Youth soccer is played by millions of children every year, but it can take a while to understand the rules if you’re new to the game. In this article, I’m going to give you an easy-to-understand guide to youth soccer rules that will have you understanding and enjoying the game in no time at all.
Although the finer details of the rules vary depending on the age of the youth players, the basic rules are relatively straightforward.
Youth soccer rules for every age group:
- The game is split into two equal length halves or four equal quarters
- There are an equal number of players on both sides
- The team that scores the most goals wins
- The game starts with a kick-off from the center of the field
- A team scores a goal when the ball goes over the goal line between the goalposts
- The goalie is the only player that can use their hands
- The ball is kicked or thrown back onto the field when it goes out of play
- If a player commits a foul, then the opposition take a free kick or penalty kick
- A yellow card means the referee has cautioned the player; a red card means they must leave the field
- A player is offside
- Substitutions are unlimited in most youth soccer games
- Younger soccer players use smaller soccer balls than older youth players
We’ll look at each rule in more detail in a moment, but first, let me say that I’ve based this guide to youth soccer rules on the rules provided by the organization US Youth Soccer.
US Youth Soccer is the largest youth sports organization in the US and the largest member of the United States Soccer Federation, the governing body of soccer in the United States.
The vast majority of youth soccer leagues across the nation follow these rules and advice.
I’ve taken these rules and presented them here for you in an easy-to-read format.
So let’s get into it!
Rule #1: The Length of a Youth Soccer Game
The length of a youth soccer game will vary depending on the age of the child competing.
Younger players play shorter games as they have not physically developed enough to keep playing for an extended period.
The age a player needs to start playing soccer will depend on their development.
Look at the table below to see the game time for each youth age group from under 6 to under 15 year olds.
|Age Group||Game Length||Overtime Periods|
|Under 15||Two 40 minute halves||Two 15 minute halves|
|Under 14||Two 35 minute halves||Two 10 minute halves|
|Under 13||Two 35 minute halves||Two 10 minute halves|
|Under 12||Two 30 minute halves||Two 10 minute halves|
|Under 11||Two 30 minute halves||Two 10 minute halves|
|Under 10||Two 25 minute halves||NONE|
|Under 8||Four 12 minute quarters||NONE|
|Under 6||Four 6 minute quarters||NONE|
As you can see that the length of the game goes up as the players get older.
Players in the under 6 and under 8 age groups also split their games into quarters rather than halves.
This format gives the younger players more breaks to recover.
Overtime is not used in tournament soccer until players have reached the under 11 age category.
Again the reason for this is that younger players cannot keep playing for an extended time.
Top Tip: If the game seems to be running longer than the allocated time, the referee may have added stoppage time to the end of the game. Find out more in my article – Stoppage Time in Soccer: Why it’s used and how it works.
Rule #2: Number of Players on a Team
The rules of soccer at all levels allow an equal number of players to start on both teams. Youth soccer is no different.
In each age category, there are a maximum number of players permitted to start for each team and a recommended amount.
You can see the numbers in the table below.
|Age Group||Recommended Number of Players||Maximum Number of Players|
|under 15||11 Players||11 Players|
|under 14||11 Players||11 Players|
|under 13||11 Players||11 Players|
|under 12||8 Players||11 Players|
|under 11||8 Players||11 Players|
|under 10||6 Players||7 Players|
|under 8||4 Players||5 Players|
|under 6||3 Players||4 Players|
In most games, the recommended number of players start the game rather than the maximum (unless the recommended and maximum numbers are the same!)
The position and formation of the players will vary depending on the number of players and the coach’s preference. You can find much more about that in my article – Youth Soccer Positions: A Detailed Guide.
Be aware that no goalkeepers are used in under 6 and under 8 soccer.
The reason US Youth Soccer recommends against using goalies in these games is:
“Anticipating where the ball might be played is a skill that has not yet developed [in younger players] and that does not really develop until age 9 or 10. Prior to age 9, visual tracking acuity is not fully developed”US Youth Soccer Player Development Model
It’s unfair and not enjoyable for most players under 9 to play in goal, so most teams place all their players in the outfield.
Top Tip: The coach can substitute the players that start the game at any time. Although the coach can decrease the number of players on the field they can never increase them.
Rule #3: How a Game Starts
Every soccer game starts in the same way – with a kick-off.
A soccer match begins with a player kicking the ball from the center mark in the middle of a soccer field. The player can kick the ball in any direction, and the game starts once the ball has clearly moved.
Before the game starts, the referee will toss a coin to decide which team will take the kick-off. The team that isn’t kicking first can determine which end of the soccer field they will begin the game.
The player taking the kick-off can kick the ball in any direction they wish but will often pass the ball back to another player on their team.
