'We don't have a pyramid': New Girls' Academy director talks through her biggest challenges

U.S. Soccer's latest hire explains why the new academy system is so important.

Miriam Hickey on Thursday was named the first director of U.S. Soccer’s Girls’ Development Academy, which kicks off its inaugural season this fall.

Hickey joins U.S. Soccer from her previous position as the girls’ director of coaching at the Troy Soccer Club in Michigan. On the A-License coach’s resume features eight years in the technical department of the KNVB – the Netherlands’ football association – as well as serving in various roles for FIFA women’s competitions. She was the head coach of the LSU women’s soccer team’s inaugural season in 1995.

Hickey is tasked with leading what is expected to be 70 clubs across the country at the U-14, U-15, U-16/17 and U-18/19 age groups, replicating to a degree what has been going on over 10 years of play on the boys’ side.

Hickey is tasked with hiring eight to 12 regional technical directors for the DA, and she’ll work closely with Development Academy Director Jared Micklos, who has developed and managed the Boys’ Development Academy since 2014.

FourFourTwo spoke with both Hickey and Micklos about where things stand with the DA as kickoff nears.

What brings you here? Why did you want this job?

HICKEY: I’ve always been interested in getting the most of players and coaches around me, in my club or in coaching education. In this position, with the support of the U.S. Soccer staff, the technical advisors and the clubs, we’re going to be able to influence a large number of players that need to be able to compete internationally, which is a great challenge and something that I’m passionate about – making sure that we continue to win World Cups and gold medals. The support that U.S. Soccer has put behind a program like this is valuable.

When something like this comes down your path you have to take it. It helps me in continuing to develop. I’ve been in a job for a while; I’ve been coaching youth soccer for a while. It’s time to take another step and get a little bit out of your comfort zone and continue to develop. For me, it works as I have to continue to get better again and get motivated to learn things, and at the same time, be able to use my expertise and experience to help a larger number of players and coaches.

You have experience with youth clubs, as a Division 1 college coach, and with FIFA. Is anything in particular directly comparable to this job, or is this a brand new challenge?

HICKEY: No, of course not. I’m old (laughs) – in my 50s already; been around for a long time. Having experience at the international level definitely opens your eyes for players – Under-17, Under-20 or national – what they are capable of. For us, it’s important not to fall behind. Countries like Japan, North Korea, but also France and England, they are putting a lot of resources into the women’s game. For us to not fall behind, we need to do something where U.S. Soccer is in charge of developing the most elite players in the country. Being at a U-17 World Cup, being able to watch the training sessions of other countries and evaluate what they are doing – not just in games, but in training environment – sure opens your eyes. It gives you a different size that normally as a club coach, you can’t see.

I worked in the Netherlands, not just with the Dutch FA but in a youth club, where I was in charge of boys’ development. My other job was to try to get as many boys ready to go to Ajax – we were close to Amsterdam – so we were happy when our boys were good enough that they were asked for Ajax. I think that’s what we’re lacking in this country, that we don’t have that pyramid. There’s lots of different leagues that girls can go in, and everyone calls it a national championship, and parents just don’t know. So, having a DA for girls, run by U.S. Soccer, it becomes more consistent – the environment where players are on a daily basis.

I can appreciate that you just took the job, but what do you see as your top priority?

HICKEY: We need to get those technical advisors hired and make sure that they are a good fit, so they can influence the clubs as quickly as possible to make sure that everything they are doing is in the interest of the top-level players. So, hiring the technical advisers is the right away – it’s like your cabinet, right? You’ve got to hire it right away. Then, the communication with the clubs. Listening to what their issues are and how we can help solve them, so we can create this environment where they can succeed every day.

I wanted to ask you about communication with clubs. At the NSCAA Convention last month, it seemed there was still a lot of confusion around the fine details of the DA. How will you be communicating? Have you started the process?

HICKEY: It’s ongoing communication. There’s a webinar [this week] with all the clubs, where more information will be shared. That will happen on a continued basis. These technical advisers will be very close with the clubs, basically a phone call away. They will be on the ground on a weekly basis. They’ll be close to the fire. They’ll be able to answer any questions and deal with concerns pretty immediately.

What was the biggest question coming out of that December meeting in Chicago with all the DA clubs?

MICKLOS: The December meeting brought about a couple of recurring themes, but I think the one that is most important and the one that we’ve already taken action on and continue to review, is the pathway. That’s probably the one word of describing it.

You look at the age groups and we started with the idea of three combined age groups and felt like it addressed the needs, but there is also a real emphasis to get the players into the program younger, just as we’ve done on the boys side in Zone 1. So the real key there is the expansion of the player pool at an age where the environment is still more similar because you don’t have this impact of high school and different seasons, because it varies throughout the country. So, our thought was to be able to bring in the 14 age group. It helped, to be able to expand down – 14s, 13s – to create a bigger pool of players that they would be able to develop themselves.

So, I think the real key for us is: How do we continue to support clubs to develop players? And for us, the real key is to get the players into the system earlier, so that they can be in this consistent environment, so that they have time and feedback to grow over the course of the year. That was addressed. It was the biggest feedback for me, and it’s something that we’re continuing to address in terms of, ‘OK, what’s the next step? We know we’re going to add an age group; if we do 13s, is it 16s? Or do we look at modifying the older age groups?’ There’s still some ongoing discussion there. So, if you ask clubs right now, the unknown for them is what’s going to happen to these older players. How many of them are going to stay committed to the 10-month season? Some of them are already doing it. Versus how many of these seniors are in their last year and it’s just not that important come April?

Just clarifying, as it’s been a talking point: High school soccer is ok? A player just can’t play for her DA club at the same time as her high school season?

MICKLOS: That’s right. The respective seasons – it could be the fall, could be spring. You can take what you know from the boys side and remove it for a second.

