Results vs. development: Do U.S. women's recent U-level failures matter?

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Results at U-level World Cups are lagging, and that's when the U.S. even qualifies. April Heinrichs believes changes on the development landscape will get the U.S. back on track. Jeff Kassouf reports:

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“There are a lot of people in America watching box scores.”

April Heinrichs is well aware of the necessity to produce results when wearing the United States crest. She was the captain of the “triple-edged sword” which led the U.S. women to a title in the first Women’s World Cup in 1991, and she coached the team from 2000-2005.

For the past five years, she’s been tasked with improving the U.S. women’s youth program as technical director.

The U.S. women, still atop the world in the ever-arbitrary FIFA World Rankings despite a quarterfinal exit at the 2016 Olympics, are no strangers to success. Sixteen months ago, the U.S. won its record third Women’s World Cup title. This summer’s shocking exit marked the first time ever, in 13 tries, that the U.S. women finished worse than third at a major tournament.

But success at the youth level has been less straightforward. Is it about results or developing players? In an ideal world, both. But the definition of success when evaluating teenagers? That is open to interpretation, and the results haven’t been there of late.

“Upon reflection, I think the U-17 World Cup has eluded us and I guess, in a way, disappointed us,” Heinrichs tells FourFourTwo USA. “In both those realities, that particular World Cup eluding us is frustrating in a way. When you look back, you get some perspective …”

And that’s where things get complicated. The U-17 and U-20 World Cups are contested every two years, half the time of a senior-level cycle. The Americans last triumphed at the U-20 level in 2012, winning that tournament for a third time in seven tries. This year’s U-20 World Cup starts next week in Papua New Guinea.

Over the past four U-17 cycles, however, the U.S. twice failed to qualify for the World Cup out of a weak CONCACAF region and twice exited the World Cup at the group stage, including this past September. The Americans have never won the event, finishing second at the inaugural edition in 2008.

It’s at this point that U.S. Soccer will, accurately, remind us that those results can’t be presented without context. The two times the U.S. missed the U-17 World Cup, in 2010 and 2014, another CONCACAF nation hosted the tournament, reducing the number of berths available to the confederation. The 2012 group-stage exit came as a result of a bizarre three-way tie atop the group with France and North Korea – eventual champion and runner-up, respectively – with the U.S. going home due to an inferior goal difference.

But the frequency of the issues indicates a trend, not an aberration. Stacking up these qualifiers can teeter on excuse-making. And the continued struggles have many figures in the youth game concerned.

“This is a failure,” former U.S. coach Tony DiCicco told Soccer America following the U-17 team’s 2016 World Cup. “U.S. Soccer has to look at this. The thing that troubles me: There are not many U-17 teams in the world that have the programming opportunities, number of training days, training camps as we do. In 2014, we didn’t even get of CONCACAF and in 2012 we didn’t get out of group play. It’s a failure of our system. We can’t blame everything on the coach of the team.”

Heinrichs takes a measured approach to evaluating the youth national teams, tracking the progression of individual player skills and the number of players moving up through the system.

“The way we’re evaluating the U-17 World Cup is, ‘What was the process?’ Are we happy with the players we are IDing? And we are.”

Heinrichs says about 50 percent of U-17 national team players go on to play for the U-20 national team, and she estimates that about 30 percent move on from the U-20s to the senior level. Part of what she and her national team coaches are trying to do at the youth level is improve players technically and psychologically, the latter a unique pressure for teenagers playing for the world’s most storied women’s program.

“We are trying to rework and redefine what a youth national team player looks like,” Heinrichs said. “It’s a player who uses both feet, both sides of her feet, both souls of her feet.”

She continued: “Athleticism alone is no longer good enough to be in our program.”

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The most prominent current success story is 18-year-old Mallory Pugh, who burst onto the senior-level scene in 2016. But for Tobin Heath, Pugh might be the most technically sound and confident player on the U.S. senior team. (Heinrichs also says Pugh’s psychological toughness is off the charts.) Five of the 21 players on the U.S.’ U-20 team that won the 2012 World Cup are in this month’s senior-team camp.

Still, results are at least partially indicative of level of play. U.S. U-20 coach Michelle French hopes this World Cup produces a better result than the uninspiring quarterfinal exit two years ago in Canada. And she and U-17 coach B.J. Snow, each hired in 2013, have a minimum finish to work off of – one which hasn’t been met by either yet.

“The benchmark for us is getting to the semifinals,” Heinrichs said. “I’d love to say win and win forever, but that’s a dated mantra.”

The changing landscape

Some of the usual cliché is at play here: The world is catching up to the Americans. More federations are investing in women’s soccer, and they are beginning to see tangible results. Look at Spain, Colombia, the Netherlands and Costa Rica for evidence.

Successes of the men’s game in Europe are a good model for women’s programs to develop players, and it has propelled the likes of England and France forward and sustained the success of Germany, most prominently. That the world is catching up on the senior level is a culmination of what is happening at the youth level.

European U-level national teams play more games than the Americans each year – something Heinrichs says the U.S. is finally beginning to balance out – thanks in part to proximity and a proper European youth championship. Players are also exposed to professional environments at earlier ages. Teenagers are training with their clubs’ senior teams.

In the United States, players aren’t turning professional until after 20 years old, and their abilities to train with professional teams is limited by NCAA commitments and rules. Lindsey Horan remains the lone example of an American woman who bypassed college and turn professional out of high school. Pugh nearly did it earlier this year before changing her mind, a story which remains light on details.

So Europe remains at a programming advantage. Nigeria and Ghana, in particular, are challenging athletic match-ups, Heinrichs says. And then, there’s Asia.

“Asia is playing some of the best soccer at any level,” Heinrichs said “Asia is the Spain of the men’s game in the women’s game.”

Getting up to speed

The U.S. Development Academy for girls begins play in fall 2017, the first implementation of a three-part plan to improve the United States’ youth setup on the women’s side. The next step is to set up a residency academy with 60-80 girls, Heinrichs says. And the third initiative is what she calls a “zone-three league” for college players to get high-level experience in the summer.

The first of these initiatives, the USDA, is the most controversial. The Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) was established in 2009 and quickly became the standard in girls’ youth soccer. Twenty of the 21 players on the United States’ 2016 U-20 World Cup roster played in the ECNL.

But instead of more formally joining forces with the ECNL, U.S. Soccer decided to create a brand new league for 2017, which will include the poaching of a number of ECNL clubs. Why not just partner with the ECNL? Why start from scratch and compete with a proven feeder system? It’s a decision that has caused division among leaders in the game.

“It’s USSF saying, ‘this environment is something we can affect with positive programming,’” Heirichs says. “We know that with the resources, it will be the best model for girls’ soccer.”

But what actually makes it different? Heinrichs says the USDA will have “the highest standards in the land” in training-to-game ratio, reducing upwards of 100 games per year to 35. Teams will train four days per week.

Parents and players now must choose between ECNL -- the factory which has been the pipeline to college soccer (1,200 graduating seniors entered the NCAA this fall) -- and the new USDA. There’s a hope that politics won’t be a factor, but that is never the case, especially in youth sports. So how should players choose?

“Parents will ask,” Heinrichs says, “‘Should I move my girl to the Development Academy?’ My answer would be, ‘If she wants to play in Division I, then yes. If not, no.’”

The goal is to co-exist, Heinrichs says, but that is far harder in practice. It’s an uncertain time for U.S. Soccer’s youth setup, at a moment when action is needed to keep pace with the evolving women’s game.

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