Are the failures at the U17 and U20 Women’s World Cups a symptom of deeper YNT problems?

The USA was knocked out of the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup this week following a 4-0 loss to Germany, a 3-0 loss to North Korea, and a 3-0 win against Cameroon, placing last in Group C. This follows a similar outcome at the U20 Women’s World Cup this summer.

As food for thought, I’m pasting below the full article published on SBNation after the U20 Women’s World Cup. Keep in mind that our female YNTs typically don’t perform well but our full WNT tends to compete for trophies, at least so far.

So it could be argued that U.S. Soccer might be focusing much more on longer-term player development over ‘winning’ at the youth level, which should be assessable by a trained soccer eye when comparing aspects such as skills, creativity, and soccer IQ displayed by our YNTs with that from other nations.

In other words, underperforming the way we do at the youth level could be acceptable if we’re witnessing our YNTs learning to play, say, a technical and creative possession-oriented style of play pioneered first by Johan Cruyff and further developed and refined most recently by Pep Guardiola, first at FC Barcelona. This is the modern way to play soccer and requires a high level of technical proficiency, a deep understanding of the beautiful game, and lots of soccer IQ, which takes time and patience to learn.

An opposing perspective would argue that there is little true player development nationally and in our youth clubs, and that the gap between us and other nations is shrinking. Here’s an earlier blog post on what I believe explains the relative dominance of our WNT these last couple of decades. It has little to do with modern player development. 

So are other nations catching up and likely to surpass us soon based on what’s on display at the youth level? The following article argues that point:

By mshawhan  Oct 3, 2018

The dust has settled from the elimination of the United States U20 women’s national team in the group stage of the 2018 U20 World Cup. So this seems like an appropriate moment to begin taking stock, to think a bit about what this latest failure says about the state of the YWNT program.

The way we lost

Start here: the U.S. U20s played two peer opponents known for their reliance on possession and quick passing (Japan and Spain), and couldn’t beat either. Against Japan, the U.S. was stifled and then gradually overcome; against Spain, we were played off the park in the first half—and an urgent second-half comeback could only muster a draw when a win was required.

In other words, we were decidedly third-best in our group during this most recent World Cup. And that poor showing is only the latest in a series of YWNT failures over the past three cycles (2014, 2016, 2018), in which both our U17 and U20 sides have consistently played poor-quality, ineffective soccer when it mattered most.

The U17s in the 2014 cycle failed even to qualify for the World Cup, losing to Mexico on penalties in the crucial qualifier. The U20s in 2014, featuring a talented squad playing an abysmal brand of longball soccer, were well beaten in the World Cup quarterfinals. The U17s in 2016 failed even to make the knockout stage because they were deservedly beaten by Ghana and simply swept aside by Japan.

The U20s in 2016 made it to the semifinals—but they did it by playing an embarrassingly conservative style to get out of the group, and then by scraping past a superior Mexico in the quarterfinals through reliance on fitness. We’ve just seen the 2018 U20s. (The U17s’ World Cup this year is yet to come.)

So there is an ongoing, multi-cycle pattern of performance problems in the YNTs. That’s obviously concerning in itself. But what is more worrisome is that these problems may reflect deliberate philosophical and stylistic choices made by those in charge of the program—choices that can be seen in which types of players are, and are not, called up to the YNTs and rostered for World Cups.

The wrong players for the wrong job

Here, it’s worth remembering that it’s not the job of the YNT program to “produce” elite players, per se. That is, of necessity, left to individual youth clubs and coaches. Instead, our YNTs are supposed to sift through the player pool and find the best youth players available at a given age group, then make those players even better through exposure to the highest levels of training and competition, including meaningful matches against international opponents.

But what that means, of course, is that the YNTs’ particular definition of “best” will inevitably affect the selection process. Which is a problem, when that definition seems to be overly narrow.

As others have noted, the YWNT style in recent cycles, including the recent U20 World Cup, heavily emphasizes individualistic flank play. Central midfield, the theory goes, is simply too easy to clog up defensively. Better to skirt around that part of the field altogether, get it wide as early as possible, and create havoc through 1v1 and 2v1 attacks down the wing.

