High school boys soccer in Utah has been put on probation for the next three years, meaning teams will get fewer games per season and the sport will undergo a yearly evaluation.
The reason is due to a rising number of ejections in the sport that’s “in the realm of epic proportions in comparison to all the other sports combined,” according to a scathing letter sent to high schools by the Utah High School Activities Association that labeled ejections and sportsmanship issues as a statewide problem.
The letter, obtained by the Standard-Examiner, didn’t specify the amount of ejections in boys soccer this past school year; however, it offered a striking statistic about the ejections.
“In the recorded ejections, in the 21 sports sanctioned by the UHSAA this past school year, 50% of all ejections were in Boys’ Soccer. This is unacceptable,” the letter stated.
Among hundreds of games with issues this year, the UHSAA oversaw at least two soccer state semifinal games that were marred by yellow and red cards, including the Farmington-Herriman 6A semifinal in which seven yellows and two reds were issued to Farmington and the referees needed a police escort to get off the field after the final whistle.
Late in the 3A semifinal between Morgan and Real Salt Lake Academy, things got tested and a Morgan player was sent off with 12 seconds left. In the 6A quarterfinal round, Davis had a player sent off after increasing two yellow cards against Syracuse.
The second Ogden-Layton Christian match was a foul-filled affair that included a handful of post-whistle skirmishes, a second yellow card and subsequent red card to an Ogden player, a handful of yellows to LCA and an injury sustained by Ogden’s goalkeeper, Rick Duran, who was crowded while trying to jump up for a cross.
Those four games alone are by no means the reason why the sport was put on probation, but rather examples of how widespread ejections were this year.
“Sportsmanship has been a huge emphasis for the UHSAA, with an increased focus the past (five) years. Boys’ Soccer has been in direct conflict with the goals, direction, and mission of the UHSAA,” the letter stated.
Probation means that boys soccer teams — each one in the whole state — are now allowed to play 14 matches per season instead of 16. The UHSAA staff and UHSAA Executive Committee will evaluate the status of the sport after each season.
“If the sportsmanship and ejections do not improve, further reduction in the number of contests allowed will occur,” according to the letter, which was authored by UHSAA Assistant Director Brenan Jackson, who oversees soccer.
The decision itself was made by the UHSAA’s Executive Committee in its meeting last Thursday.
The committee is a 27-person entity mostly composed of high school administrators from all over the state. Each athletic region is represented by one person, from Region 1 in Weber and Davis counties all the way to Region 23 in southeastern Utah.
Some sort of action to address rising ejections in boys soccer (along with lacrosse) has been talked about for at least the past year.
“We have been monitoring and discussing with our boards, not only the number of ejections in Boys’ Soccer, but the type of play resulting in player and coach ejections, and sometimes even school administrators,” the letter stated.
This spring, Region 1 boys soccer coaches, along with boys and girls lacrosse coaches, received an email after the UHSAA met with the principals of Region 1 schools.
The email implored coaches to let their players and parents know they needed to behave better and warned that the UHSAA was considering putting those three sports on probation. Soccer coaches the Standard-Examiner talked with acknowledged there’s a behavior problem in boys soccer, but questioned if probation will solve the issue.
Davis coach Souli Phongsavath said a lot of emphasis needs to be on coaches’ behavior because if a coach starts yelling at the referee, fans and players aren’t far behind.
“Coaches need to control themselves and their players and their reaction to calls and things like that; that’s what were responsible for,” Phongsavath said.
It’s unclear what other measures the UHSAA and its governing entities have taken to try to quell boys soccer’s ejection problem. It’s also unclear what specific benchmarks need to be met for the sport to get off of probation.
A UHSAA press release, issued five hours after the above letter was sent to schools last Thursday, stated the association won’t be commenting on the decision.
Ogden coach Todd Scott said he’s frustrated that the punishment applies to every team.
“I wish they would’ve looked at the schools where, like, I know we’ve had this issue in the past. I wish the UHSAA would’ve said if you get five or more (red cards) then you go on probation. Set a rule, four or more, or whatever, not to just punish everybody. I understand where they’re coming from, but I wish they would’ve set a bar or a standard,” Scott said.
This isn’t the first time boys soccer in the state has been placed on probation. The UHSAA did the same thing back in 2007, with the difference being it targeted a handful of schools (Bonneville, Park City, Jordan and Dixie), according to a Park Record article from the time.
Also, according to a KSL.com article, boys soccer was put on probation in the late 1990s as well.
In the 2007 season, there were 111 boys soccer ejections between players and coaches, which at the time was the highest ejection number since the state sanctioned the sport in 1983.
The ejection issues were rectified enough after the 2007 decision that the sport got off of probation, but boys soccer is once again in hot water.
Youth soccer in general has had widespread behavior issues, so much so that the Utah Youth Soccer Association, the state’s club soccer governing body, instituted a “zero-tolerance” discipline policy in April for the spring 2022 season.
“Any coach, parent or spectator at the field that berates a referee, will result in a strict no spectator season going forward. Meaning – that team will not be allowed to have ANY spectators on the sideline for the remainder of the spring season,” according to the policy.