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.

State of U.S. Soccer according to former FC Barcelona Academy Director

Albert Puig wrote the following open letter in English and Spanish on Oct 12, 2017, following the elimination of our MNT from the World Cup:

One year after my arrival to the United States, with your permission, I intend to reflect on the situation of the U.S. Soccer.

I want to do it without criticism. Just stating the facts, since the will of the development of soccer in the United States, it is, and so it must be, of the Americans themselves.

I think it may be interesting to both the American public and to the rest of the world, to understand the situation, of course, always in my humble opinion.

The elimination of the senior national team for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, is no more than a consequence of the current soccer development system in the country.

A development system unable to define which is the objective. In the rest of the world, soccer becomes a factor of maximum social roots. Accordingly, their level is compared with other countries, and in that competition is where the challenge is created.

In the United States, the structure is very different. Without social roots at the base, its objective is transformed from collective to individual.

The formation of the player has a clear objective: get a scholarship for American universities.

Thus, we move from a collective challenge of a society, to a challenge more alien to it: the individual success in a team sport.

The development player becomes a parental investment; not so much, as in the rest of the world, because of the possibility of an economic and social future, but because investing a monetary amount now and multiplying by ‘x’ later, may become money saved for the university.

This leads to an exaggerated individualization of the vision of the parents on the development of the player. Every game has to be the result of my economic investment this week, therefore, it has to be the best, because the individual vision goes over the collective one. I invest, so I would like to see immediate results.

Sports structures are at the service of this idea. Plenty of competitive rules that only seek to follow the marked path: to arrive at the university.

Here a parenthesis. The American university is part of a big business economic development of the country, and acts as the real connector from youth to maturity within both social and jobs industry point if view. This is different in other countries.

In that individual objective, the methodology of the coaches follow the path. Practices where the focus are on the individual technical and physical development of the player, without understanding that soccer is a language, where the most important thing is to understand that language, understand it and speak it.

Two styles very defined. The combinative, usually robotic and without any hint of motivation by the creativity; and the physical, the body size and a direct game with speed to the back of the defenses.

The final goal, that could well be as in other countries, the arrival to the professional soccer, here the MLS, it is a way without any kind of future work.

Business takes over sport. Low salaries, not attractive to the American player, pure marketing, and tickets with the price of European soccer.

Result? Maximum economic benefits for the owners of the clubs, very low level of competitive quality. And those players are the basis of the national team.

Cases like Pulisic, which I personally know well because I was Director of the academy for FCB, are exceptions; in this case it was successful thanks to the strong will of the family, and the risk they took going for the adventure of professional soccer in Europe; as I said, in this case was successful, but unfortunately many more did not achieve their dream.

And what is the way forward? Only the social will of desire. And in these moments, and in the past, the United States, does not want to, as a collective, be a reference for the world of soccer.

US really has all the ingredients; large population, very smart players, with good physical anatomy for the sport, creative, collective….. only one thing is missing….to want, and to know, how to do it well.

SPANISH VERSION:

Un año después de mi llegada a Estados Unidos , con vuestro permiso, me dispongo a reflexionar sobre la situación del futbol estadounidense, aquí llamado soccer. Quiero hacerlo sin critica. Solo exponiendo los hechos, ya que la voluntad del desarrollo del futbol en Estados Unidos, es , y asi debe ser, de los propios americanos.

Creo interesante para que tanto el publico americano , como el del resto del mundo, entiendan la situación, evidentemente, siempre desde mi humilde opinión.

La eliminación de la selección absoluta del mundial 2018 de Rusia, no es mas que una consecuencia del desarrollo actual del futbol de formación del país. Una formación donde no esta definido cual es el objetivo que persigue, o si. En el resto del mundo ,el futbol, pasa a ser un factor de máximo arraigo social . En consecuencia , su valor es comparado con otros países, y en esa competición esta el objetivo de superación.

En Estados Unidos, la estructura es bien distinta. Sin arraigo social en la base, su objetivo se transforma de colectivo a individual. La formación del jugador tiene un objetivo claro. Conseguir una beca económica para las caras universidades americanas. Asi pues, pasamos de un reto colectivo de sociedad, a un reto mas ajeno a ella. El éxito individual en un deporte colectivo.