Thus, in the current cycle, WNT technical director April Heinrichs and U20 head coach Jitka Klimkova picked a roster that was heavy on attacking players with an ability and a propensity to attack and take on 1v1 from wider areas—e.g., Sophia SmithAshley SanchezAbigail KimErin Gilroy, and Alexa Spaanstra. (Midfielder Taryn Torres, who can play in a variety of positions, tended to be deployed by Klimkova as a flank attacker as well.)

B.J. Snow’s U17 rosters in the 2014 and 2016 cycles similarly favored fast, direct attackers, especially 1v1 dribblers out wide. In fact, Snow’s squads for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers and the 2016 U17 World Cup were so loaded up on forwards that they each basically had only three true midfielders. (Oddly enough, these teams also struggled to play through midfield and break down organized defenses.

And the flip side of emphasizing flank play and direct 1v1 attackers is ignoring good players whose strengths lie in other areas. In recent cycles, our YNTs have repeatedly passed over, or outright rejected, talented players who don’t quite fit U.S. Soccer’s preferred mold–all in the service of a style that the YNTs have yet to successfully deploy.

Perhaps the most striking example of this curious approach to player selection is Tierna Davidson—rejected by the YNTs at youth level, but solidly entrenched with the senior national team before her 20th birthday. Despite excelling with Bay Area ECNL side De Anza Force, Davidson was never called into a YNT camp at one of the younger age groups.

Nor did B.J. Snow ever call her into a U17 camp in the 2014 cycle. And in the 2016 cycle, Davidson was cut from the U20s after World Cup qualifiers and sent down to the U19s instead. Apparently April Heinrichs and then-U20-coach Michelle French thought she was not good enough for the U20s. (No, really.) Two years after that, Davidson was starting for the senior WNT.

How did YNT coaches and scouts so comprehensively get Davidson wrong? It’s hard to say for certain. It’s worth noting, though, that some of Davidson’s particular strengths are her ease and composure on the ball and her passing under pressure. And these traits will be much less valuable in a side that tends to ask its centerbacks only to make very simple passes to a defensive midfielder or an outside back and let the front six take it from there, rather than joining in an effort to build from the back through the middle.

One similarly can’t help but notice that over the past three cycles a number of other players who have performed admirably as composed centerbacks in possession-oriented NCAA sides—Schuyler DeBree and Taylor Mitchell of Duke, Samantha Hiatt of Stanford, Kristen McNabband Phoebe McClernon of Virginia—have also been overlooked before U17 level, passed over by the U17s, marginalized by the U20s, or all of the above.

This devaluing of players whose strengths lie in possession and combination play is not limited to the backline, either. It can also be seen in the midfield, as well.

Take, for example, Savannah McCaskill. She’s smart, has an excellent touch, an eye for the killer pass, and good athleticism. She played before college at an ECNL club (Carolina Elite); led South Carolina last year to their first College Cup berth in program history; had a strong rookie season in NWSL; and has already received half a dozen senior team caps. Yet she was also never called into any YNT camp before U18; and received only a single U20 callup.

Or look at UCLA. Their run last year to the final of the College Cup drew heavily on the burgeoning talents of three freshmen midfielders: Viviana VillacortaDelanie Sheehan, and Olivia Athens, all of whom had played for well-known California youth clubs before college. None of them were ever called up by the YNTs before U18 level either.

For that matter, star Duke playmaker Ella Stevens—the attacking linchpin of the Duke side that made it to the College Cup last year before losing to UCLA in a beautifully tense semifinal—was considered and cut by both Snow at U17 level (in 2014) and Heinrichs and French at U20 level (in 2016).

And add to the list Meggie Dougherty HowardHaley HansonRachel CorbozLuca Deza, and Taylor Kornieck: all excellent midfielders who were passed over, or overlooked altogether, by Heinrichs, Snow, Klimkova, and French.

