How Ellis, Heinrichs overhauled U.S. women's development pipeline

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The connection between the senior and youth national teams had been broke. The break, as Tim Nash notes, also allowed two women to overhaul how the U.S. develops talent.

“The success of our World Cup team gives a false illusion as to where we are in the youth game,” B.J. Snow, head coach of the United States’ U-17 girls national team says, alluding to the senior team’s triumph at the 2015 World Cup.

“We are behind the rest of the world in the youth game,” is his blunt assessment.

To the extent the U.S. is behind, it didn’t happen overnight. The process started long ago, with root causes in the way the women’s program was set up. Over time, as more countries began caring about women’s soccer, that structure had to be reassessed, then replaced, and, in what’s an ongoing process, put in a better position to define how the next generation of stars will develop.

Should that development happen, and if the youth ranks can produce more Mallory Pugh-type players, credit will have to go the vision of two people: April Heinrichs and Jill Ellis.

Identifying, tackling the problem

The story starts generations ago, when the senior national team decided it needed to be in position to win every world event. The stated goal of the program was “win forever.” Now, however, investment in the women’s game by other countries is at an all-time high. Opponents have rapidly improved, imploring the U.S. to address a youth national team setup that had become disjointed and inconsistent.

“We used to have four positions called national staff coaches, and they were fairly integrated with our youth national team,” explains Heinrichs, a former senior national team coach now serving as U.S. Soccer’s technical director on the women’s side. “Some served as scouts for our full women’s national team, some served as assistants with our youth national teams. Historically, those positions had been kind of high-turnover positions.”

The structure began to shift when Pia Sundhage was the coach of the senior team (late 2007-2012). In addition to her coaching duties, Sundhage was also the technical director, charged with the overall development of the entire national team program.

“We all loved Pia, including (current senior head coach) Jill (Ellis) and myself …,” says Heinrichs. “To her credit, she said to U.S. Soccer, ‘I can’t be the national team coach and focus on youth development.’ So two years went by when there wasn’t that focus. The integration disappeared.”

U.S. Soccer eventually created two new full-time positions: a separate technical director and a development director. Ellis and Heinrichs were both interviewed, and having known each other for 30 years, they really didn’t care who did which job. Ellis was named development director, and Heinrichs became the technical director.

“When Jill and I got hired in 2011, one of the things that we aspired to do is lead from the bottom up,” Heinrichs explains. “Jill spent the next two years with the (Under-)17s, 15s and 14s, and I worked with the 23s, 20s and 18s.”

Before that, the U.S. had six different national teams, each with its own head coach and playing style.

John Todd-ISI Photos

Heinrichs guided the USWNT to gold in 2004. (John Todd-ISI Photos)

“It was hire a coach and let him or her do whatever they want,” says Heinrichs. “It didn’t make sense any more. We cannot as a country afford to be that inefficient, or so independent minded.

“What we (Heinrichs and Ellis) endeavored to do was define our style of play, a process we started about six years ago. Then we wanted to start hiring coaches who believed in that style of play. Steve Swanson is someone I hired for the Under-20s. Jill hired Albertin Montoya, and then Michelle French and then B.J. Snow came on board, and then April Kater.”

Swanson is a long-time head coach at the University of Virginia, while Montoya, the previous U-17 coach, won a professional title during his time in charge of FC Gold Pride in Women’s Professional Soccer. French is a former national team midfielder, Snow succeeded Ellis as head coach at UCLA, while Kater is a former Hermann Trophy winner who had spent seven years as an assistant at Colorado College.

“Within about two years, we went to five employees,” Heinrichs explains.  “When Jill and I were hired, the only people working in women’s youth national team soccer were Jill and I. No one else was full-time in our youth national team program.”

Broadening the focus

At the time, the emphasis of the youth national teams was on whatever big event was next. That’s where the funding went, that’s where the attention was paid, but the overall program was falling behind.

“All our programming, all our human resources, all our energy was funneled toward the U-17 and U-20s,” Heinrichs explains.

