Lori Lindsey, One-on-One: What she wants from the next U.S. Soccer president and the need for multiple development pathways

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Lori Lindsey is staying involved in the game after her playing career, including with her former club, the Washington Spirit, and as a voting member in the contentious U.S. Soccer presidential election. 

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Lori Lindsey's career included 31 matches for the United States women's national team - including an appearance at the 2011 World Cup - and time spent in all three iterations of women's professional soccer in the U.S. She played in the Washington, D.C., market in all three of those leagues, first for the Washington Freedom and most recently with the National Women's Soccer League's Washington Spirit.

Now, Lindsey is staying involved with the Spirit as strength and conditioning director for the Spirit's Virginia-based academy program (one of two academies under the Spirit name). When she isn't working with the DA, she is engaged in public speaking (and she's getting involved in commentating) as well as fighting for equality with Equal Playing Field. In 2017, that included climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to play the highest-altitude game of soccer ever recorded (5,714m above sea level).

And, close to home, Lindsey is a member of the U.S. Soccer Athlete Council, which collectively holds 20 percent of the vote in the hotly contested U.S. Soccer presidential election taking place on Feb. 10. Lindsey spoke to FFT about that responsibility, as well as her new role with the Spirit and the development issues facing the women's game.

FourFourTwo: Can you give me an idea of what you are looking for, as someone who holds a vote in this U.S. Soccer presidential election? What have you seen so far from candidates? For you, how much of a factor is the women’s game in making this big decision for the entire federation?

Lori Lindsey: It’s wild. It’s also amazing. I think this is a critical and exciting time for soccer in the United States. A lot of people are hungry for change, but also realizing that there might be some changes in general with the structuring of U.S. Soccer – the implementation of general managers or technical advisors, and how that will impact the role of the presidency.

It can’t be top-down, one person making decisions. That in and of itself will likely change.

For me, particularly on the women’s side, I feel passionate about the NWSL. I want to see there be a more collaborative effort between the current players and U.S. Soccer, and that voice being heard [more] than it ever has before. But also, yes, soccer people making soccer decisions and the business people making business decisions, and what that looks like. Does that mean that the president is going to oversee that? And, also, I want to see diversity amongst who is making those decisions. I don’t think we have great diversity right now on who is making those decisions.

I know this is a little bit cryptic or vague answer, because I won’t say who my leads are right now, but diversity on the board, diversity in who is making those decisions is going to be critical going forward. That’s what I would say.

FFT: I wrote recently about what a “soccer person” is, and it strikes me as a really strange conversation. How would you define who those people are?

Lindsey: The way that people are identifying between the soccer and the business folks, obviously Eric [Wynalda] and Kyle [Martino], who are running, played in the pro league and with the national team. And if you take more of the [Michael] Winograd, Kathy Carter, Carlos [Cordeiro], they’ve been more on the business side recently and have run companies or been in charge in some capacity. So, I think that is how people are making that distinction. So, I think yes, in some regards, everyone is a fan or played at some level. In that capacity, everyone is a soccer person. But, in general, that’s how people are viewing it.

It’s one of those questions that is coming up: Do we need fresh blood in there who is someone that understands the soccer and is going to wake up thinking about soccer every day? Or do we kind of go more of the business route and people surround themselves with those soccer people and put themselves in position to make those soccer decisions. I think the biggest distinction now is people want to see people who are proven in the soccer realm to start making those soccer decisions, whether it’s the coaches, the technical directors, the general manager – making the decision of what’s going on the field.

I think we’ve seen the president – obviously, Sunil [Gulati] – making a lot of those decisions, if not all of those decisions. I think that’s the big distinction, is, what’s going to be the role of the president going forward? Because it’s not going to be the same going forward. It won’t be this top-down [approach] – or it shouldn’t be. That’s the main thing. It can’t be top-down, one person making decisions. That in and of itself will likely change.

FFT: You have a unique view as someone who played professionally and internationally for so long, and now you are involved with the DA. A prevailing topic of late is the concern that the U.S. women’s pipeline is drastically falling behind those of other leading nations around the world. What do you see?