Why miss out on obvious talent?

A common element of this formidable set of players is that they are more passers and playmakers, rather than 1v1 dribblers. These days, apparently, being an attacking-minded midfielder who looks to combine, to build attacks through passing and off-ball movement rather than only direct take-ons, gets a player marginalized by our YNTs, not celebrated.

None of these players, moreover, were obscure. None of them grew up in locations that don’t attract scouting attention. None of them played for small youth clubs (or small NCAA programs) for financial or other personal reasons. In other words, these players are just the most obvious, high-profile examples of players whose abilities were not properly recognized and cultivated by the powers that be. They are surely not the only ones.

In short, our YNTs have now amassed several consecutive cycles of failure; and they’ve done so playing a style that has proven ineffective, seemingly employing selection criteria that are so limited by that ineffective style that it has led them to repeatedly pass over excellent young players of whom they should have been aware. Are there realistic hopes for change?

True, Snow and French were relieved of their head coaching positions last year. But April Heinrichs, who as WNT technical director has been responsible for the YWNT program over this entire period — who has hired and overseen Snow, French, and every other current YNT coach — remains in her post and shows no sign of going anywhere, assorted fiascos notwithstanding.

French was retained as an assistant to senior team head coach Jill Ellis (before leaving that role to take the head coaching job at the University of Portland). And French’s replacement, Jitka Klimkova, was hired from within the YWNT program and has now presided over a World Cup failure of her own.

As for Snow, well. He’s been made the director of national-team talent identification for the WNT program as a whole.

So consider: April Heinrichs thought that Tierna Davidson, Savannah McCaskill, and Ella Stevens, among others, were not good enough to play for the U20s. And she chose B.J. Snow — who passed over Davidson, cut Stevens, and never met a direct dribbling forward he didn’t like — to run talent ID for the senior WNT, after he failed badly selecting and coaching the U17 WNT.

That means, apparently, that notwithstanding his poor track record, Snow plays a crucial role in setting national-team selection criteria for youth, college, and pro players. He’s the one telling WNT scouts and coaches what to look for and value. And he’s also the one going round to the vaunted Girls’ Development Academy and other youth clubs and telling them what sorts of players fit the national-team profile.

This is disturbing–not merely because it suggests that the YNTs’ ongoing struggles will persist, but also because it underscores that no one at senior levels in USSF is meaningfully overseeing the YWNT program. We’ve had three straight cycles of YNT underachievement and stagnation, and yet at a fundamental level, nothing appears to be changing. How much more failure will it take before those running the program are held accountable for their poor performance? At this point your guess is as good as mine.

Disgraceful – time to cut the BS!

This is my first post in many months – I’ve simply been too busy at work and with family. But Tuesday night’s US MNT elimination from the World Cup jolted me into posting again.

I have not felt this angry in a while. This is a national disgrace, an international embarrassment.

Let me be very blunt: what a joke of a team and coaches. USSF lacks leadership that understands this beautiful game deeply enough. The quality of soccer in the MLS is poor and the incentives in that league are not aligned with developing players to compete internationally. And don’t get me started on college soccer.

Time to stop the BS and start with a complete and deep revamp of how we teach, play, and organize the beautiful game here.

We need to hold our coaches more accountable and support only those that truly understand the game and how to teach it. This also means that we as parents and the leaders of our youth clubs educate ourselves about what it means to learn and play futbol properly.

In contrast to pretty much all soccer powerhouses such as Brazil and Germany and Spain, we’re paying our coaches and clubs a lot of money, right? So if we have a pay-to-play model here let’s at least demand a service that can justify these cost.

This applies to all levels of coaching – national, pro, college, and youth. And it applies to US Soccer leadership as well as us parents.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while then you know that this doesn’t come as too big a surprise to me, but I still feel angry about it.

We have inmates running the asylum and it needs to stop.

In contrast, tiny Iceland (pop 335,000) qualified for the World Cup yesterday in first place (!) in its European (!) qualifying group. And remember their recent remarkable European Championship performance?

