AUGUSTA — Only a few years removed from eight-man football making its debut at the high school ranks, a similarly-scaled version of fútbol may not be far behind.

Mike Bisson, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said the governing body of high school sports in the state will make a push to debut small-sided soccer at the start of the 2023 fall season.

Small-sided soccer is, in its simplest terms, the same as traditional 11-on-11 soccer, but with fewer players and tighter field dimensions.

“I think this is going to be really positive for a lot of those small schools struggling to field a team or have already cut their team and are just running cross country or something in the fall because they can’t put enough kids out there,” said Bisson. “And our smaller schools are getting smaller. And that small group is getting bigger and bigger because enrollments in those rural towns are dropping.”

Much like football, when the MPA made the decision to start eight-man football in the fall of 2019, numbers for soccer in a number of “small pockets” throughout the state have been dwindling in recent years, Bisson said.

Bisson said the proposal for small-sided soccer will be recommended to the classification committee in the coming months.

The classification committee will hold a final meeting in the spring to finalize numbers for the following two-year cycle, which will begin in the fall of 2023.

Thus, the debut of small-sided soccer could be 12 months away.

Locally, Vinalhaven and Islesboro, Class D schools by enrollment, certainly could benefit by making the jump to small-sided soccer.

Vinalhaven continues to offer boys and girls soccer teams, while Islesboro is a coed program that completes in the boys division.

Islesboro athletic director Tracey Wuori and Vinalhaven AD Dan Gazano said they would support those changes.

“Our numbers are so scary when it comes to 11v11,” said Gazano. “But 8v8 would be doable. It would be great for a lot of small schools and it would be perfect for us. It is something we’d be sort of biding our time with [this season] until this becomes a reality.”

For this fall season, Gazano said Vinalhaven has 10 to 11 players each for the Viking girls and boys varsity teams. He thinks one or two more may come from North Haven, which does not have its own soccer program and traditionally sends athletes to Vinalhaven for fall and spring team sports.

“They might be the tipping balance on if we are able to do 11v11 this year,” he said.

Longtime boys soccer coach Richard Carlsen also recently stepped down from coaching the Viking boys pitch squad, so Gazano is scrambling for a new coach.

“I’m looking for players and coaches,” he said.

Islesboro has had a coed team for years and has had success in that format as the Eagles advanced to the boys regional championship game in Class D South last season.

But for Wuori, the appeal would be the opportunity to have boys and girls soccer teams at ICS.

“I would be interested in the way where girls will be able to have the ability to play on their own team,” she said. “That would be a plus for our program. The game would change a bit, but not in a terrible way. I think that girls in general will open up more if it’s all girls on a team.”

Bisson expects pushback from purists within the sport — as was the case at the onset of the MPA’s efforts to construct an eight-on-eight football league — but, that ultimately, “kids can still have fun and be competitive in 7v7 or 8v8 soccer.”

“There are so many challenges that I think the general consensus is we’d like to keep small schools playing the game,” Bisson said. “There are so many schools under 80 kids [for enrollment] that it’s a challenge to put 11 kids on each team out there. If we can do it with seven or eight kids on a side, I think that helps kids play soccer.”

Bisson said in the past two weeks alone, six to eight schools have contacted the MPA about switching to coed, inquiring about a cooperative team with a neighboring school or canceling its season.

For schools with small enrollments such as Islesboro and Vinalhaven, losing a couple kids to injury, illness or academic ineligibility can be a crippling blow to the program.

If a team is forced to cancel its season midseason due to lack of players, that team is subject to a probation period of two years by the MPA, which should, in theory, give that school ample opportunity to bring its numbers back up.

Which puts a team like Vinalhaven in a precarious position.

“I don’t know if I can play 11v11, but I need to stay in good standing with the MPA so that when the 8v8 league [hopefully] rolls around next year, I’m able to do it,” he said. “This is just going to be a tough year for us.”

The deadline for when schools must declare whether it will hold a season or not — and can opt out this season without penalty — is Friday, Aug. 26.

Bisson said there have been multiple instances over the years of Class D programs not having 11 players and teams are forced to play a game down a few players.

In Maine, in traditional, 11-on-11 soccer, a team legally can compete with as few as seven players.

After the team with 11 players, ultimately, gains a large enough advantage the game is in hand against a team that may have only nine, or eight players, that team would take enough players off the field to play evenly, “but that’s not an ideal situation,” said Bisson.

“I think they’ll be some growing pains, but I believe it will be successful in the long run,” he said.

Mike Burnham, MPA executive director, said “field hockey is paying very close attention [as well] because small school field hockey is struggling as well [with numbers].”

“It’s not to the point where soccer is, but it is being discussed,” he said.