Lindsey: From my perspective, there was, in terms of tactically, some of these countries have always been on par with us, if not somewhat superior. That just wasn’t able to shine through because maybe athletically, they lacked. So, we were so overpowering in that regard, that they didn’t have the ball, so their tactics didn’t shine through. The technical ability to be able to show those tactics through their technical ability wasn’t able to come through. Again, because we were so dominant athletically and fitness-wise. That has always been our calling card.

The current player is playing so much and practicing so much that they are not taking the time to watch games. They don’t know that is going to help them.

I think where the biggest change is that they are now catching up athletically. They have sports science, strength and conditioning coaches. Now, not only are they able to keep up with us athletically, you are seeing countries like Nigeria – who are, in many ways superior to us athletically, just the way they maneuver themselves on the field; it’s just a different style.

From what I’ve seen is, again, we have some wonderful athletes and we have some wonderful, technical soccer players. Very gifted technically, especially the upper third. But I feel that where we really lack is tactically; that’s been an issue. Being able to break down. We have all these skills apps. All these people going to get skills training and all this individual training, and it’s awesome, but we have no understanding of how to use that technical ability when we get on the field. It’s great that somebody can trap, but if they can’t trap and break down pressure on the field, or know how to put themselves in a position to not go into a tackle once they receive it, that’s where we lack considerably.

Using my experience, I think that is what helped me as a player greatly. I would just watch game after game of Paul Scholes, because that was my favorite player, and watch how he played the game and watch how he received the ball under pressure or would position himself on the field to break down pressure. I think that’s where we really lack today. The current player is playing so much and practicing so much that they are not taking the time to watch games. They don’t know that is going to help them. And/or they just don’t have enough time between that and school.

So, there is no thought process of why I am doing this on the field, why I’m working on this. I’m not saying that I’m so much better than this generation – no. I’m just seeing that across the board. How do we get these current players to love the game? For as many players that are actually playing the game, how do we get them to love the process of watching games, studying games, instead of thinking that they have to go out and have an individual trainer teach them. Not even watch – study the game.

Now we’re competing with all these other sports that we have. That’s a little bit overdone on the women’s side, because, yes, we have soccer players that are playing lacrosse and field hockey. But really, the two sports are basketball and soccer that you can go pro in. But I think on the soccer side of things, it is so much soccer, so soccer-heavy on the field, that we forget about there’s this global ingrained – hey, actually watching other players, watching how they conduct themselves on the field – is a missing element. And in Europe, it’s the one sport. They’ve grown up in it, they’ve grown up watching it, they’ve grown up being around it and it’s different than us.

FFT: I’ve been wondering a lot about the future of homegrown players as they pertain to development on the women's side. What does it feel like on the ground level with the Spirit? Does it feel like the full pyramid coming together?

Lindsey: I think that’s a great question. Listen, the DA just started, right? We’re about six months in, max. So, I think there’s – not just on the Spirit side, but U.S. Soccer is running the DA – I think there is a ton of changes that will still take place and evolution that will occur as we continue to go forward. But I think that is what we are looking for, at least. Whether it’s specifically homegrown players, or just a way to systemize and have an evaluation of players.

The more avenues, the better, because personality-wise, the development of females, in general, if we just say, ‘here’s one way,’ we end up excluding a lot of players and diminishing our way of identifying players right now.

Whether the DA is the exact model we need currently, or if there is going to be multiple ways – which I kind of see, on the female side, as what needs to happen - it’s a little bit different from the men’s side, as far as not having as many leagues globally. Yes, the important thing is, one, development of the players, and then getting them into the environment of the pro players. So, the cool thing is, with the DA – especially when you are linked with the pro team – is that it allows you to have that experience with the pro team, these younger players. So, we’ll have players with the Under-17s and 19s that will go and train with the pro team this summer. They get that experience and understanding earlier and earlier – what it’s like to train at the professional level, the pace of it.

Then, yes, the goal is to always be able to pull players after college or, potentially depending on the growth of the game, the NWSL eventually maybe not go to college and go straight to the pros. Systemize that process. So, I think that is always the goal. What that time frame looks like, I think, is unknown to all of us now. I think the focus now is to promote playing. The focus is joy of the game and a fantastic learning experience.