That’s a country only about one-third the population of the City of San Jose here in NorCal.

Let’s do that again: 335 thousand people with limited resources on an icy island in the Atlantic ocean near Europe perform better than 335 million people living in the wealthiest country in the world with unbelievable facilities and resources and brainpower and a deep and pervasive tradition of sports.

When will there be enough evidence to finally trigger deep changes in how we train and play this beautiful game in our country? Have we finally reached a tipping point?

I’ll leave you with these three clips to reflect on:

#ussoccer #soccer #futbol #usmnt #mls #ussf

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

22 more clubs get Girls Development Academy status for a total of 74

Cedar Stars Academy – Monmouth (Tinton Falls, N.J.)

Indiana Fire (Westfield, Ind.)

Real So Cal (Woodland Hills, Calif.)

Empire United (Rochester, N.Y.)

La Roca Futbol Club (Kaysville, Utah)

SC del Sol (Phoenix, Ariz.)

FC Fury New York (Bay Shore, N.Y.)

Burlingame SC – MVLA (Burlingame, Calif.)

Sereno Soccer Club (Phoenix, Ariz.)

FC Kansas City (Prairie Village, Kan.)

Nationals (Royal Oak, Mich.)

Sporting Blue Valley (Overland Park, Kan.)

FC United (Northfield, Ill.)

Oakwood Soccer Club (Glastonbury, Conn.)

Texas Rush Soccer Club (The Woodlands, Texas)

Houston Dash (Houston, Texas)

PA Classics (Manheim, Pa.)

West Coast Futbol Club (Laguna Hills, Calif.)

Houston United (Houston, Texas)

Pateadores (Costa Mesa, Calif.)

Western New York Flash (Elma, N.Y.)

PSV Union (Palo Alto, Calif.)

28 more Girls’ DA clubs announced

As expected, here is a second batch of clubs that are getting Girls’ Developmemt Academy status:

Boca United (Boca Raton, Fla.)
FC Stars (Acton, Mass.)
San Juan Soccer Club (Rancho Cordova, Calif.)
Charlotte Soccer Academy (Matthews, N.C.)
FC Virginia (Chantilly, Va.)
Shattuck-St. Mary’s Rev SC (Faribault, Minn.)
Clay County Soccer Club (Fleming Island, Fla.)
IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.)
Sting Soccer Club (Addison, Texas)
Dallas Texans (Plano, Texas)
Jacksonville Armada Youth Academy (JFC) (Jacksonville, Fla.)
TSC Hurricane (Tulsa, Okla.)
LA Galaxy San Diego (San Diego, Calif.)
Davis Legacy (Davis, Calif.)
LA Premier FC (La Canada, Calif.)
Virginia Development Academy (Woodbridge, Va.)
Eagles SC (Camarillo, Calif.)
Legends FC (Chino, Calif.)
West Florida Flames (Brandon, Fla.)
East Meadow SC (East Meadow, N.Y.)
Lonestar Soccer Club (Austin, Texas)
Weston FC (Weston, Fla.)
Eastside FC (Preston, Wash.)
Match Fit Academy (Morris Plains, N.J.)
World Class FC (Orangeburg, N.Y.)
Eclipse Select (Oak Brook, Ill.)
Midwest United FC (Grand Rapids, Mich.)

Click here for the USSF announcement.

I suspect there will be more in the coming weeks.

Let’s talk about money – lots of it!

It’s the end of the Spring season and some clubs are already asking for commitments for the Fall season. So it’s that time of year when parents are reminded again about the cost of youth soccer.

Competitive soccer is expensive, especially if your youngster plays on the top couple of teams in his/her age group at his club. And this cost increases as your youngster gets older.

According to my Quicken software we spent about $20,000 (no typo!) on soccer related cost in 2015 on our three comp soccer kids (U10, U12, and U14), excluding a big soccer-related trip we did during the Christmas school break. And some time ago I posted an article on another family’s similar spending level – click here to read it.

