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Confusion or healthy competition? U.S. soccer's girls’ player development pathways remain complicated

ISI Photos-Robin Alam

After one season of play, the U.S. Soccer Girls' Development Academy needs to iron out some wrinkles. And some clubs still see more value in the incumbent ECNL.

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Take well-intentioned coaches, skeptical parents, a federation rebounding from an election that laid bare a lot of fissures, and a bunch of different opinions on how to develop elite women’s soccer players. What do you get?

A train wreck? A turf war? Or healthy competition and discussion?

That’s the underlying question in the quest to develop the next generation of college, professional and international players. Perhaps choice and competition are good, but will the next Mallory Pugh be overlooked because she opted to play high school soccer? Or will the next Becky Sauerbrunn miss a chance to play for her favorite college because she chose to play in the “wrong” league?

Healthy or not, the competition is well underway. This spring, several clubs have announced they will move their top girls’ teams from U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy to the U.S. Club Soccer-sanctioned Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) after just one year in the DA. The DA has a few clubs lined up to join, but it’s still swimming upstream against the firmly entrenched ECNL, which is adding more than 10 new clubs on top of the DA defectors and has consistently produced high-level players.

And these aren’t the only choices. The traditional “U.S. Youth Soccer and ODP” model has made a resurgence this year. The U.S. Soccer presidential election had several candidates, including accomplished former players, who spoke fondly of the old system of playing in local leagues and getting additional training / identification through the Olympic Development Program. The election winner, Carlos Cordeiro, pledged to push for a “well-funded” ODP. Then this spring, U.S. Youth Soccer announced plans to rev up its national and regional programming with expanded elite conferences crisscrossing the country.

Girls’ DA director Miriam Hickey understands the challenge facing U.S. Soccer’s pet project. She is more cheerful and less rigidly bureaucratic than the typical USSF administrator, perhaps a by-product of her Dutch upbringing.  

“It is year 1,” Hickey tells FourFourTwo. “We did not expect everything to run perfect. We are going through a big culture shift.”

Some of the split between the DA and ECNL has political roots based on prior opinions of U.S. Club Soccer. But the philosophical differences are significant. To some extent, those differences are healthy.

“ ‘Turf War’ [are] words that other people would use,” says ECNL president and U.S. Club Soccer executive vice president Christian Lavers. “What I would say is I’ve been on one side of different debates on philosophy, on values, on methodology and structure in the game. … It’s better for the game when you have positive debate and discussions.”

There are a few major differences between the organizations.

Singular focus and specialization

The ECNL allows and even encourages its players to do the following:

  1. Play high school soccer.
  2. Play other sports.
  3. Play for another team in the same club (for example, if a player didn’t get playing time with the ECNL team in a given week, she can play for a “B” team in another league).
  4. Play in State Cups and showcase events of the club’s choosing.

“Our clubs and players are completely un-siloed, if that’s a word,” Lavers says. “We have no prohibitions on what they can and can’t do in terms of other leagues and competitions. We think it’s not a league’s role to mandate and prohibit what kids can and can’t do, whether that’s high school soccer or local tournaments or other showcases.”

Development Academy clubs and players don’t have such freedoms. Players might be allowed to play other sports, but it’s difficult to do so when you’re practicing four times a week for 10 months. High school waivers are available for those who were recruited to play for private schools, but otherwise, players usually have to choose one or the other.

Those restrictions don’t sit well with one DA coach who happens to have won a few World Cups and Olympic golds -- the California Thorns’ Brandi Chastain.

“What happens to the kid who’s good at three sports but happens to be good at soccer?” Chastain rhetorically asks FourFourTwo. “For me, that’s the personal struggle I have with the DA.”

After all, her teammates on those legendary U.S. teams were multisport players whose skills -- like running, spatial awareness, shielding a ball -- translated from one to another.

“We didn’t have one player on our team who only played soccer!” Chastain says. “So I know that it works.”

Hickey isn’t personally inflexible on other sports. She sees no problem with players swimming or running track as long as they can still make their soccer practices and games, and she says she wouldn’t mind if a DA team forced indoors by the weather for a practice session did something creative like basketball or team handball, a sport she knew well in her youth in the Netherlands.

And Hickey sees opportunities for DA teams to play other clubs in friendly scrimmages or the handful of tournaments that conform with DA rules on substitutions and number of games. The Dallas International Girls Cup had a good mix of DA, ECNL and foreign teams.

The hot-button issue, though, is high school soccer. That’s a major factor for clubs such as New Jersey power Players Development Academy (PDA), and Soccer America’s Mike Woitalla recently took the federation to task in a recent column with the headline “U.S. Soccer blundered badly on high school soccer,” tracing the problems back to Jurgen Klinsmann and Claudio Reyna banning high school play for boys’ DA players.

Substitutions: To re-enter or not to re-enter?