It comes down to the player and the club making the decision. It’s not that the academy isn’t the right environment for the player, just like the league isn’t, just like somewhere else isn’t. What the key is, is that the player analyzes what their goals are and then analyzes what’s best for them from a programming standpoint. We’ve always said, if the player and the club decided that’s the right fit for them during this transition period, which we’re going to give a few years to this – if someone is in high school and they decide that they just need to finish that out, that they can do that. But, the main thing for us that’s always driven it, and one of the main reasons we don’t have it on the boys’ side, is so that you can provide a consistent environment. The player is training on a consistent frequency and has a game on consistently. So, if they decide to do something else, it’s not that anything else is bad, they’ve got to focus on that. We don’t want them doing two things at once.

In terms of where things are going, how does the DA and ECNL work together? There are some clubs with teams in both. How do you see that relationship and communication, if there is any at all?

MICKLOS: There has been no time where we’ve said that we think there are players or clubs or people that are going to be faced with a decision between these two and what they offer. They are completely different programs. One is a program and the other has a lot of features that are different.

For us, we’re willing to work together, as we are will all of our members. We’re open and we’re still open as to the communication side of it in terms of determining minimum standards for things like substitution and re-entry. That would be something great for us to speak to them about. They have chosen not to at this point, but that doesn’t mean that if they brought it back up, that we wouldn’t continue to talk about it. So, the relationship will always be ongoing, because they are part of the same ecosystem and ideally we want to get to a point where the standards are aligned and that the landscape is simplified, for the players and the parents and the coaches all understand what the key goals are and the key principles are for elite players – that we have as many elite-level players that are on that pathway …

We’ve never told clubs whether they can do both. That’s never any communication from us. We’ve always said, if you’re applying to be in the DA, you know what this program is and you’re committing your best players to the program and we expect that you’ve got the proper staffing. If you have other needs or if you have other programs that you want to pursue for either second-tier players or players outside these age ranges, then that’s perfectly called for and needed.

HICKEY: I totally agree. If you’re putting a program together for the elite players, then you need the support from U.S. Soccer to create those players that can play at the international level. In most other countries, it’s one league where the best players are, and now that’s not happening here. There’s a place for all those leagues, but over a period of time, there’s got to be one that is the one where the elite players will gravitate to. Over the course of time, I think that’s going to be a natural pathway for players to follow.

You mentioned communication with parents earlier in the conversation. What do you say to a parent that has spent several years with their kid in ECNL being told that this is the pathway, and obviously ECNL has produced so many college, professional and international-caliber players, that now this is the pathway?

HICKEY: That’s the reality of being in a country where a lot of it is driven by money. These clubs are businesses. They are going to say what they need to say to get these players to commit to their club. They’ll try to get as many player in as they can when it comes to their bottom line. Parents won’t always get the real answer or the obvious answer; they’ll get the answer that is best for the business. That is something that we will hopefully start to develop away from, where clubs will say, ‘well this is in the best interest of a player because all of us will be hoping that we have our best players playing with and against the best players to get the top elite ready to play internationally. That’s what we work towards, is to win World Cups and to win gold medals.

The communication with the parents – I think it’s going to be a learning curve for them. In the end, like I said, the best players will always want to be playing with and against the players. I think the directors at the Development Academy will help create a more clean environment and the most direct pathway to the national team.

You mentioned your experience in the Netherlands earlier and providing boys a pathway to Ajax. The women’s professional game here is still evolving, with only one real example of a high schooler going pro, but how do you see the Development Academy fitting into the pro game? Maybe this will produce a couple national team players each generation, but it might produce dozens of pro players. How will that work out?

HICKEY: I can tell you that a club like Ajax, they’d be happy every year to have one U-19 player graduate and join the pros. That would make their youth development program a success. Sometimes it doesn’t happen for two, three years, where a player is the top ones and can jump onto the Eredivisie pro division team.

One of the issues in the U.S. is that after age 19, there isn’t a whole lot anymore. Most other countries, you start with a club when you are six years old, you move up through the ranks and if you’re really good, you go to the next club that’s higher up. But in the end, you hit your pyramid. Soccer is not a sport where at age 17, 18, you’re at your top level. That doesn’t happen for goalkeepers sometimes until they are in their 30s. But definitely for field players, mid-20s is when you shine. We have that whole college game in between, where they play for four months and that’s it. I don’t know if I speak out of turn here, but I would be a big proponent of having that be a 10-month program as well, so players can continue to develop. You always have these late bloomers and it takes them until they are in their 20s until they are at their best.

Sometimes, in the U.S., they expect players at age 12, 13, already to be good at everything. That’s not what the game is about.

What is the No. 1 thing that needs improvement in the development of female players in the U.S.?

HICKEY: It is to have structure within how you develop players, and having an environment where day in, day out they are challenged to play at a higher speed and with coaches that let them make decisions and not tell them what to do. In an environment where players start recognizing the soccer problems and learn how to solve them quickly, and not waiting for a coach from the sideline to give them hints on how to do it. For that, you need skills. You need skills at a high speed, where decision-making becomes a natural thing. It’s not a thinking game; it’s an acting game. You’ve got to go; you’ve got to do this. You’ve got to make it happen. So, in Zone 1 there’s a lot that needs to improve so that these players are more proficient at a higher speed. In the 13-18, in Zone 2, it’s where the DA comes in, where these players need to continue to develop week in, week out in an environment that is more mirrors what happens internationally. Not being able to sub after 15 minutes, so you go 100 miles an hour for 15 minutes and then you get to go rest for a while? That’s not the game. These players need to learn how to manage being in the game for 90 minutes. You don’t learn that only when you’re with the national team. You need to learn that week in, week out, like every other international player does all over the world.

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Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.