Youth Soccer

The “Merciless Rule”

Presented for your consideration and verdict: the merciless “Mercy Rule.”

Why on God’s green pitch do youth leagues enforce this misguided attempt to salve the psyches of over-matched youngsters? Nobody likes the rule and it succeeds in accomplishing what it does not intend – it makes the game boring, ugly, frustrating and most definitely not fun. It’s even less constructive and a greater waste of time than that dust-gathering nemesis of beneficial Life Lessons, the “Participation Trophy.”

From the struggling opponents’ point of view, the “Merciless Rule” almost always creates a futile game of keep-away. There is a reason that the other team scored so many goals – they’re a lot better at getting and maintaining possession. The “Merciless Rule” just emphasizes that point, because forcing one side not to score does not improve your chances of winning the ball, keeping it, and developing play. It just rubs salt in a six-goal differential wound.

From the scoring team’s viewpoint, I’ll grant that the “Merciless Rule” presents an opportunity for skill and tactical development. But how many coaches enforce a one-touch rule? Or a wrong-foot-only rule? Or any other practice-game condition that would produce more opportunity for the struggling side to have some fun? In 35 years of coaching and reffing, I can recall only a single instance of a coach effectively imposing such conditions in a game, and that was by a nationally-ranked Junior College coach.

Worse yet, the “Merciless Rule” prohibits the development of the one thing US Soccer needs to promote the most: scoring ability.

Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

I learned a long time ago that kids aren’t stupid. They know that scoring is the most fun-filled part of the game, and if soccer isn’t fun they’ll quit. Immediately, short-term or next season, they’ll quit in one way or another. And the kids are right. If you were playing the game as an adult, how would you like it if the other team just played 11-man keep-away against you? If you were an NFL fan, how would you like it if one team were forced to stop scoring because the score got too lopsided? Thought so.

There was a time in distant memory when there was no Mercy Rule.  One of my early teams was wrongly placed in an advanced bracket, and in one particularly overmatched  game, I knew we were in over our heads from the beginning. So I decided from the start that I was going to keep everyone focused on being positive.  This was no time for correction or getting down on the lads – not that there ever is such a time for that. This was a time for giving the most positive direction I could, cheering on every achievement.  Even the parents got involved in the emotional reinforcement.

At the half, the score was 6-0.  So I pointed out every good thing the lads did and got them focused on keeping the score down below double digits.  Thankfully, the opposing coach imposed conditions on his players to keep the score down. At the end, it was 9-0, but my players felt good about improving in the second half.

But now, like it or not, we have the dreaded Mercy Rule.  So what can be done?

There have been some weird rules promulgated on short-sided youth soccer to try to improve the instructional experience (cf: the Build-Out Line). Why not add some more? Here are some referee-enforceable ideas:

Make the HSS (High Scoring Side) Keeper a Field Player: Maybe not the best solution because the HSS will still have a scoring advantage. But if you also ban the HSS from defending inside their own penalty area, it could lead to some interesting long shots that might close the scoring gap.

One-Touch-Only Rule: Force the HSS to use one-touch passing only. Whistle the second touch and immediately award an Indirect Free Kick (IFK) to the opposing side.

Offensive Half Only: Force the HSS to keep only 2 defenders in their defensive half, while the rest of the HSS has to play keepaway in their offensive half. Combine this with One-Touch-Only Rule and it’s bound to create takeover chances and 7 or 8 v 2 breakaways.

Any of these conditions could be lifted as soon as the Low Scoring Side pulls within 5 goals of the HSS. None of these options force the HSS to stop trying to score. And they are all referee-enforceable.

Maybe there are better ways to do away with the “Merciless Rule,” and I’d like to hear them. Just remember: Kids like to score, they like to keep score, and they like to have fun. Let’s make youth soccer fun.


  1. I’ve always been frustrated by this one. It’s more embarrassing to never touch the ball the entire second half and just be toyed with. Losing 12-0 would be less humiliating, in my opinion. At least the outmatched team gets to touch the ball again if the other team is shooting (even if it’s just the ensuing tap after a goal).