El jugador de formación se convierte en una inversión paterna, ya no tanto, como en el resto de países del mundo por un porvenir económico y social de futuro, sino por invertir una cantidad monetaria para multiplicar por x después, en el ahorro de la tasa universitaria.
Eso conlleva a una individualización exagerada de la visión de los padres sobre el desarrollo del jugador. Cada partido tiene que ser la consecuencia de mi inversión económica de esta semana, por ello, tiene que ser el mejor , ya que la vision individual prima sobre el colectivo. Invierto, pues quiero ver resultados inmediatos.

Las estructuras deportivas están al servicio de esta idea. Infinidad de reglas competitivas que solo buscan seguir el camino marcado. Llegar a la universidad. Aquí un paréntesis. La universidad americana es parte de un gran negocio económico de país, y actua como eje real vertebrador del paso de juventud a la madurez dentro del ámbito laboral y social. Diferente en otros países.

En ese individual objetivo, la metodología de los entrenadores siguen la estela. Practicas donde se busca el desarrollo individua técnico y físico del jugador, sin entender que el futbol es un lenguaje , donde lo mas importante es entenderlo , comprenderlo y hablarlo.

Dos estilos muy marcados. El combinativo, mas bien robotizado y sin ningún atisbo de motivación por la creatividad. Y el fisico, imperando la talla corporal y un juego directo con velocidad a la espalda de los defensas.
El objetivo final, que podría bien ser como en otros países, la llegada al futbol profesional, aquí la MLS, es un camino sin ningún tipo de futuro laboral. Impera la ley del negocio. Bajos salarios, no atractivos para el jugador americano, marqueting en estado puro , y entradas a precio de futbol europeo.

Resultado? Máximos beneficios económicos del los propietarios del los clubes, nivel muy bajo de calidad competitiva. Sus jugadores son la base de la selección americana.

Casos como Pulisic, que bien conozco personalmente por mi antigua dirección de la academia del FCB, son excepciones, mas por voluntad firme de la familia, y del riesgo de la aventura del mundo profesional europeo, que en este caso si ha tenido exito, pero por desgracia muchos mas no consiguieron su sueño.

Y cual es el camino? Solo la voluntad social de querer. Y en estos momentos, y en el pasado, Estados Unidos, no quiere como colectivo ser referente el el mundo del futbol. Lo tiene todo. Poblacion, jugadores muy inteligentes, con buena anatomía física para el deporte, creativos, colectivos….. solo fatal eso….querer y saber hacerlo bien.

THIS!

Last Saturday’s Atletico Madrid vs FC Barcelona game was a perfect example of modern top-level soccer.

It had everything – skills, technique, creativity, excellent off-the-ball movement, great defending and goalkeeping, playing out from the back, spacing, pressing, shooting, passion, pace, team work….the list goes on.

This is how huge the gap is in our country. This is where we need to be if we want to compete internationally.

And to reach this level of soccer sophistication requires a fundamental revamp of how we teach, play, and organize soccer. It starts with our coaching quality, and includes finding a way for our best/better players to avoid college soccer.

I’m including here a 12-minute highlights clip, but it doesn’t do the game justice. I strongly encourage you to find a recording of the full game and watch it with your soccer-playing kids. It’s very entertaining and a great learning opportunity.

“There is nothing about soccer we don’t know.”

When Bruce Arena was appointed US MNT coach last November I had serious doubts. We were taking a big step back in my view, but I suspect that this probably was the ‘safe’ option for Sunil Gulati. At a minimum it lacked leadership.

Bruce has now left the arena (pardon the pun) but the coaching quality issue goes much deeper and broader than this. It’s one of the fundamental weaknesses of player development in our country, across all age groups and levels, including all the way up to our elite academies.

I’m going to share below parts of an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in March about Bruce Arena that explains much of what is comically deficient about the breadth and depth of coaching quality in our country. Bruce’s views are shared by too many soccer coaches in our country.

And during the news conference immediately after the elimination Bruce Arena had this to say: “There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing. Certainly, as our league grows, it advances the national team program. We have some good young players come up. Nothing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be foolish.”

