What In the World Is A 6? U.S. Soccer Numbers – Explained

There were blank stares from many of the soccer players in the group.  You could almost hear them silently begging Coach Brunner, “PLEEEASE, don’t call on me.”  Some in the group were cautiously hopeful they knew the answers, and, it was obvious from their level of engagement that a handful were feeling confident and excited because they had been taught the soccer numbers – the numbering system – from their club coaches or had educated themselves with a bit of on-line research. 

This was the scene at a U.S. Soccer Training Center in Virginia when Coach Aaron Brunner, leading the session, started talking soccer tactics and quizzing players on the numbering system that U.S. Soccer has adopted.  Based on the response of the group, he had to backtrack a bit and layer in the player numbering system to his training and education for the night.

Maybe you had a similar look on your face as these players during the previous World Cups when the TV commentators began bantering about soccer numbers – Michael Bradley playing as a 10 when he’s really more of a 6 or 8, or about Carly Lloyd being asked to play as a 7 when she is clearly the US’s best 10, or of the US Women’s lack of a 6 (enter Morgan Brian).

Simply put, the numbering system relates position on the field to numbers. In a 4-3-3, for instance (as portrayed in the post graphic), the right outside back is called a “2” and the defensive midfielder is referred to a “6” and, a soccer number most people have heard of, the playmaking attacker is called a “10”, versus the more target attacker which is a “9”.

Talking tactics with soccer numbers is much easier than using position names as the positions are called so many different versions of a name in various systems.  For instance, there is a wing-back, a fullback, an outside back – or simply, there is a “2”.

The history of soccer numbers in the game goes back to the 1920’s, so while the concept of a numbering system is certainly not something U.S. Soccer has created, it is a teaching and communication concept that is now being formally implemented in coaching and player education platforms.

In 2012, U.S. Soccer created a technical group with the aim of formally addressing and establishing in a philosophy of soccer for the United States.  One of the many results of this technical group is the numbering system.  While it’s similar to other countries such as England and Germany, it’s not the same.

US Soccer Numbering System

Why has U.S. Soccer transitioned to this soccer number system?  According to Dave Chesler, Currently a performance analysis coach with the USWNT, “A standard numbering system for positions and their roles provides a concise and common method of communicating technical information about individual and team play.  These same tags can be applied to any system and adapted to all levels of play.  Effective coaches are clear, concise and accurate with their communication.

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As the use of soccer numbers has begun to trickle into mainstream soccer discussions, not to mention discussions like the one that occurred the other night at the U.S. Soccer Training Center, it’s essential that our children understand the soccer numbers and their respective roles.   As parents, it’s important we have a general knowledge of the concept.

No need to get carried away and feel you have to “talk-the-talk” with college coaches and say, for instance, “My child is interested in attending your college.  He’s usually a 4, but also is comfortable in the 6 and has the speed to play a 2.” However, if the college coach is talking to your child and asks where they like to play on the field and your child answers with numbers instead of position names, I guarantee the coach will appreciate their knowledge of the game.

As coaches, we have transitioned from discussing actual positions which are more related to a specific system, to discussing soccer numbers and therefore the characteristics a player brings to the table in relation to what is generally required of that number/role within our individual team’s system of play.

Playing Characteristics of the Various Numbers

When we start to think about the general playing characteristics associated with each number, we start to see how all of this makes sense from coaching tactical perspective, from a scouting and recruiting perspective and from a player education perspective.

Coaches, with their new education, are now evaluating the tactical adjustments necessary for their system of play based on the qualities of their players.

While recruiting for a college or national team, coaches and scouts can set out to identify and organize the maze of players more easily.

For players, they can start to identify with different roles based on their skills and abilities.  Believe me, children in Holland grow up dreaming of being the next “7” for the Dutch National Team!  It’s uplifting to see that starting to happen in the United States as well.

So, what are the soccer numbers as they relate to the positions and what are some basic characteristics of each?

