If you’ve never paid attention to a soccer game before, it can look like little more than a bunch of people running around chasing each other with no rhyme or reason.
And let’s face it — some kids’ soccer matches really are little more than a bunch of people running around chasing each other with no rhyme or reason.
In truth, however, there is real structure to a soccer team, but it is difficult to grasp without an understanding of the various positions for each team. These positions help give the game its shape, the players their purpose and the coaches their strategy.
Here’s a rundown of the four main positions in soccer. (Note: We could do a deeper dive into all the different specific positions within each broader positions, but this post is simply meant to introduce the broader position to new fans.)
This is the easiest position to spot and understand for new fans. He or she is the one standing in front of the goal, usually in a bright shirt that is a different color than anyone else’s on the field, and is the only player on the field who can use his or her hands to touch the ball.
They can’t use their hands just anywhere, though — only in the goalie box (It’s also called the 18-meter box because of its size.) Also, if the ball is passed directly to him by a teammate by foot, he cannot pick it up. He must kick it without touching it with his hands.
Of course, the goalie’s No. 1 job is to keep the ball out of the net. Once he does that and has the ball in his or her control, the opposing team cannot interfere with or block him from getting the ball to his teammate. The goalie can either throw the ball to a teammate, which keeps the ball under his team’s control but doesn’t move the ball down the field as quickly, or punt the ball — which sends the ball farther down the field but makes it less likely for the ball to remain under his team’s control. However, he cannot keep the ball in his possession for more than six seconds.
It takes a brave kid to play goalie. While other players can have their mistakes masked by other players on the field, the goalie is a bit of an island. His or her mistakes are magnified — but so is the glory when she plays well.
Best current goalies include: Manuel Neuer, Bayern Munich; Keylor Navas, Real Madrid
Best all-time goalies include: Lev Yashin, Dinamo Moskva; Peter Schmeichel, Manchester United
These players are the last line of defense before the ball reaches the goalie, and as the name makes clear, their top priority is defense.
Defenders — also called “backs” — aren’t going to score many goals because their main job keeps them in the so-called “defensive third” of the field, the part closest to the goal they’re defending. They can, however, be instrumental in starting the attack on offense with a well-placed pass to a teammate.
Great defenders don’t have to have the fanciest footwork. They don’t have to be the fastest players on the field. They need to be disciplined and they need to be great tacklers. And no team can be great without great defenders.
Best current defenders include: Diego Godin, Atletico Madrid; Thiago Silva, Paris-Saint Germain
Best all-time defenders include: Franz Beckenbauer, Bayern Munich; Paolo Maldini, AC Milan
Midfielders do it all. They play defense. They pass to set up the team’s primary scorers. They score themselves. (Diego Maradona was a midfielder and is one of the greatest scorers in the history of soccer.) And they run. A lot. That’s because their duties involve covering more of the field than anyone else. Their primary area is the middle third of the field, in between the defenders and the forwards, but in reality, they’re nearly everywhere. About the only thing that a midfielder can’t do that another teammate can is pick up the ball with her hands.
While some midfielders are “attacking midfielders” like Maradona, many other midfielders typically focus on ball control and being great passers. After all, these players are the bridge between the defense and the team’s primary goal scorers, the forwards.
Best current midfielders include: Mesut Ozil, Arsenal; Toni Kroos, Real Madrid
Best all-time midfielders include: Johann Cruyff, Ajax; Diego Maradona, Barcelona
This is the glamour spot. These are your primary scorers, spending the bulk of their time in the offensive third — the area of the field closest to the goal on which they’re trying to score. These are the players who change the game with a single shot. This is where Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi play, as does Carli Lloyd. This is where Pele once played.
A great forward — sometimes also called a striker — should be fast, skilled at dribbling and heading and, perhaps above all else, an accurate shooter.
Best current forwards include: Lionel Messi, FC Barcelona; Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid
Best all-time fowards include: Pele, Santos; Ferenc Puskas, Real Madrid