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:


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:


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’.


Sportsmanship message from NorCal Premier Soccer – unfortunately too easily forgotten as the season unfolds

As we head into the fall season, we would like to encourage players, coaches, family members, club officials, and referees to take a moment to consider how they will behave around their upcoming soccer games. All play an important role in our small piece of the “World’s Game”, all deserve to be treated respectfully.

While we absolutely encourage everyone to give their best effort, trying to win, we also believe a sense of soccer fellowship should be maintained at all times ­among opponents, opposing fans, and referees.

Treat each other with courtesy, remember your opponents are just like you, fans of the game, only in a different uniform, playing for a different club, supporting a different team, or in the case of referees, with a different role to play.

Whatever part you play, be a role model. Set an example. Your positive example is incredibly valuable to those who witness it!

The rules must be respected – they maintain a player’s health and safety, provide everyone a fair chance to win each match, and provide necessary checks and balances to govern a game full of emotions.

Referees must be respected and treated properly ­- without them the games cannot be played. Remember they are sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers. They are our fellow soccer fans and they deserve our patience. Our praise, respect and admiration should be shown to them for taking on what is often a thankless task.

Finally, respect the game! Soccer, futebol, fussball, football, whatever you may call it, is the greatest sport in the world – for it to continue to grow and remain healthy in our country it absolutely needs us to respect… its fields, its players, its fans, its referees and its coaches.

Thank you very much,

Norcal Board of Directors

Disgraceful parental behavior during little girls game

I had a mind-boggling refereeing experience on Sunday. It was a U10G Bronze game and we kicked off at 6pm on the last day of the Spring season. It was Sunday evening and nice weather.

So after a long soccer weekend I was expecting a pleasant game between little nine year old girls. A celebration of the beautiful game and a fun experience for these little girls.

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I have rarely experienced such a rowdy sideline. Pretty much the entire game was played under constant screaming and shouting at the girls, and frequent dissent about pretty much every call that went against the visiting team, including in particular offside and ‘handball’.

When the visiting team dissent became too blatant and interfered with officiating I stopped the game to talk to the parents. I tried to explain that a ball touching a hand or arm is not in itself an infraction – it has to be deliberate, for example. And frankly, dear reader, referees are supposed to be much more lenient when Bronze level nine year olds play the game.

In a final attempt to try to take the edge off their behavior I reminded the coach and parents that these are just nine year old girls trying to have fun playing a game.

It didn’t work. These parents were not interested in reason and were in a combative mood from the beginning. Textbook case.

So when the dissent continued I had no choice but to evict a parent and then ten minutes into the second half warned the coach that I will terminate the game if there’s any further interference. This coach then called to his parents to calm down, but otherwise made no effort to control his parents during the game.

And the tension between the opposing parents was palpable, especially during the second half. It included excessive celebration when a goal was scored.

What made this situation worse is that the AR on the sideline next to those parents was only 12 years old. He did a very good job under a lot of pressure, but the parents used abusive language directed also at him.

He had to listen to an ongoing use of foul language including repeat use of the F-word amongst the parents directed at me and at times also him. He was scared especially about parents throwing things at him because he had to face his back to watch the field.

Unfortunately, he didn’t tell me until after the game, partly because most of that happened during the second half. But all this went into my incident report to NorCal so the team will face disciplinary action.

And the icing on the cake: I was threatened by the evicted parent and confronted after the game as I was walking to my car.

Glad to say that I stayed calm throughout all of this and it didn’t change my motivation to contribute to our soccer community through officiating. But it was a sad moment because these little girls are exposed to this and probably often.

The ironic thing was that just before this little girls game I had officiated a U16 boys game that I was warned could easily escalate. One of the teams got into a fight during a game in SF and already had two suspended players. One of the coaches was also suspended, but turned up. He was evicted. The league had sent an official to observe and help in case of mass confrontations.

All went well, I had full control of the game, and it ended successfully without drama. So I drove over to the little girls game to finish off the Spring season on a lighter note, but little did I know.

This kind of disgraceful behavior has no place in youth sports. It is a terrible experience for these little kids and for those moms, dads, siblings, and grandparents that came to simply cheer.

And you can probably imagine that the twelve year old AR might lose motivation to help officiate games if this happens too often. And we need young referees to fill the shoes of those aging out. No referees, no games.

By the way, this visiting team places last in the Bronze division with only one point. This makes them the lowest ranked U10G team in all of NorCal. Probably no coincidence.

The drama of filling referee slots for weekend games

Following on from yesterday’s NorCal email about respect for referees I wanted to share the below background that very few coaches and parents are probably aware of.

There is a LOT of behind-the-scenes volunteer work every week by referee assignors such as Tibor, Dana, Allen, Scott, and Filippo to make sure games can happen as scheduled.

Because of the big shortage of referees many referees often volunteer to officiate 3 to 6 games per day on weekends. That’s a total of up to a dozen games per weekend. My wife has threatened divorce on more than one occasion already ;-).

Here’s a sampling of typical emails from the referee assignors in one area (just MVLA/Red Star/Force/SASC/West Valley, not the entire Bay Area):

Wednesday evening: “This is a blast email to all referees: We have a number of open slots for this weekend, so can you please log in and pick up a game or two in addition to what you have already signed up for?”

Thursday afternoon: “Referees – Where are you? It is Thursday night and there are still around 100 referee slots ready for you to pick up for this weekend. Take another look and fill your schedule.”

Thursday night: “Hello Referees – Hate to say it but we probably have a new record for a Thursday evening – 57 open Centers and 85 AR slots.”

Friday afternoon: “Hello Guys, I know that all the assignors are looking for help. But if you have a break between games and you want to help me, I’ll be very happy.”

Friday night: “Guys, this is the last call. I’m giving up, it’s too stressful. The are still some open slots available. Thanks for your support and help.”

Friday (10pm): “You guys cut Thursday’s number at least 1/3, it’s now 29 CR and 50 AR. Still an extraordinary amount for Friday, so highest priority is FILL THE Centers! Please look at your schedule and help these kids have a successful match.”

Saturday morning: “We still have games with no center referees. Can you help?”

Sunday: “HELP!!!!!!!! TODAY!!!!!”

So it goes pretty much every week. You can probably imagine what happens on weekends that also have tournaments.

So, unfortunately, for all practical intents and purposes the choice isn’t between a “poor/inexperienced” and a “good” referee. The choice is often between “any referee” and “no game”.


Please keep this in mind next time your game is being officiated by a 60+ year old referee who can’t move as well anymore or an inexperienced one or someone who doesn’t quite read the game too well or someone who is recovering from the flu or simply someone who is fatigued from having officiated four games already that hot, sunny day.


And that 14 year old assistant referee running the line might be inexperienced, but he/she is volunteering to help make sure your game can take place at all. And we need these youngsters to gain experience while also enjoying it to make sure we add to our pool of referees over time.

All this is clearly far from ideal and it can be frustrating for coaches, players, and parents that put a lot of physical and emotional energy into games, but for the good of the game please keep the above in mind on game day. It will make for a much better time for everyone, especially for the kids on the field.

Message from NorCal about referee abuse

The following message was emailed to all clubs, teams, coaches, players, and parents today:

The NorCal Board of Directors is concerned about the issue of sportsmanship and, specifically, referee abuse within soccer. Quite simply, it is unacceptable for any coach, player or parent to verbally or physically abuse referees, players or any other person involved in a soccer match – or at any other time for that matter!

Although the vast majority of games take place without incident, in the first three weeks of the season, NorCal Premier Soccer has seen three cases of referee assault referred to US Club Soccer. Last weekend alone, we saw 19 red cards for violent conduct or abusive behavior. Following this uptick in referee abuse and red card reports, we have moved swiftly, with US Club Soccer support, to address these incidents in the following manner:

  • The NorCal Board of Directors will be notified immediately about any cases of violent behavior;
  • Clubs, with coaches, players or parents involved in cases of violence or abuse will be placed on immediate probation – until the investigation is complete;
  • Coaches, players, parents and in some cases, entire teams, involved in violent conduct, will be suspended immediately;
  • During the probation period, any further offenses committed by any coach, player or parent of that club will lead to an immediate examination of the clubs’ continued membership in NorCal Premier; and
  • The NorCal Board of Directors will decide, with US Club Soccer, what further sanctions are needed for the club, coach, team, player or parent involved in the incident.

Obviously, each individual is responsible for their own actions, however, within NorCal Premier Soccer and US Club Soccer, clubs also are responsible for the behavior of coaches, players and parents during all matches.

We maintain an unwavering belief in club soccer’s positive role in creating moments when valuable lessons can be learned; winning and losing, teamwork, cooperation, and hard work. We also maintain a firm belief that mistakes are an important part of this process, certainly a big part of every game and all involved in soccer. Players, coaches, referees and parents will make them – so expect and deal with them appropriately. When mistakes are made and emotions run high, a coach must be a positive role model and demand that parents and players follow suit.

We know most soccer clubs expect all of their members to behave in a sportsmanlike manner at all times and many achieve that goal – for that we applaud you. We request that all clubs share this letter with your teams, coaches, parents and players prior to your next game to ensure they clearly understand the sportsmanship expected of them and the consequences awaiting their club, coach, team, and individuals should they step outside the normal boundaries of soccer behavior.

Finally, we believe that Soccer is the greatest sport in the world, and violence and abuse has no place in the beautiful game. Please assist us to ensure your club, team and community stand vigilant against this type of behavior and help us remove it from our game.

Thank you,

NorCal Board of Directors

US Club Soccer (aka NorCal) will implement new U.S. Soccer player development standards in two phases

In contrast to Cal North/CYSA, US Club Soccer will make changes in two phases:

  • transition from school-year based (Aug 1 – July 31) to calendar-year based (Jan 1 – Dec 31) by Aug 1, 2016.
  • small-sided games, which also includes changes to field and goal sizes, by Aug 1, 2017.

If able to do so, member clubs are encouraged to implement these initiatives prior to the mandates coming into full effect.

Player pass cards will continue to be issued based on an Aug 1 to July 31 competition season.

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