1

Goalkeeper
Technically proficient
Solid technical passing abilities
Strong distribution decisions
Gifted athlete

2&3

Outside Backs (Right & Left)
Ability to play great long service
Strong at defending 1 vs. 1
Speedy player able to cover ground on the flanks
Solid technical passing abilities

4&5

Center Backs (Left & Right)
Consistent players who are organizers and leaders
Tall and Strong
Ability to cover ground – especially laterally and vertically
Technically strong defensively
Strong tackler
Strong in the air

6

Defensive Midfielder
High work rate
Ability to keep the ball (vision and technical passing)
Tactically astute
Strong in air
Strong tackler

8

Center Midfielder
Endless work rate – speed and endurance
Good leadership and organization
Creative playmaker
Good in air
Long range finishing ability
Ability to provide defensive pressure

7&11

Winger (Right & Left)
Very fit
High Work Rate
Ability to make long runs and recover
Strong 1 vs 1 attacking ability
Flank service
Long range shooting

10

Attacking Center Midfielder
Finishing ability
Clinical passing in final third to create scoring opportunities
Strong 1 vs 1 in final third
Makes play predictable through putting pressure on defense

9

Forward
Ability to play with back to the goal
Creativity and technical finishing abilities
Strong and tough

The introduction of the numbering system to our coaching and player education is a step in the right direction.  The mainstream discussions that are happening through the media and on the sidelines are a clear indication of the continued growth of the game in the United States.  These discussions are a benchmark indicator that the United States is becoming more tactically aware. Parents gaining an understanding of the numbering system will certainly continue the momentum.


About the Author Skye Eddy Bruce

Founder, SoccerParenting.com Skye is a former All-American goalkeeper, professional player and collegiate coach. She holds her USSF “B” License and USSF National Goalkeeper License and is an active youth coach, soccer parent and coach educator.

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  • Coach says:

    This system doesn’t work, especially on Premier Youth League’s level, where you would have A, B and C teams. All of them cannot have the same numbers (as kids might have to go up a level if they play well), so they end up going up higher and higher in numbers. Then how would a 22 or 35 translate into this system? Gets confusing pretty quickly.

    • HI @Coach I think you have misread the article…the numbers represent positions, not jersey numbers. Re-read the article again under that context and then reach out if you have any further questions!

  • I’ve been a coach for 19 years and I fail to see how the numbering system is easier or clearer than using position names. Quite the opposite. The problem with the numbering system is that they mean different things in different formations. People speak of a number 7 or a number 11 or whatever as though it’s one thing. It depends entirely on the formation. That’s why I still use named positions. I can change formations when needed without having to re-explain the numbers thing.

  • Qbald1 says:

    While it is great to know what the numbers represent, i think it is absolutely insane to require all youth soccer organizations across the country to adopt such an in adaptable method of play. I can’t think of a single other sport where your position is dictated by a number. Maybe its just because I’m old and set in my ways, I like positions like stopper/sweeper, which is different (and far more descriptive) than 2 center backs or 4,5. A Wing or wide back, mid, is descriptive, kids get it. Why try to make them code break a command. I personally think this is the dumbest commandment from on high of the National teams. Less than 1% of 1% of kids playing soccer will play in the professional level. Now a kid has to decode, “I want you to play a combination of a 4 and a 6 and be first pressure on defense”, rather than…”play stopper”…or have a generation of kids who want to be #10, cause Messi is 10.

    In all honesty, if you want to change or influence the youth to fall into a regimented sport education (welcome communism) then you need to have the FIFA video game refer to the players/positions as numbers instead of what has alwasy been done. RB, LB, CB, CAM, DM, LM, RM, ST…I know…so complicated. Lets fix it by using numbers.

    • JRB says:

      Qbald and other not in favor of adopting the number system…

      I think this is a short sighted view. I too come from the 80’s soccer era but I feel quite differently about the number system. I find it to be great system for conveying information quickly to the players. It’s only 10 definitions that you need to understand, this no more complex for them then learning math, science or history in school. You are selling our kids short in terms of their IQ and in turn not allowing them to understand how the world views, plays and educates soccer.

