Comparing Girls’ Development Academy with ECNL and High School Soccer

The launch of U.S. Soccer’s Girls’ Development Academy (GDA) this August is probably the single most discussed topic in girls’ soccer currently.

The GDA is supposed to mirror the successful Boys’ Development Academy, which was launched in 2007, and is expected to become the new home for our elite female soccer players, effectively replacing the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), which will now become a league for the second tier teams.

Many clubs, coaches, and parents are wondering why there’s a need for a GDA when ECNL has been providing a regional and national league system for our best girls since 2009.

What makes this more contentious is the ‘no high school soccer’ rule for girls in the GDA. This rule states that GDA players cannot play high school soccer while also training and playing with the GDA primarily because of overuse health concerns and poor quality of coaching. They can, however, opt to take a three-month break from the GDA to play high school soccer and then return once the high school soccer season is over.

To help explain the reasons for the GDA, April Heinrichs, U.S. Soccer’s Women’s Technical Director, gave an interview to SoccerAmerica last November. I strongly encourage you to read it. April’s comments resonate strongly with me.

First, we haven’t emphasized technical skills enough in our country. Raw athleticism, speed, size, and aggression have dominated player selection for too long. This works well especially at younger ages if ‘winning’ and ‘rankings’ are important.

For example, U12 or U14 girls that are physically more mature and have the basics down will typically beat girls that are technically more proficient but are physically less developed at the same age. The club’s and coach’s win-percentage and team ranking will be higher, which in turn attracts more paying families.

But those same ‘winning’ girls will struggle eventually as their technically superior smaller peers mature physically too over time. And many of those ‘winning’ physically mature U12 or U14 girls overshoot as they fully mature into young women. I have seen many ‘winning’ 12, 13, and 14 year old girls turn into slow and ineffective players at age 15 and 16.

At the international level a focus on physical attributes won’t be sufficient going forward given the big improvements in the development of female soccer players in countries like Japan, France, Spain, and England.

For societal reasons and because of the deeply embedded male soccer culture in leading soccer nations, female players only recently started playing soccer in larger numbers there. And those countries are now bringing their deep expertise in player development from the men’s side to their female players.

This is very apparent when watching the most recent U17 and U20 Women’s World Cups. Japan and France in particular played the most sophisticated and complete soccer, and the gap between them and us in those age groups was significant.

“When people say the gap is closing, I would say the gap has closed and we’re falling behind in these areas.”  – April Heinrichs in NYT interview, June 2015

Going forward, the ideal female player combines soccer-specific athletic attributes with excellent technical skills and superior soccer IQ. And developing these kinds of players starts when they are very young and needs to continue throughout their youth soccer years.

This will also increase the quality of play domestically and the entertainment value, which in turn should lead to a larger viewership and, over time, more financial resources for women’s soccer.

So with this background in mind, here’s how April described the key differences for each of the girls’ soccer models:

GDA = Primarily Player Development – no financial incentives, just longer-term player development owned and organized by our national soccer federation. Strong centralized control over all aspects, including coaching standards, curriculum, training and game schedule.

ECNL = Primarily Business – a league for our pay-to-play clubs to compete against each other. Need to ‘win’ to keep and attract paying parents with talented girls. Clubs and coaches retain, for all practical intents and purposes, full independence.

High School Soccer = Primarily Social – girls enjoy playing with school friends for their school and get local peer group recognition. Focus is on ‘winning’ with the available pool of players at the school, not player development. Risk of injury is high.

I tried to capture the differences between three models at the national level in the following chart:

gdaecnlhighschoolnationwide

I support the introduction of the GDA because it promises to be the best *player development* environment for our elite girls, assuming the coaching quality and player development curriculum is truly world-class. And there will still be the ECNL for girls that either don’t make it into the GDA or prefer to play on ECNL teams.

There will be some regional differences initially – for example, here in NorCal of the big girls’ clubs only De Anza Force has committed to the GDA. Other clubs like Mustang and San Juan have decided to stay with ECNL for now, but that is likely to change if their best girls start to try out at GDA clubs once the dust has settled. In other regions, such as SoCal, ~80% of the top clubs have committed to the GDA as of February 2017.

So the chart for NorCal looks something like this:

gdaecnlhighschoolnorcal

In NorCal the best players and coaches will initially still be in the ECNL simply because all of the ECNL clubs and their players aren’t expected to switch to the GDA. However, as the GDA becomes established nationwide and much of the college recruiting and national team scouting aligns with that, more top female players in NorCal will switch to GDA clubs, which will force the ECNL clubs to apply for GDA membership too.

There are probably going to be more changes as we get closer to the summer and there are probably going to be some teething problems, but odds are high that the GDA will be successful. U.S. Soccer will put its full weight behind it. And the GDA will serve our most elite girls well because the focus promises to be primarily on ‘development’ not ‘winning’.

girls-da-map

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

5 thoughts on “Comparing Girls’ Development Academy with ECNL and High School Soccer

  1. Well it seems to me that DeAnza Force alone will carry the quality at a much higher level than you show on your graph. Much of the creativity and the fun to watch kids are there. I saw videos on equalizer that show kids who might someday impact the game, or unfortunately may be lost due to the current inability of USA WoSo to develop and use creative players. Although not regulars in the YNT camps, these are girls with creativity, flair and unusual technical abilities. 2 are Deanza. The third an enigma.

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  2. April talks a good game. After watching the U17 and U20 Women’s World Cup and how poorly they were coached, I question if April understands what she is saying or is able to implement it.

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    • Hi Scott – I understand where you are coming from. The principles behind what she is saying are sound in my view (hence this post) but then there’s the implementation, including player selection, coaching curriculum, etc. That is a separate challenge and needs to be done right. Also, there is only so much you can do with the talent you are given at the national level. So is April and the staff the right/best leadership? Do they know how to coach at the modern game? I don’t know enough to comment publicly, but it’s an important question.

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  3. Well done, and thanks for including the Norcal variation. I wonder if ECNL might focus primarily on college-bound players while GDA focuses on girls interested in playing professionally. The truth is, unlike the boys side, there are few truly skilled/special female players. On the girls side I see lots of professional fouls and defensive graft but not lots of creative players, and maybe the GDA will help foster/enable those creative attributes? If they’re not concentrating on raising funds in the GDA, their could be less pressure to win and more focus on developing players? Maybe that’s just wishful thinking…

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    • Right, that’s the hope. Without the financial incentives GDA can focus on player development, which includes technical skills, ball control, playing from the back, creativity etc. The challenge with women’s soccer is that the pro route is not an attractive option because there is no money in it. The women playing pro get paid a pittance, so the draw of a soccer college scholarship far outweighs any money for playing pro. For the foreseeable future both GDA and ECNL players will be primarily college-bound. But then the problem is that colleges play to win, not to develop. The only way US Soccer can continue to develop players is to offer them a combined soccer and college program at a custom-built campus. The current ECNL and college path simply doesn’t work if world-class player development is the goal.

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