It is frankly unbelievable that our soccer leadership would even remotely consider a coach with these kinds of views to lead our national team to compete in today’s soccer world. If we want to move forward we can’t have any coaches like this at any of our youth academies.

In fact, this should disqualify any coach from being involved in ANY player development environment. There might be a place for them at high schools or college soccer programs.

In other words, if the coach of your competitive/travel youth team has this kind of background and/or has shared this kind of views on soccer coaching then you should be very wary.

Sit down before you read this. And your jaw might hit the floor by the time you’re done – place some padding just in case.

Here goes:

“I could learn as much or more from Bill Belichick as I could from the manager of Manchester City,” Arena, 65 years old, said in a recent interview. “I think it’s critical to understand what coaching is and how to manage a team, and the sport is immaterial.”

By the standards of international soccer, Arena has zero pedigree. He had barely heard of the sport until his first years in high school, when he saw one of his teachers, a Ukrainian, juggling a ball effortlessly in a business suit on a steamy June day.

He didn’t join his high school team until his final years. He played goalkeeper at Nassau Community College and Cornell, then peaked at the semi-professional level. At Cornell and the University of Virginia, he was hired to coach both the soccer and lacrosse teams.

To believe that he is now the best person to lead the U.S. men is to believe that soccer knowledge and coaching can be learned, rather than lived. But Arena believes that coaching is mostly about molding and motivating a team rather than exploiting technical superiority.

“Sports is sports,” Arena said.

Arena has had some interesting chats with Chelsea’s Antonio Conte​ and follows Manchester United ’s Jose Mourinho and Bayern Munich’s Carlo Ancelotti. But he says nothing he learns from them can compare with his time at Virginia in the early 1980s, when his office was cut in half to make way for a new visiting locker room for basketball.

That enabled him to eavesdrop on locker room talks by the likes of North Carolina’s Dean Smith, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Maryland’s Lefty Driesell. He also spent hours trading coaching ideas with a young women’s basketball assistant named Geno Auriemma, now a legend at the University of Connecticut.

Even today, Arena can’t name a soccer book that influenced him. Instead, he studies other sports hunting strategies for soccer. He sees a full-court press in basketball as not-so-different from blitzing in football or pressing in soccer; the pressure at the front of the defense usually leaves someone unmarked in the back, creating a coverage problem.

The folks in Europe can obsess about their biggest sport all day and night if they want, Arena says. The U.S. is just as good a place to learn to coach, he said, because of the diversity of sports.

“There is nothing about soccer we don’t know,” Arena said. “A lot of coaching is just about having an eye for players, and knowing what they do well and don’t do well, and communicating with them.”

[The article also quotes Kasey Keller who shares Bruce’s views:] “It’s about getting the right combination of players on the field with the right attitude and mental approach who can execute better than the other team. The game isn’t that complicated. Mark the unmarked man. Fill space. Work harder that the opponent. And hope a deflection goes your way in a key moment.”

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with taking ideas from other sports and comparing notes with coaches in other sports. And learning how to motivate players is very important too, of course. But that is elementary school stuff.

You cannot coach soccer at any meaningful level unless you have a deep understanding of the game. And you need to study it year in, year out. You need to stay current. You need to breathe it. You need to understand the deeper fabric of the beautiful game, and be able to teach it to players.

It takes decades of watching, playing, studying, and coaching to achieve mastery and even then only very few ever reach the elite level.

It’s time to wake up and demand more of your coaches, across all levels and age groups. Don’t be fooled anymore!

U.S. Men’s Soccer: What Happened?

I’m sharing the full text of an excellent Oct 11 Wall Street Journal article on the state of U.S. Soccer following elimination from the Word Cup. Here goes:

“A failure of imagination and player development ultimately cost the Americans a spot in next summer’s World Cup.”

And now comes the reckoning for U.S. men’s soccer.

A day after a decade’s worth of mistakes came home to roost, the U.S. federation now needs to clean up a program that for too long clung to aging talent and false hopes.

Or at least that’s what is supposed to happen after the debacle of Tuesday night, when in the space of 90 minutes, on a soggy field in a sleepy stadium in Trinidad, the Americans lost to a last-place team with nothing to play for and were denied a spot in the 2018 World Cup.