  2. Back when T. rex still trod the earth and I was briefly a head baseball coach at a local PIAA school, there was a ten run rule. If after 4 or 5 losing side, I do’nt remember, the other side was ahead by ten runs, the game was over.
    So, if after 70% of the scheduled game time has elapsed, one side is ahead by 6-7 goals, the game is over.
    For what it may be worth.

  3. I got suspended by our league a few years ago for, supposedly, running up the score. The league encourages, but does not require, coaches to pull back once up by 5 goals. My personal rule for years has been that if we’re up by 5 or more and you’ve already scored, you need to dish off to somebody else who hasn’t scored.
    The final score was 8-1, with the 1 basically being a gift my kids gave the other team. I had six different kids score. started the second half with my best forward in goal and my goalie at forward. When my team was given a PK while up 6-0, I had my worst player (my daughter, actually) take it; she buried it in the side netting.
    I’ve been on the other side, too. We have one asshole coach in our organization who will loudly bellow from his sideline about being up by five and nobody is allowed to score. And if you manage to put one in, he will then bellow that it’s OK to score again. On the other hand, another coach does a lot of what I do – puts defenders on offense, forwards on defense or in goal, etc. He also will sit kids – his best players – for a few minutes who might otherwise play the whole game.
    It’s hard from both sides, but (asshole coach aside) I actually dislike it more from the winning side, to be honest. As long as the other coach is making an effort to not thoroughly embarrass my kids (putting a goalie at striker and striker at goalie, etc) I’m OK with letting the chips fall where they may. Especially given that I coach U19 now.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      …. always liked the designated scorer as the ultimate solution to being far superior.
      “Kids— only Johnny or Jane can score and you need to figure a way to make it happen.”

      • Oh, I’ve been criticized for that by people in the league, too. When Johnny finally scored in the last game of the year and we celebrated, we were apparently rubbing it in – even though I talked to the other coach after-the-fact and he said even his parents were cheering for the kid.
        And yet, I continue to do this season after season, for some reason…

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    There is an indignity to chasing a ball you never catch up to as a 6-8 year old. A superior team sound be allowed by the other coach to add players until the keep away is not quite so— easy.
    At least when getting pounded by another team a group of kids get to touch the ball- or pull it from the gol – regrouping or tapping from center and holding it for a hot second before pulling it back out of the net again.
    Once kids hit 9 or so, IMO it is incumbent on a good coach to teach possession and in my opinion if you are able to play keep away at that point as a superior team- go for it. This is travel soccer, rankings, trophies and winning over development mentality— after all.

  5. I’ve also had coaches allow the losing team to put in an additional player.

  6. Life’s not fair, Simba.
    Sweep the leg.

  7. There are so many ways to control the flow of a game, in my rec division we just ask coaches to have a feel and adjust accordingly. You shouldn’t have to hit 6-0 at halftime before you make adjustments.

    Swap goalies. Teach your offensive players defense. Put your defender who doesn’t have much offensive ability as your striker and feed him the ball.

    Play one or two players down. If you do it right, almost nobody will know and the time of possession will balance back out.

    I don’t look at it as a participation trophy equivalent but an opportunity to teach graceful winning as well as to develop secondary skills.

    • Matt Custer says:

      One problem with taking kids off the field: it discourages turnout. Not fun. Otherwise I agree that coaches should exercise better control over the situation. problem is that too many of them do not. Preaching to the choir here I guess.

      • I never had a head coaching job at any level but I can tell you that some of the coaches are only out there cuz their son or daughter are there. Also they play to the rule because the object is to win! So unfortunately they dont grasp the concept of fair play unless its in the rules. I am honestly only speaking from my personal experiences. I dont believe this is the case with every coach. And was not the case with most of the coaches my son and daughter had. But it’s a rule I think is not necessary!

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