As a rule of thumb, I estimate that at one of the big clubs here in the Bay Area you can expect to pay around $2K-$3K per year when your youngster is 8 or 9, then around $3K-$4K when he/she is 10/11, and $5K-$7K at 12/13. It can easily reach $10K per year or more if your 16 year old daughter or son is on an ECNL or USDA team. Both travel a lot.

This is a lot of money! And a lot of parents get upset, of course. And some point the finger specifically at coaching fees. I will get to coaching fees a little later in this post.

First let’s take a step back for a moment and start with what many, probably most, parents want for their comp soccer youngsters:

  • great coach who really knows the game and how to teach it, fully committed to making youngsters the best they can be, in a positive environment, while also communicating frequently with parents;
  • good fields for practices and games, ideally all-weather artificial turf instead of bumpy and/or muddy grass;
  • quality equipment (balls, training accessories, etc.);
  • supplemental private or small-group clinics through the year;
  • variety of league games that develop the youngster and entertain the parents;
  • tournaments for that extra drama and team bonding – some medals hopefully too;
  • well-organized club – efficient software for registrations, effective and timely communications, sufficient oversight by the Director of Coaching to make sure coaches are doing their job well, ongoing development courses for coaches, both in-house and, probably more importantly, externally organized for a fresh perspective;
  • for well-developing youngsters a structured/organized path to higher-level teams within each age group, more challenging leagues such as ECNL and DA, and more challenging tournaments (local, region, state, national);
  • efficient and effective league and tournament organization;
  • qualified referees – while this is mostly a volunteer role referees do get paid some to cover their cost and to earn a little on top

The list goes on.

Now let’s be clear that all this costs money. Somebody has to pay for all this and because there are no subsidies for what is ultimate a private enterprise it’s the families that have to cover all of the cost (some clubs offer merit and/or needs-based scholarships but those are negligible).

It’s simple math.

And like all private market products and services this ‘youth comp soccer’ service we purchase from clubs and leagues (and individual coaches sometimes) is driven by the perceived quality of the service and the availability and cost of alternatives (i.e. other clubs/coaches and non-soccer activities).

Money is a medium of exchange and cost/prices reflect ‘value’ driven (mostly) by demand and supply. And there are apparently enough families that are willing to pay the going rate.

Are there imperfections in this youth soccer market? Sure, like in pretty much any market, and discussing those go beyond the scope of this post. But, for all practical intents and purposes, families have a choice how much and where to spend their soccer money.

Now let’s talk about the coaching pay.

Keep in mind that for the majority of comp soccer coaches at the bigger clubs this is often their livelihood or at least contributes materially to their income. It’s how they put food on the table and pay for their kids’ clothes. It’s how they pay for rent. It’s how they cover their cost of living. And our Bay Area has one of the highest cost of living in the country.

I estimate that typical comp soccer coaches make anywhere from $20K to $50K per year, depending on how many teams they coach per season, how experienced they are, which club they coach for, and how many private lessons they do per week.

And I further estimate that top coaches with a good amount of teams and maybe also some club-level responsibilities can earn up to $100K, even $200K at the very top. Some of this additional pay comes from offering clinics outside the usual team practices and and elite coaches can charge $50 (and more) per player per hour for a small-group clinic with, say, four players. That’s $200+ per hour.

But let’s focus on the ~80% of coaches that coach most of our kids.

Living on $20K in the Bay Area is very difficult even when you’re young and single. It’s not much better with $50K. And it’s even difficult with $75K-$100K if the coach has a family.

Great coaches that work hard and are committed and/or have broader responsibilites such as Director of Coaching roles deserve to be compensated for the work they do. Just like in any other profession.

There are some volunteer coaches that do a fine job, of course. I know of one team that is still keeping up with wins and rankings with the elite group of teams in that age group and the coach is a volunteer. The players aren’t nearly as proficient because they lack the technical skills, for example, but this volunteer coach knows how to maximize the odds of winning. So there are exceptions to the rule, of course, if winning is your primary goal.

But if longer-term player development, quality, efficiency, sustainability, and scalability are important then comp soccer needs professional coaches and clubs.

But like any business a soccer club (and also individual coaches) have to continue to offer the best possible product and strive to continuously improve and innovate to satisfy its ‘customers’, the players and families. If the quality drops too low and/or the club doesn’t handle its families and players professionally then the club will sooner or later lose its customers.

So if the product offered by the club and/or coach is perceived to be superior and families are willing to pay for it, then why should the club and/or coach not be ‘allowed’ to make as much money as possible?

Why should this be any different from, say, a financial consultant charging as high an hourly rate as possible for his or her services? Or the cleaning lady trying to negotiate the highest possible hourly rate for her services? Or you and me negotiating the highest possible salary and bonus in our professional lives?

If what you do is valued highly and someone offers you double or triple what you’re getting now and you can therefore buy that four bedroom modern house in a neighborhood with great schools then why not charge for your services?

Money is a reflection of the value you deliver. There’s nothing bad or dirty or questionable about that.

There are non-monetary measures of ‘value’, of course, and those are important motivators in some professions, but money is a strong indicator of delivered value in private markets, including youth soccer.

You have to continue to deliver a great work product, of course. If you don’t then the payments will stop quite quickly because parents will go elsewhere for a better product.

Like with all purchasing decisions, families need to make a decision about what’s important and affordable for them.

If a club’s activities are simply too costly and your youngster isn’t talented enough then you need to find another club. Or move your son/daughter down to a lower team that doesn’t train as much and only plays games within driving distance. The cost for this second or third team should be lower. Don’t waste your money!

For example, the annual cost to play on an ECNL team is much higher than the cost for the second or third team. This is mostly because the ECNL team travels much more.

So take a step back and honestly assess your youngster’s soccer potential and decide on what’s important to your youngster and your family.

A good friend of mine with tremendous knowledge of competitive sports, including soccer, keeps reminding me of how delusional we as parents can be. Here’s a good blog post on DPD – Delusional Parent Disorder. Love the term!

If your youngster isn’t heading for an ECNL team (girls) or an USDA team (boys) then don’t waste your hard earned money chasing the wrong goal. The same applies for any other level of play – if he/she simply isn’t going to make the first or second or third team then stop chasing that with money and sacrificed time.

Instead, focus on having a great time at soccer together. Make sure your son/daughter learns to enjoy the game for a lifetime. He/she doesn’t have to play on the ‘best’ team or club for that to happen. And it doesn’t have to be expensive.

But it’s ultimately your choice in this private market called “youth soccer”.

P.S.: There are very problematic issues arising from this ‘pay-to-play’ market model we have here in our country, which exceeds the scope of this blog post. I will post separately on that in a few days. Stay tuned.

 

Just announced: structure of new Girls’ Development Academy

U.S. Soccer released more details for the Girls’ Development Academy which will launch in August 2017. Click here for my post on probably why USSF doesn’t want to collaborate with ECNL.

The application process for clubs will open in May.

The guidelines for member clubs will feature increased training requirements with fewer, but higher quality games. Clubs will be expected to train a minimum of four times a week.

From the start, the program will feature three combined age groups: U14/15, U16/17 and U18/19. The use of combined age groups will require clubs to form teams with a balanced roster of players from two distinct birth years. [Note that the Boys’ DA now starts at U12 so it’s likely that the Girls’ DA will too at some point soon.]

In addition to combining the most elite players from each birth year to form the mixed age group player pool, coaches will be encouraged to play their most elite players “up” on an older age team within the club to help accelerate development.

The players in the Girls’ Development Academy clubs will play exclusively within the Academy program and will not play in any outside competition, such as ODP or high school.

The games will be scouted by U.S.Soccer and the program will serve as a pathway to U.S. Soccer’s Youth National Teams.

The competitive framework will focus on the core values of the program, which emphasizes quality coaching and teaching in a positive learning environment for players with zero tolerance for poor behavior from coaches.

The program will feature local and regional matches as well as regional and national events with playing rules based on international standards, e.g., no re-entry, limited substitutions and proper rest and recovery periods.

The season will be structured over a 10-month period, likely from September through July, and as in the Boys’ Development Academy, the clubs will be organized by divisions and conferences with national and/or regional events incorporated into the overall program.

USSF declines to collaborate with ECNL. Girls’ Development Academy launching Aug 2017.

It looks increasingly likely that the ECNL days are numbered. According to this SoccerAmerica article, ECNL leadership met with the U.S. Soccer Federation last week and was told that USSF can best raise standards at the elite level without ECNL.

The new Development Academy for girls will launch in 18 months, in August 2017, and will mirror the boys’ Development Academy structure.

I strongly suspect that USSF is going it alone because it gives them full centralized control over all aspects of elite girls player development. In general, it is much easier to rapidly make changes through a centralized structure.

Having to deal with a more collaborative structure where clubs have a say wouldn’t make it nearly as easy nor fast to make fundamental changes to training methods, selection processes, accreditation, league and tournament and showcase structures, etc.

Clubs compete, at times fiercely, often in a political environment. And while ECNL can, in principle, revoke membership if a club underperforms for too long, ECNL cannot force clubs to change coaching methods and styles of play or generally raise their standards before it becomes glaringly obvious.

And new ideas (for example, through coaches from outside the U.S.) might be threatening to some of the more established ECNL coaches that might also have quite a bit of political influence within ECNL.

In addition, maybe ‘winning games’, ‘keeping score’, and rankings play too big a role in ECNL, which doesn’t always help with player development.

So I can see why centralized control over how players are developed is very important to USSF.

‘Collaboration’ sounds good in an email or public statement and makes us feel good, but reality is probably much messier, especially when tough changes have to be implemented that threaten long-established stakeholders.

And the argument that “our WNT is dominating so don’t change” doesn’t take into account big changes coming globally to women’s soccer.

A nation’s federation needs to look ahead ten years or more and implement changes early enough to be well positioned for changes looming on the horizon.

For example, it is likely that the women’s game will become more technical and creative, driven initially by soccer powerhouses such as France and Germany who have recently woken up.

Our youth development has to adjust accordingly and that is easier to do in a centralized system, and probably also one less geared toward feeding colleges.

I predict that pretty much all of the ECNL clubs will apply for DA status and that the large majority of them will get it.

There will be new strings attached, of course, including a willingness to be dictated to and supervised by USSF, annual assessments and ratings, but the big clubs cannot afford to be excluded from this.

Curious to see if our MLS clubs jump into the girls side now also. Maybe USSF will mandate that any club with a boys’ DA also has to support a girls’ DA?

Note that many pro clubs in Europe, like Bayern Munich, now have women’s pro teams, but I’m not sure how much those pro clubs get involved in girls’ youth development.

And I’m wondering if the launch of this USSF controlled girls’ DA might also eventually give girls the opportunity to make the National Team without having to go through the college soccer system.

This is increasingly also the better option for boys if a soccer career is to be maximized. There are some differences between boys’ and girls’ longer-term financial prospects, so this isn’t clear-cut, but it’s worth discussing at least.

Anyway, these are my thoughts on what might be driving USSF’s decision. There should be a way to introduce the Girls’ DA and still have ECNL. ECNL might, for example, become a second-tier league for the top one or two teams in each age group, but excluding the DA players.

The next twelve months are going to be interesting.

The end for ECNL? USSF launching Girls’ Development Academy.

From TopDrawerSoccer.com, published on Monday, Jan 25, 2016:

On Dec. 29, SoccerWire.com dropped a bombshell report on girls soccer development in the U.S. Citing multiple sources, the site claimed the U.S. Soccer Federation has plans to launch a girls’ equivalent of the Development Academy in time for the fall of 2017.

U.S. Soccer confirmed to TopDrawerSoccer.com that the program announcement is coming soon, perhaps as early as this week.

While America waits to see what the program entails and how it takes shape in the firmament of American girls soccer, one organization waits with particularly baited breath.