FFT: You mention that there needs to be more than one pathway on the girls’ side. There has been a lot of criticism and skepticism as to why U.S. Soccer created a Girls’ Development Academy when the already successful ECNL was in place …

Lindsey: One thing that should be noted, too, is that the difference on the men’s and women’s side is college. More and more, there’s different avenues for men on the boys side – so many different pro leagues that they can go to. We’re seeing that more on the women’s side, but there’s still not that money available that’s going to totally entice the masses to skip or pass over a full-ride scholarship or a partial scholarship or anything to be able to be able to supplement getting your schooling paid for. That in itself is another hurdle, because we could be on this direct path to identifying really quality players and they go to college and that coach has a totally different style.

I think Lindsey Horan is a good example of that. I love Anson [Dorrance, University of North Carolina coach]. We don’t speak often, but I value him and what he’s brought to the women’s game. But if Lindsey Horan would have gone to UNC, I don’t think as an athlete that would have been her best option. I don’t know Lindsey personally, but just as an outsider, I think that would have broken her down.

On the women’s side right now, I think that we need to be able to have as many avenues available, without watering down the product, to identify these players. Their maturity levels are different. I think we’re still identifying the type of player – that’s evolving for us. We don’t, in every position, need the most athletic player, especially if we continue to figure out a way to combine our athleticism with a way to play possession-oriented soccer and not lose our competitive edge. That’s been a challenge. The more avenues, the better, because personality-wise, the development of females, in general, if we just say, ‘here’s one way,’ we end up excluding a lot of players and diminishing our way of identifying players right now. …

The DA is so new across the board right now that we don’t even have all the best players playing in the DA. And you’re canceling out players who can’t afford to play in the DA that could really be a quality national team player or a star. So, I think we have to figure out those situations first.

FFT: How much of a factor was your past playing experience with the organization in taking on a role with the Washington Spirit?

Lindsey: I’ve known Jim [Gabarra, Spirit head coach] for a long time through the Freedom and the Spirit, and we have a good friendship and, in many ways, a mentorship. He’s been a great mentor for me – him and Clyde Watson. So, we’ve just stayed in touch, and it’s important for them and the organization to have as many core players involved as possible – obviously, Bri [Scurry] now as assistant coach. I really value that. From an organizational standpoint, Jim is wanting to mentor female coaches and keep them in the game.

So, when, they contacted me before the DA even started, I think it was originally in a position of kind of running the DA, and at that point, I wasn’t in a position to do that. With some other jobs I had going on, it just wasn’t my time. I wouldn’t have had that time available. I said I would be interested in coming in as strength and conditioning [coach] and use how that has impacted my career, to be able to influence that on the current players. We came to agreement in that sense, and it is beneficial for both parties, because it keeps me involved with the group, but at the same time, I’m not there every day, which benefits my schedule and also some of the stuff that they are doing on the field. They don’t need me there every day, either.

FFT: What does the average day look like for you when you are working with the DA?

Lindsey: Really, it depends. When I’m on the field, it’s about proper warm-up, making sure the days that I’m not there, the coaches and the players understand what the warm-up is and what the function is. And then, we have a generalized plan in terms of periodization of what we are looking for, overall. Not just myself, but also the actual soccer coaches as well, but with plenty of wiggle room with, ‘ok this is an adjustment that we have to make, because the players are exhausted, or a game got canceled or something was added and the players played more minutes.’

Even though I’m only there a couple times a week, there is a striving for somewhat of an individualization. Now, granted, they are youth players as well, so across the board we see similarities in all of them, which is mobility needs and just general strength and athleticism improvements. So, a lot of this stuff is also team-wide, to try to keep it as simplified as possible, so it doesn’t get too complicated. That’s kind of how it works. I’ll go in and do the warm-ups, and we’ll tackle what we want to do that day, which depends on the day of the week. Is it going to be a little more fitness focused? Is it going to be more of like speed, agility type focus? Or any sort of strength stuff that we can do on the field?

But then, they also have the luxury of coming into the facility where I am and doing some extra work. Primarily, that’s in the offseason or summer time. During the season, it’s a pretty heavy on-field focus. They have four sessions a week and games on the weekend. It also depends on where they live. We have players coming from Richmond, Charlottesville, so if they can’t do stuff in the facility, or they want more than just what’s on the field, then we give them stuff to take home.

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