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A National Referees’ Thoughts on the 4 v 4 Game

By David Bragg

Some of the goals of small-sided, 4 v 4 youth soccer games are:

  1. Increase player participation, referred to many times as “getting more touches on the ball,” which translates into greater player enjoyment of the game.
  2. Introduce players to the concept of working together in a collaborative manner.
  3. Develop player’s spatial and directional awareness, without restricting players to specific positions on the field.
  4. Familiarize players with the most basic laws-of-the-game (LOTG), such as the ball may not be picked-up and/or carried and what the appropriate re-starts are.

For referees, we are more “facilitators” of the goals above, than arbiters of the LOTG; teaching as we ensure the players are safe and enjoying themselves.

Player safety consists of:.

  1. A safe playing field. No gopher holes, exposed sprinkler heads, etc. and goals must be secured/anchored.
  2. A safe environment on the field, protecting all players against careless, reckless and/or play that can possibly injure. It is the players responsibility to play under control. We must teach them exactly what this concept is. When in doubt, blow the whistle and protect the players, and explain what the offending player did wrong according to the LOTG; i.e. “You can’t push a player.”
  3. A safe (and sane) playing atmosphere, outside the playing field. The sideline behavior of adults must be nurturing, not haranguing or abusive. The adults must be held to a higher standard of conduct than the youth players.

In the comparison to other games below, although the size of the field/court is comparable, and the number of players similar; the major difference is that there is only 1 referee in 4 v 4 soccer. In addition, in futsal and basketball, the referees do not enter the field/court, but stay outside the lines in order to not interfere with play, while keeping the other official(s) in full view. There being no offside, the 4 v 4 referee can focus on the play, players and ball, and can be 10-12 yards away, on the field. The referee should recognize that the ball will not be kicked very far, but that it will be kicked where it should not be, so be prepared by not getting too close to play. Also, play and players will be congregated in the middle of the field, so the referee should use a wide diagonal; i.e. stay out of the way by being off to the side of the ball and not in its direct path. Play will be vertical, or in a north-south direction, as players do not use the width of the field, but attempt to move the ball toward their opponent’s goal. The referee in a 4 v 4 youth soccer game will verbalize much more than referees in older age groups, teaching, encouraging and congratulating players. There is no admonishing of players or displaying yellow or red cards.

Length             Width              Number of Players      Number of Referees

4 v 4 Soccer

25-35 yds.       20-30 yds.                   8                                  1


27-46 yds.       17-27 yds.                   10                                2


31 yds.            17 yds.                         10                                3

The 4 v 4 small-side soccer game is a wonderful introduction to the Beautiful Game for both young players and their families. What is unwelcomed and/or not important in 4 v 4 youth soccer includes:

  1. The score.
  2. The team MVP.
  3. Who scored the most goals.
  4. Who played the most minutes.
  5. The referee cost us the game.
  6. Playing to win, not to have fun and develop player skills.
  7. Having each player assigned a defined position.
  8. Questioning, dissenting or arguing with the referee.
  9. Making disparaging remarks about opposing players, coaches, parents or the referee.
  10. Over-invested/involved parents living vicariously through their children.

David Bragg

National Referee Emeritus (2010 – Present); National Referee 1997-2009;

MLS AR 1996-2009; Indoor Referee; Futsal Referee; State Assessor; State Instructor

A follow-up … I refereed the U9s and U10s (7 v 7) at San Juan’s Cal Cup this past weekend in order to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t in small-sided games. What referees are taught; i.e. be close to the ball, is not how you referee the youngest players as they don’t know where the ball is going, so how can you? The result was I got hit by the ball twice in my first game. I adjusted, stayed wide of play, out of the center of the field and center circle and was obviously able to see over the smaller players and since there were only 12 versus 20 field players there weren’t that many players between me and the ball, so I could also see “through” the players as well. I’ve always said “The angle to the play permits you to MAKE the call; whereas your distance to the play allows you to SELL the call.” Since it’s a very small field, the angle the referee has is the only variable he/she has to be concerned with.

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