      Listen, the 1% of the 1% have to start somewhere and if they want to play in the best leagues around the world and come home to play for the national team they will need to understand the language, so to speak.

      While I respect your opinion of calling positions as CM or CF, that’s how I recall them, I think it’s time to evolve the education, soccer IQ and the sport within the US.

      • Old Skool says:

        It has to be able to be understood first for the players to have fun and develop the skills that allow for coaches to evaluate them later for positions. If in elite travel/HS/college programs you want to refine descriptions with players that have the experience and knowledge — then go for it, but I agree with some of the other commenters that pushing US Soccer ideology down to REC programs is creating confusion and unnecessary complexity.

        I’d rather teach skills and strategies that build player IQ and translate to success on the field.

    • Beckenbauer says:

      Shocking stuff on this site. Complete drivel. US folk know very little about football. Sorry, soccer.

  • Myron Applin says:

    Thanks for the info. Understanding the number system for player positions helps me to communicate my soccer knowledge/experience (high school, 1980’s) to my daughters in the language they’re getting from their coaches.

  • Thank you for sharing such valuable info.

  • ODP_Socer says:

    How would you number a 4-5-1 if you play with left/right center backs; left/right outside backs; a right winger; a left winger; two holding mids; an attacking mid; and a forward

    • You have a 4 and 5 center back a 2 and 3 wing backs. With two holding midfielders means you play with two 6’s and then you have a 7 and 11 wide who you ask to push high and an attacking mid 10 and forward 9. A lot of teams play with the two 6’s and a 9 instead of a 6, 8 (box to box) and 9. What’s cool about the numbers is that if you need more attack (maybe it’s the end of the half and you want to push) you can call to the 6’s and say you’d like one of them to play more like an 8 and they will understand with that simple direction.

      • Calvin Toussaint CFU Coach Tutor says:

        Eddy a very valuable contribution however the concept of repeating numbers may lead to some confusion. In most systems the 8 may drop alongside the 6 and become a holding midfield/defensive mid position, the 11 and 7 cover their wing attack duties and the 10 forms the top of the triangle with the two holding midfielders as the base, the defense stays as is. So its a large based triangle from the defense 3,5,4,2 to the holding midfielders 6, 8, to the 10 forming the inner based triangle/support which gives you the proper three lines of defense through the middle, The smaller supporting triangle in the middle 6,8,10 there is then the attacking triangle 11 ,9 and 7 which is also the first line of defense. in so doing a player knows that a number position may be slotted elsewhere in order to achieve team objectives.I’m looking forward to more insightful contributions keep up the good work

      • Mark says:

        Calvin – I agree with you on double numbering. If you’re up by 2 decide to add a second defensive/holding mid, and if you have taught your players the numbering system and the roles, it’s easy to send in an 8 or instruct your 8 from the sideline to hold. Your 10 could be instructed to drop to center.

        Same can be done when you down and need to increase attack. Tell your 10 to move to forward. The 8 & 6 “should” naturally play higher due to the extra space in front of them.

        These are scenarios that should be covered in a practice or 2 so it’s not a surprise.

      • Rene Peerboom says:

        Sky, I like the old ways because it described the position for example the example you give for the 4-5-1 would be: We have 4 defenders which are 2 outer full backs and two center fullbacks or if you prefer a right-center and a left-center fullback.

        We have 5 midfielders which are the two outer midfielders or outer half-backs, then the right-center and left-center midfielders or right-center and left-center half-backs and the Center midfielder or center half-back.

        Finally one forward, you can call center-forward or just forward.

        The names by themselves describe the placing the numbers do not.
        Thank you for all your help

    • Iowa Coach says:

      You can use a number more than 1 time. We say the 2 holding mids are 6s. The attacking is a 10, left and right Backs are 2 and 3. Outside mids are 7 and 11. And the forward is a 9.

