules, though well-intentioned, may have created very real repercussions impacting players, parents and coaches across the country — including in the cities of Cedar Hill, DeSoto, Ennis, Midlothian, Red Oak and Waxahachie.
"In the past, US Youth Soccer used a 'school year' age guideline meaning that [a player's] 'soccer year' was determined by the academic year," said Cara Sikes, the Waxahachie Soccer Association's secretary, explaining the USSF's complex changes. "For example, a child born in December of 2009 would have been considered a U7-aged player. "With the new 'calendar year' age guidelines, that same player is now considered a U8-aged player. [Under the current guidelines] players are only allowed to play up one age level — i.e. a U7 player can play up to U8 — so a player who used to be able to play with friends they go to school with may no longer be able to do so."
Sikes has been associated with youth soccer in the city of Waxahachie for more than a decade and been on the Waxahachie Soccer Association board since 2009.
Despite the uproar, she said the changes have long-term benefits to the placement of children in youth soccer age groups.
"This created quite a shake-up in WSA — and all of North Texas — last fall because players who were previously allowed to play together were no longer allowed to do so," she continued. "Our fall season saw a drop in numbers, but ultimately, this change will make it easier for parents to understand what age group their child plays in. They no longer need to know what month and year a child was born to know which age group they will play in. Now it's based on what year they were born. All children born in 2009 play together and all those from 2008 play together. And so on."
Before the changes, children born between August 2009 and July 2010 were categorized as U7 eligible. The new ruling backs up each of those dates at least seven months and adds new January 2009 to December 2009 parameters.
The North Texas State Soccer Association, one of the governing bodies within the USSF and a member of United States Adult Soccer Association and FIFA, decided that North Texas would adopt these changes in two steps.
The calendar year age guidelines would be requisite by the Fall 2016 season and the 'small-sided' game rules would be mandatory beginning Fall 2017. Small sided games, according to the US Youth Soccer website, are described as contests with fewer players competing on a smaller sized fields and are used to coach key skills and tactics to youth players.
While the calendar year changes made it easier for parents, Sikes said, the inclusion of an "age-pure" leagues by the Best Southwest Soccer Association, another USSF governing body, muddied the waters. This may be doubly so given the change from traditional even-U-age designations like U8 and U10 to odd-numbered U7 and U9 divisions.
"The BSSA decided that beginning Fall 2017, North Texas Soccer would change to an 'age pure' league," she said. "In the past, the BSSA — the playing league comprised of Waxahachie, Red Oak, Corsicana, Ennis, Midlothian, Desoto, Cedar Hill and Duncanville — has always played by even numbers. This means any teams who choose to stay together next season will have to play up to the oldest player on the team. Let's say that a team is playing this season and they have players born in 2009 and 2010. They would currently be considered a U8 team. In the fall, however, the players born in 2009 must move up into the U9 [division], but players born in 2010 could either play at the U9 level or stay down and play in U8 if they choose. In the past, it meant that a U8-aged player could play up into U9 (formerly known as U10) and a U7-aged player could play up into U8, but not play in U9."
The idea behind both the NTSSA and BSSA movement and adoption of the USSF regulations was to create more evenly matched teams and better competition in the long run regardless of whether or not leagues, parents and children feel the burn of watching on-field youth relationships separated.
The new small-sided game rules carry a mandatory Fall 2017 deadline and may be the biggest change to — and the hardest pill to swallow for — youth soccer leagues.
Currently, teams play the majority of their games in a "full-sided" manner, meaning a U8 team plays seven players versus seven players with a goalie on a field that is approximately 40 yards by 60 yards with a goal that is 6 feet by 12 feet for two 24-minute halves.
The new rules for divisions like U8 will shrink each dimension. Teams will compete against each other with four players on each side with no goalie on a field measuring approximately 30 yards by 20 yards with a goal that is 4 feet by 6 feet and for three 15-minute periods.
According to information gathered from the NTSSA and BSSA websites, the changes made by the NTSSA and BSSA affect almost all age groups from U8 to U18.
"The changes were made to try and get players more touches on the ball during games and to help players have the opportunity to be more involved in the game," Sikes said. "The theory US Youth Soccer had was that with more players on the field, players have less of a chance to touch the ball and therefore interact in the game."
Age groups between U6 and U8, per the new mandates, will have no goalkeeper and play with a smaller game ball (size 3) and a 4-foot by 6-foot goal on 30-yard by 20-yard fields. Age groups U9 through U12 will have a goalkeeper, play with a slightly larger game ball (size 4) and play on a 6.5-foot by 8.5-foot goal.
U9 and U10 designations will play on 47-yard by 30-yard fields. U13 and higher age groups will play with a goalkeeper, a size five ball and an 8-foot by 24-foot goal on 112-yard by 75-yard fields.
The WSA is currently working with the officials in the city of Waxahachie to set up the Waxahachie Sports Complex to accommodate the new mandated rules, which requires changing all of all youth soccer field and goal sizes. There are also hopes that the organization and city will be able to find more well-lit fields in incorporate more night games for youth players.
"We are hoping to get a few more age groups a field or two under the lights," she said. "We currently can only play our U12 and older teams after dark because they are the only fields with lights. We actually only have a few teams aged U12 and older. The bulk of our teams are U10 and younger, so some fields under the lights would be extremely beneficial. In the past, the city has been gracious enough to turn on the lights at the softball fields just to give us close to enough light to finish our U4 and U6 games. It was definitely not a perfect solution, but it worked well enough to get the games finished."
An added effect of the new regulations will be an increase in youth soccer teams and, consequently, the needs that go with them.
"Since the roster sizes — the maximum number of players allowed — for each team will be smaller, an added result is that we will have more teams," she said. "That means more games, referees, coaches and fields needed and longer schedules per season. All of these increase the amount of money the WSA must pay out. We are hoping we do not have to increase our registration fees, which is why we hold our annual tournament."
The WSA will hold its annual three-day tournament on April 28-30 at the Waxahachie Sports Complex. The association projects 90 or more teams and a rough estimate of 3,500 people and is searching for its title sponsor as well as Silver, Green and Bronze Sponsorships.
Sponsorships, which must be finalized by March 31, range from $50 to $2500 for the Title Sponsorship (naming rights for the tournament). Though the $350 Gold Sponsorships are sold out, there are Silver, Bronze and Green Sponsorships available for $250, $150 and $50, respectively.
"We hope that parents will be able to see though these are big changes, they are there to benefit the players," Sikes said. "Rules are going to be in place to better protect the goalkeeper and to provide more touches on the ball for each player. We know that most people do not like change, but this change is for the better."
Marcus S. Marion can be reached for story idea submissions or concerns at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI.