What does new “no heading” rule mean for soccer’s future in USA?

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It is time to take a step back and try to understand exactly what this week’s substantial ruling from U.S. Soccer means for the future of the sport in the USA.

On Monday it was announced that following 15 months of litigation new initiatives designed to help reduce the number of concussions suffered by youth soccer players will be put in place by the U.S. Soccer Federation.

[ MORE: Headers banned for U.S. youths

In a press release from U.S. Soccer they emphasize that new rules are “recommendations” but that they “strongly urge” children 10 and under should be banned from heading the ball during any official practice session or game and that players ages 11 to 13 should only be able to head the ball for a limited amount of time during practice sessions.

This ruling has brought about a huge response from the soccer community in the U.S. and players, coaches and fans everywhere in the world with many opinions about what this actually means and how this will be enforced. Protecting kids under the age of 13 from concussions and serious head injuries such as subconcussive impacts, either from directly heading the ball or making aerial challenges which lead to collisions, is the obvious reason for the rules changes but many other factors are coming into play here as several legitimate questions have popped up.

Here’s a few right off the bat…

  • Would a no heading rule mean a new generation of U.S. players will grow up spending more time using their feet and therefore be more technical on the ball but less competent in the air?
  • How much time does the ball spend in the air for kids under the age of 10 anyway?
  • Is this approach too drastic?
  • How will this be officiated? Free kicks given against a kid does challenge for a header?
  • Could this lead to more high challenges with the foot?
  • Will this slow down the development of players in the USA compared to other nations in the world?

And so on, and so forth. We could spend all day weighing up the pros and cons of these changes but the fact of the matter is, when we start seeing these new rules widely enforced across a country which encompasses over 320 million people and several thousands of miles, then we will have a better idea of the impact it will have. More detailed guidelines will be released by U.S. Soccer in the next 30 days. The New York Times reports that 50,000 high-school soccer players in the USA suffered concussions in 2010, more than in wrestling, baseball, basketball and softball combined. The age limit on this is also interesting as a leading specialist in this field, Roberto Cantu, notes that kids are more susceptible to traumatic brain injury than adults. Studies are all pointing towards that fact.

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Many say that the plaintiffs, in this case a group of parents from California, have got what they wanted from this and if it saves at least one kid from having a serious head injury which could lead to health issues then it’s worth it. Others will say that parents know the risks when signing up their kid to play soccer and the fact that it is a contact sport means collisions either with your head or the rest of your body is inevitable. “Are they going to outlaw tackling next just in case somebody breaks their leg?” said somebody when I asked for their opinion.

This ruling has caused huge debate in the soccer community.

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As most of you are probably aware, I’m primarily based in England covering the Premier League for NBC Sports. Over here, the ruling from U.S. Soccer has made the news but less than 48 hours after these sweeping changes to youth soccer in America were announced, the English FA released the following statement saying no such changes would be made to youth soccer in England but that they do take concussions issues seriously.

“The FA will shortly announce new guidelines – formed by an independent expert panel – which look at how to identify, manage and treat suspected head injuries and to manage a player’s safe return to play at all levels of football. However, they do not relate to how football should be played – something which is governed by the laws of the game, set out by FIFA as the world’s governing body.”

So, there’s another part of this conundrum. This rule only applies to U.S. soccer’s youth member organizations, so what about other league’s and non-affiliated teams for kids in the country? This is where it all gets a bit hazy.

“These are recommendations for youth members because some of the youth members joining in the initiative do not have direct authority at the local level to require the adaption of the rules,” said U.S. Soccer in a statement. “Although these are only recommendations, they are based on the advice of the U.S. Soccer medical committee, and therefore U.S. Soccer strongly urges that they be followed. U.S. Soccer has implemented these rules as requirements for players that are part of U.S. Soccer’s Youth National Teams and the Development Academy. It should be noted that Youth National Teams will continue to be bound by the substitution rules of the events in which they participate.”

In official youth games across the nation, you’d expect the vast majority will be registered with the state or local authority where they are playing or the U.S. Soccer Federation. If they are, they must ban all under 11s from heading a ball and kids aged 11-13 will be severely limited to heading the ball. That means that every single American player will not legitimately be able to head a soccer ball in a game played before they turn 14 years old.

The future of soccer in the U.S. will be shaped by this ruling. Make no mistake about it.