We don’t believe re-entry for U-14 and older enhances player development. ... Many times players are subbed after they mess up so the coach can discuss these mistakes with the player, and that results in players being scared to make mistakes.

- Miriam Hickey

In most youth, high school and college soccer, players can be substituted in, out and maybe back into a game. The ECNL is more restrictive than many leagues, but a player can still re-enter a game. The Development Academy does not allow re-entry. Games may resemble international friendlies, with more than the typical three subs allowed, but once a player is out, she’s out.

On this issue, Hickey takes a firmer stance than she does on multisport play.

“We do believe in our standards,” Hickey says. “We don’t believe re-entry for U-14 and older enhances player development. Soccer is a game where players are expected to make mistakes, both technical execution and decision-making. For players, knowing they’ll be on the field for an extended period of time gives them the opportunity to be creative, self-correct mistakes and learn from them. Many times players are subbed after they mess up so the coach can discuss these mistakes with the player, and that results in players being scared to make mistakes.”

Chastain could see those rules in the oldest age groups, but not in her younger age groups, where she would like to give feedback and have a player work on it while it’s still fresh: “If I see a player who’s struggling, I’d like to take that player, have her come to the side, and then put her back in. Then she has a chance to put the things back in action.”

Beyond the philosophical difference, there’s a practical issue. What do you say to a parent who signed up a child for an expensive program to get college exposure, only to see that child fly 700 miles for a game and play only a few minutes -- or not play at all?

To prevent flying unused subs from game to game, teams may only travel with 13-14 players. Everyone else stays home -- and doesn’t play.

Scouting: Inclusive or not?

These questions don’t just affect parents who are forking over thousands of dollars so their kids can get into top colleges and have a shot at the pros. The competition affects who may or may not be identified and developed at an elite level.

U.S. Soccer is quick to point out that the Development Academy isn’t the only pathway to the national teams. The federation has a Training Center program of one-day events in scores of venues across the country designed to fill in gaps that the DA can’t reach. In 2017-18, through the end of March, the federation had held 134 such events for girls in 41 areas, inviting 2,223 players.  

Other numbers provided by the federation for talent identification on the girls’ side (again, August through March):

  • 75 active scouts
  • 1,009 DA games scouted, with 1,207 identifications
  • 18 non-DA events scouted, with 208 identifications

(U.S. Soccer defines an “identification” as a scout submitting a report to the database on a unique player.) Those numbers certainly seem heavily skewed toward the Development Academy. But a non-DA “event” isn’t a single game. It includes ODP, along with the analogous U.S. Club Soccer program (id2). It also includes major tournaments.

Still, the odds of being identified look far better in the DA than out of it. Will U.S. Soccer keep an eye out for comparable talent in the ECNL?

“Right now, the answer is yes because there’s too many good players playing in ECNL,” Chastain says.

Still only year one

The Girls’ Development Academy is finishing up its first season. A few things have worked -- and some haven’t.

One major issue: For all the considerable travel requirements of the DA, the games aren’t necessarily more competitive. As in regional “elite” leagues, there are teams traveling vast distances for mismatches when they could just as easily play a more competitive game that requires no long drive, let alone airfare or hotel stay.

If I had to pick a choice between having a monolithic, top-down, everything-done-the-same-way by one organization with one perspective or having a diverse ecosystem of different experimentation and different philosophies, I would certainly choose the latter.

- Christian Lavers

And the games are often not competitive. Ten-goal blowouts have been abundant in Year 1. The standings show several goal differences of minus-87, minus-96, even minus-120 and one appalling minus-120. At the other end, LAFC Slammers are plus-90 at U-17 and plus-92 at U-19.

Consider Atlanta club Tophat. Its U-15 team has a plus-94 goal differential. In ECNL play the previous year, the club’s U-14 team was merely plus-21, with only two wins by more than three goals (both against the same team). And the PDA teams retreating to the ECNL aren’t exactly having trouble with DA competition. Their U-15s and U-19s are each plus-69.

Hickey acknowledges the problem.

“It’s a big country,” she says. “We knew starting the program for the girls we would have 70 clubs. We knew we had some right and some wrong. In year 1 we’re learning some lessons. The result is not always indicative of the game, but when a team is not able to provide competition for the opponent, some adjustments need to be made.”

So the Development Academy is adapting. Hickey says teams will have “open weekends” in the schedule in which they can schedule games against comparable opposition instead of playing a mismatch in the same regional division.

And that’s not the only change. Next year, every age group except the U-19s will be able to use all seven subs in a game, reducing the likelihood of a player traveling and then not seeing the field at all.

Maybe the competition will indeed sharpen each league.

“I think it’s always better for people to have choice and competition,” Lavers says. “It tends to drive improvement the same way competition for roster spots drives improvement. So if I had to pick a choice between having a monolithic, top-down, everything-done-the-same-way by one organization with one perspective or having a diverse ecosystem of different experimentation and different philosophies, I would certainly choose the latter.”

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