The players on both teams must begin the game in their half of the field.
Rule #4: Deciding the Winner of the Game
The aim of playing a game of soccer is to win the game.
Although participation is sometimes more important than winning a game at the younger end of youth soccer, it is still essential to know how a team wins.
In youth soccer, the winning team is the one that has scored the most goals at the end of the game. Scoring a goal counts as one point for a team, and the team with the most points when the referee ends the game is the winner.
If the score is tied at the end of the game, there are several different options for what happens next.
- The game ends as a tie, and teams try to win again in their next game
- The referee adds on a period of overtime to give the teams more time to score another goal
- The game may transition straight to a penalty shootout (depending on the local guidelines)
Most games in the u10, u8, and u6 categories end even if the score is tied.
This is also the case for many league games in the older categories.
However, tournament soccer is where overtime and penalties are often used to decide on a winner of the game.
In the table below, you can see when overtime is used and the length of the overtime period for each age group.
|Age Group||Overtime Periods|
|Under 15||Two 15 minute halves|
|Under 14||Two 10 minute halves|
|Under 13||Two 10 minute halves|
|Under 12||Two 10 minute halves|
|Under 11||Two 10 minute halves|
Using overtime allows both teams time to score another goal and hopefully win the game. To find out more about overtime, check out my article – Overtime in Soccer: Everything you need to know.
In the circumstance that the scores are still equal at the end of overtime, the teams will participate in a penalty shootout. Each player takes a turn to shoot at the goal until one team has scored more goals than their opponents.
Rule #5: Scoring a Goal
Soring a goal is one of the best parts of playing soccer.
To score a goal the ball must pass completely over the goal line between the goalposts and beneath the crossbar. A player can use any part of their body except their hands and arms to score a goal.
Any time a player is within range of their opponent’s goal, they can attempt to score.
The only requirement is that the ball must pass completely over the goal line marked on the ground of the goal. A player has not scored a goal if any part of the ball is still level with the line.
There are no restrictions on the way a player can score either, as long as the ball hasn’t come off a player’s hands or arms.
Top Tip: Not even the goalie can score with their hands or arms.
Rule #6: No Hands (Unless You’re the Goalie)
One aspect of soccer that makes it unique from many other sports is that most players cannot touch the ball with their hands or arms.
The rules of youth soccer define this area as extending from the tips of the fingers to the player’s shoulder.
If the player touches the ball with any part of their hand or arm, they will have committed an offense, and the referee will award the opposing team possession of the ball.
There are exceptions made when a player unintentionally touches the ball with their hand.
For example, suppose the player had their arm in a natural position and couldn’t move it out the way of the ball. In that case, the referee can use their discretion and allow the game to continue.
The goalie is the only player on a team that doesn’t have to follow this rule.
As long as the goalie is in their penalty area, the rules allow them to handle the ball at any time, providing it has not been passed back to them by a player on their team.
To discover more about this, check out either one of my articles – 8 Rules for Soccer Goalies – or – Back Pass in Soccer: When the goalie can’t handle the ball.
Rule #7: What Happens When the Ball Goes Out of Play
On a soccer field, the lines marking the field’s perimeter, the goal line and touch line, are part of the playing area. Until the ball goes completely over these lines, the ball is still in play.
When the ball has gone out of play, as it often does in youth soccer, there are three ways for a team to bring it back into play.
- A goal kick
- a corner kick
- or a throw-in
The referee will award a goal kick when the ball goes out of play at either end of the field, and a player from the attacking team was the last person to touch the ball.
A player from the defending team must take a goal kick from within their goal area.
All players on the opposing team must be outside of the penalty area when the kick is taken.
The referee will award a corner kick when the ball goes out of play at either end of the field, and a player from the defending team was the last person to touch the ball.
A player on the attacking team must take the corner kick from the corner of the field closet to where the ball went out.
A player can score a goal from a corner kick. However, most of the time, players kick the ball closer to the goal to hopefully create a goal-scoring opportunity for another player on their team.
If the ball goes out of play along the sidelines, or touchline, of the field, the referee will award a throw-in to the opponents of the team that last touched the ball.
For a throw-in, a player throws the ball in with both hands from where the ball went out of play.
The player taking the throw must have both feet on the ground when they release the ball and throw the ball from behind their head.
Top Tip: The player that takes the kick or throw can’t touch it again until another player has touched it.
Rule #8: Fouls
A significant part of any youth soccer game is understanding what happens when there is a foul.
A foul is any action that gives one team or player an unfair advantage, or an action that the referee considers to be dangerous play.
The youth soccer rules include a long list of actions that result in a foul, but I will give you a quick overview of them here rather than the complete list.