  • Jose says:

    Shocking stuff on this site. Complete drivel. US folk know very little about football. Sorry, soccer.

  • Alan Goldstein says:

    Interesting that the description of the requirements of each number begins with the NAME of the position. The number system follows the 4-3-3 and the insistence of US coaches on the rigid use of that system is limiting the development of tactical understanding in our youth. As mentioned in other replys , systems like 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 dont fit the numbers well at all. It is easy to say ” we have 2 forwards ” , not easy to say ” we have 2 9’s” if the numbers are supposed to be descriptive of each individual and his/her position. These numbers originated with the WM and zero substitutions and when one considers the number of present day systems and the fluidity involved , numbers leave a lot to be desired.

    • Jen Smith says:

      I tend to agree, it’s much easier for kids to continue to learn and play positions based on a good descriptive position name as opposed to a number, particularly if you’re going to go “off script” and double up.
      At the older ages (HS and above), numbering system may make better sense.

  • Chrispinus Barasa says:

    Thanks for educating!

  • Joe DeMay says:

    This is great provided we are playing a 4-3-3. With the USWNT experimenting with a number of different systems of late, however, the numbering system would of course change as would the demands on and characteristics of some of those players. Creating a more common vocabulary is good, however the idea that we should be locked into a 4-3-3 is one that has never sat well with me.

    • Actually – Joe – what’s great about this numbering system is that now concepts are universal….My daughter’s team today, for instance, played with 2 6’s for a more defensive shape…

      • mockmook says:

        Thanks for what you are doing — but it does get confusing with other formations.

        If you play a “straight” 4-4-2, are the CFs both 9’s?

        Are the CMs 6’s or 8’s or one of each?

        Is there a 10?

        IOW, there needs to be some guidance on when you double up a number (and what number to drop). And, how much do you want players imagining themselves as “changing number” in the middle/flow of the game?

        My impression from looking at sites around the world is that almost no one repeats a number (even though that seems the logical thing to do). The only exception I have seen is the use of two 6’s as you mentioned.

        So any guidance you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

      • mockmook says:

        BTW, perhaps an even more problematic formation for this paradigm is the 3-5-2

        If I have my WBs who are also my wide attackers, are they my 7 and 11?

        Then, how do I number my three CBs? Two 5’s and a 4?

        Here’s my crack at an admittedly atypical 3-5-2 variant:

        http://drawformation.com/post/586861da1431a/sm-586861da1431a.png

        Is that how you would number it? If not, how do you think your way through to the “correct” numbering?

      • Rolando Gonzalez says:

        It would look like
        3- 2,4,3
        5- 8,5,10,6,7
        2- 11,9

      • Cory says:

        How would you position the midfield 5?

        Does the 5 become the holding mid?
        And who is now the outside mids?

      • Kevin Lewis says:

        Technically, it’s *not* universal, since the US chose to develop its own numbering system, rather than follow one of the (also non-universal) British, European, or Latin American models, which are all based in the requirement that player jersey numbering is formulaic in international play — therefore making it impossible to have, say, two 6s.

        There’s nothing confusing about saying “we’re playing a 4-3-3 today, so Jimmy and Jane, you’re outside defense, Enrique you’re attacking center mid, and Tanisha you’re center forward,” and so on, unless we choose to make it so; the concepts of defense, midfield, and forward or attack are straightforward, easy to grasp, and completely non-abstract, whereas a number can represent anything.

  • Grant Heywood says:

    Check out my video for further analysis of the numbering system and see how the USMNT are adopting the same principles of play as some of the top nations and clubs in the world. The video highlights how teams at all age groups apply these principles – from the International level, all the way down to the U10 level.

    http://youtu.be/K8xTitQsTCU

    You can also see how my U9’s are beginning to display these principles just after 4 to 5 months of training.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UKofY9gZEc

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