“In Europe, they were having a European championship every year. In the course of a year, they are developing four to five birth years, and we were developing one. Two years ago we made a switch to focus on birth-year development instead of team development, and we added three national teams. We brought back our U-15 team, added a U-16 team and a U-19 team.

“We have so many more resources now,” continues Heinrichs. “We’ve never had the same level of resources as our men’s side. We still don’t, but we are hoping to get there. We’ve never had the resources that the quality and depth of our player pool has required. We still don’t, and we are hopeful for that. We are getting there, though.”

Now every birth year is getting a minimum of five training camps a year, except the U-14s, who have at least three. Every age group is also getting more international games.

“Believe it or not, our youth national team players have far fewer caps than the opponents we are playing against ...,” says Heinrichs. “At the youth level, we are lagging behind by about 50 percent.”

Snow, the coach of the team that will play in the U-17 World Cup beginning Sept. 30, sees the result of the disparity in caps.

“We have some tremendous players,” he says, “but overall we are behind.”

Avoiding short-sightedness

The U.S, won the 2015 World Cup on July 5. On the morning of July 6, Ellis sat down and started jotting down names of players she felt could potentially make the 2019 World Cup roster. She wasn’t looking past the 2016 Olympics, but she knew she had to have a plan that included 2016 and 2019.

“Getting younger players experience in this world event will help down the line,” Ellis explains about the Olympics. “I think part of what you have to do in this position is continue to plan to always win world championships.”

Snow faces similar challenges as he tries to choose the U-17 team.

“My job is to figure out who helps us right now and who helps us in the future …,” explains Snow. “History probably tells us, especially at the club level, that you are leaning towards (choosing) players that are going to help you win now, or vice-versa, the player you are going to have to invest in. We need the players right in the middle - the player who is worth investing in and helps us win now.”

Winning championships at the youth level is important, of course, but developing and preparing players for the senior team is the ultimate goal.

“I think Mallory Pugh is a great example of that philosophy,” says Ellis. “Here’s a player who played at a younger age on the 17s, and then on the 20s and now she is on the full team.”

Gary Rohman/MLS/USA TODAY Sports

Greater integration has fueled Pugh's rise. (Gary Rohman/MLS/USA TODAY Sports)

At the 2014 U-20 World Cup, the U.S. lost to eventual champion Germany in the opener, then it defeated Brazil and China before losing to North Korea in penalties in the quarterfinals. After the event, Heinrichs gave Ellis a call to see if she was planning to bring in any of the players from the U-20 team.

“She had brought in Lindsey Horan, who was one of those players. She hadn’t brought in Mallory, though …,” Heinrichs explains. “I said, ‘you know, you really need to bring in Mallory Pugh. There were a lot of players who did all right in the U-20 World Cup, but this kid was one of our top three players in the 2014 Under-20 World Cup as a 16-year-old.’ We knew she had it. I shared with Jill that I thought Mallory could make the Olympic team.”

Style matters

Heinrichs and Ellis present a consistent message in terms of how youth national teams should play. Having different coaches playing different systems is a thing of the past.

The notion that the U.S. wins because it is athletic, fit and mentally strong is also a thing of the past; or, according to Ellis and Heinrichs, it should be.

“This idea that there are only two pillars to our game – mental and physical – is very dated thinking,” says Heinrichs. “We will never lose physical and psychological strengths that we have. Now we are more nuanced on the technical side.”

Heinrichs and Ellis agree there is still a lot of work to be done, but having a full-time staff was a big step. Having that staff on the same page was even bigger. Next is educating the club coaches about what the staff feels is important, what the national team values and expects.

“The development position I was in before gave me great perspective,” says Ellis. “I was able to talk to club coaches and listen to the challenges they face, and I feel I have a good handle on youth soccer, and without all the people out there working their tails off we don’t get to play for all these trophies.

“We want all our coaches to see what we are doing.”

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Tim Nash is a freelance writer and author of the new book, “It’s Not the Glory, the Remarkable First Thirty Years of U.S. Women’s Soccer.” For more information, click here.