What's a 10 Anyway?

As soccer gets more and more popular in this country, I hear variations on the same question more often: "What do they mean when they say 'she plays the 10 position'?"

The answer has a long history, and I'll link you to two longer and more exhaustive pieces at the end of this column. But the short answer is that soccer coaches and organizations have decided to number the positions of the 11 players on the pitch for the sake of expediency. Furthermore, each position has a set of strengths that an ideal player should possess in order to succeed in that role.

The numbering system for soccer dates back to the 1920s, but the American numbering system is newer, with its current iteration codified only by a technical group that US Soccer established in 2012. The numbering system is valid for all levels of US Soccer, but it's important to note that the numbering scheme differs slightly than those employed by some European leagues, like England and Germany.

US Soccer Numbering System

Below is an image of a starting lineup in a 4 - 3 - 3 formation, and below that is a table showing the numbers, their relative position on the pitch, and the strengths that players need to thrive in each position. The information in the table comes from one of the linked articles below on SoccerParenting.com, a website dedicated to parents who want to help their kids succeed in the game.

 Positions by number

Positions by number

No. Position Player Characteristics
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

As promised, here are some links for more exhaustive reading.

Hopefully, this helps when watching American soccer (the National Teams or league play in NWSL or MLS, for example). But beware that this numbering scheme is not the same as that employed in other nations, so these numbers may not always match up if you are watching a World Cup or European league match.