How exactly would the ECNL, the current forerunner of the ‘girls Development Academy model,’ fit into a landscape with another league for top girls players?

Since flinging open its doors for the first time in 2009, the ECNL has gradually developed into a force in women’s soccer development. At the 2014 U20 Women’s World Cup, 18 of the U.S.’s 21 players had direct ties to an ECNL club. At a recent U14 GNT camp, 28 of the 35 players called in were ECNL players. A recent January U15 camp (19 of 24), a February U16 camp (20 of 24) and a February U17 invitational (16 of 21) were brimming with the league’s products.

But the news U.S. Soccer has its own girls programming planned leaves things in a precarious place. If the federation blazes its own path, the ECNL – which has an established nationwide infrastructure and developed championship-level U14 to U18 age groups among clubs all over the country – will have to find out where it fits. And fast.

“The ideal would be to have a program that does a great thing for the federation’s national teams, for the pro teams and all of their impact on development, and also with this hugely successful club structure we have that’s represented by the ECNL,” said ECNL president Christian Lavers. “It seems like there should be plenty of ways to put those things in collaboration together and kind of rises the water for everybody.”

In 2014, a task force finished a run of meetings that had been brought together for some of the top decision-makers in the country to discuss, among other topics, how the girls development apparatus can improve to help the U.S. Women’s National Team win World Cups. With a broad range of members discussing what amounted to an open-ended question, the group met a handful of times before dispersing after the last meet-up in October 2014.

Among the task force’s conclusions was that a Development Academy answer for girls soccer wasn’t necessary, mostly because of the strides the ECNL had made since 2009. According to Lavers, that was the last piece of formal communication the ECNL and U.S. Soccer had on the matter. On a conference call four months later, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati floated the idea of a girls Development Academy-like operation on a conference call to the media.

Turns out it was a forerunner for the future.

The ECNL has been deliberate in cultivating a professional, positive relationship over the years with U.S. Soccer. After all, the vast majority of the top girls youth players in the U.S. Soccer youth national team pipeline right now either did most of their development in the ECNL or are still playing in the league today. The most visible public face of that bond on the club side was, for years, longtime ECNL commissioner Sarah Kate Noftsinger. Before the Women’s World Cup in 2015, Noftsinger was bullish on the relationship between the two organizations.

“In the six years the ECNL has been around, that relationship with the federation has become stronger and stronger, and it’s very collaborative,” Noftsinger said. “Because at the end of the day, we’re not the federation, but we are here to support them and help them be the best in the world.”

Noftsinger left the ECNL in November to take a front office role with the new Atlanta United FC franchise beginning MLS play in 2017, leaving former top assistant Jen Woodie as the acting commissioner for now.

As far as the ECNL is concerned, the issue of redundancy is particularly problematic. If U.S. Soccer opts to bring its array of resources to bear on a youth league that looks like the ECNL model, that presents players with a choice that will inevitably leave one league in the lurch over time. That would essentially pit U.S. Soccer’s resources against the ECNL’s already established reach in its communities.

The hope among ECNL administrators is a more collaborative model that allows both to exist with unique, distinct benefits for players that don’t necessarily overlap.

“If you start from, ‘How do we make what’s out there better,’ I think you come to a very positive place,” Lavers said. “Because it’s not 2007. It’s not the same environment that existed when the Development Academy was created for the boys, because at that point there was no organization, there was no real national league that provided the meaningful competition… The boys DA was designed to fix, in 2007. You would say, I think, that many of those things have been solved very positively.
“But it’s not 2007 anymore. The ECNL was created to fix a lot of the same problems that the DA was created to fix on the boys side, and I think quite honestly a lot of those problems have been fixed.”

Given the lack of communication with the ECNL since the task force dispersed 15 months ago, it seems unlikely the two are merging outright, which gives the federation’s announcement a heightened glow of anticipatory radiance.

However dramatically, the state of girls soccer development in the U.S. is about to change. We’re about to find out how much.