A player cannot:
- jump at,
- or spit at an opponent
If the referee sees one player foul another, they will award a free kick or penalty to the team on the receiving end of the offense.
A free-kick is a kick taken from the place where a player committed a foul. When a player takes a free-kick, every player on the opposing team must be at least 10 yards from the ball.
A penalty kick is a kick taken from the penalty mark within the penalty area. Only the goalie and the player taking the kick can be within the penalty area when the penalty takes place.
The referee will award a free-kick for any offense outside of the penalty area or for an offense committed by the attacking team within their opponent’s penalty area.
As a general rule, the referee will always award a penalty kick when the defending team commits an offense within their penalty area.
The only exceptions to this are when a player commits an indirect offense, or the goalie handles the ball from a back pass.
You can find out more about these in my articles – A Back Pass in Soccer: What is it and how does it work? – or – Direct Vs Indirect Free-Kicks in Soccer: What’s the difference?
Rule #9: Yellow and Red Cards
If a youth soccer player commits a serious offense, the rules require the referee to show the player a yellow or red card.
A yellow card is a warning meaning that if the player commits another equally serious offense before the game is over, the referee will show them a second yellow card. At this point, they will have to leave the field of play.
Two yellow cards in one game equal a red card.
A red card means the player must leave the field of play immediately and can take no further part in the game. The team cannot replace this player and must play the remainder of the game with one less player.
The referee can also show a player a red card for committing the most serious of fouls. They don’t need to have received a yellow card previously for the referee to show them a red card if the foul is severe enough.
If you’re interested in finding out more about yellow and red cards and what they mean, check out my articles – Yellow Card in Soccer – A Complete Guide to What it Means – or – A Red Card in Soccer: Everything you need to know.
Rule #10: Offside Rule
Many people consider the offside rule in soccer the most complicated rule in the game. If you want to take a deeper dive into what it means, I wrote all about it here – The Offside Rule in Soccer: A Simple and Easy to Understand Guide.
Here I’ll explain what offsides look like in youth soccer games.
There are offsides in youth soccer. Youth soccer rules introduce the offside rule for players from the age of 12 upward. Most soccer games involving players younger than 12 don’t use the offside rule as it’s too complicated and unnecessary at that age.
Until youth players reach the age of 12, games don’t use the offside rule. But if you are involved in games for under 12s and above, you will need to understand how it works.
If a player becomes involved in active play while any part of their head, body, or feet is nearer to their opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent, they are offside.
A player can only be offside if they are in their opponent’s half of the field.
There’s a lot to unpack there! Hopefully, this graphic below will help.
I also recommend checking out my article on the offside rule mentioned above to understand this rule better.
Rule #11: Substitutions
Unlike professional soccer where substitutions are limited, at most levels of youth soccer, substitutions are unlimited.
Teams can substitute players in and out as many times as they like.
A significant reason for this, according to Tom Condone, the director of sport and member development for US Youth Soccer, the aim of adjusting the rules for youth soccer is to:
“let younger kids work on ball skills instead of getting bogged down in rules.”MOJO.Sport
The only thing coaches need to be aware of is that the rules only allow a substitution when the referee allows one. This will usually be at a stoppage in play.
The idea behind allowing unlimited substitutions is to encourage participation for all players. When kids are learning to play soccer, they benefit from having a substantial amount of game time.
As the players get older and the games become more competitive, you will see the number of substitutions permitted limited to around 3 or 5 per game.
Rule #12: Size of the Ball
The size of the ball will vary depending on the age of the players also.
Have a look at this table below to see what the rules state about the soccer ball size.
|under 15||#5||27-28 in.||14-16 ozs.|
|under 14||#5||27-28 in.||14-16 ozs.|
|under 13||#5||27-28 in.||14-16 ozs.|
|under 12||#4||25-26 in.||11-13 ozs.|
|under 11||#4||25-26 in.||11-13 ozs.|
|under 10||#4||25-26 in.||11-13 ozs.|
|under 8||#3||23-24 in.||11-12 ozs.|
|under 6||#3||23-24 in.||11-12 ozs.|
Smaller and lighter balls are easier for younger players to use than the larger, heavier ones used by older players.
The rules I’ve covered here are the main rules you need to know to really enjoy being involved in youth soccer.
If you want to understand more about the dimensions or markings on the field check out my article – Youth Soccer Field Dimensions.
If you’re interested in the height and width of the goal, check out my article – How High is a Soccer Goal (At Pro and Youth levels).
If you want to see how the rules differ between youth and high school soccer, have a look at my article – High School Soccer Rules.
If you are interested in reading the US Youth Soccer policy document that contains the rules, you can find it here. Or all 117 pages of the US Youth Soccer Player Development Model can be found here.