Whether the U.S. has the resolve to confront its problems, however, remains unclear. Tuesday’s defeat illuminated all of the deeply entrenched issues that close-watchers of the team have long complained about.

There was the failure of player development that left the team relying on a core of 30-somethings left over from two World Cup cycles ago.

There was the failure of imagination that caused the team to return, in the middle of qualifying, to a manager, Bruce Arena, it had fired a decade before.

And finally, there was the tactical naiveté that caused that manager to misjudge bottom-of-the-group Trinidad and Tobago and send Team USA out with an unsuitable plan and vulnerable in the most obvious places on the field.

“It was all there for us. We have nobody to blame but ourselves,’ said captain Michael Bradley, who, at 30 years old, is unlikely to get another chance in the world’s most popular sporting event.

In any other soccer country, the protocol now would be clear. The first order of business is firing the manager. The president of the federation occasionally resigns too, just as the Italian coach and federation president did in a wild news conference after the Azzurri’s exit from the 2014 World Cup.

Then, the federation orders a review of its development practices from the ground up. England, for instance, likes to call this “root and branch reform.” A parliamentary inquiry might even be in order.

It has yet to work for England, but versions of that thinking have paid off elsewhere. After the twin disasters of the 1998 World Cup (knocked out by Croatia) and Euro 2000 (eliminated in the group stage), Germany redrew its entire youth soccer structure, invested massively in facilities, and realized that a primary failure was in educating youth coaches. This wasn’t a quick fix. But in 2014, with a generation of talent grown in the new model, it won the World Cup.

How U.S. Soccer got here is a long tale of a broken system.

At the grass-roots, good young players are treated vastly differently in this country than virtually anywhere else in the developed world.

Everywhere else, a young player with promise joins a local club and is trained and cultivated throughout childhood by the club itself. In the U.S. a good young player joins a travel team and his parents are told to foot the bill for coaching, travel, uniforms, equipment and any additional training.

“We have to get to point in the U.S. where, when you are a good young player interested in the game, the first thing you get handed isn’t an invoice for several thousand dollars,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said two years ago.

The U.S. Soccer Federation invests millions of dollars each year to increase participation and train coaches, and Major League Soccer’s franchises have in recent years begun to open youth academies. But those efforts are a pittance compared with what happens in so many countries, where local athletic clubs view raising the next generation of players as both a civic responsibility and an investment, because one of them just might turn out to be the next Lionel Messi.

The U.S. has failed to cultivate even a couple of true international stars over the years—something that probably should have happened almost by accident given the size and wealth of the U.S. It’s been 40 years since Pele landed in New York and jump-started the soccer boom.

When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the national team in 2011, his scouts began combing rosters, especially in Europe, for players who might be eligible for an American passport and a spot on the U.S. national team.

Klinsmann’s teams relied heavily on German-Americans, players who were often the children of former American servicemen who had spent time in Germany. One third of his starting lineups were reliably German, with players like Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams and John Brooks, none of whom were in the lineup Tuesday. He left Landon Donovan, arguably the best player the U.S. has ever produced, off the U.S. roster for the 2014 World Cup in favor of the unproven 18-year-old Julian Green.

Klinsmann urged every player to flee the U.S. and try to break into the top or even second-tier leagues in Europe, where the quality of play is far more challenging than in MLS. U.S. players, many of whom had spent their late teens and early 20s playing collegiate soccer, would only improve if they faced better competition, he preached.

Just as Klinsmann was pushing for U.S. players to fight for roster spots in Europe, however, MLS teams generated enough money to sign the top U.S. players to lucrative contracts.

Clint Dempsey returned to play for Seattle. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore returned to play for Toronto. Alejandro Bedoya left France for Philadelphia. Matt Besler eschewed opportunities in Europe for a rich deal in Kansas City. Striker Jordan Morris blew off Germany for Seattle.

Few of these players have improved since 2014. And they don’t face the weekly challenges that 19-year-old Christian Pulisic and striker Bobby Wood face in Germany, and defenders Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin confront in England.

After five years, Klinsmann’s criticism of the U.S. players wore thin, and the bulk of the team began to tune him out, leading to a series of poor results that culminated in several losses to open the final qualifying tournament.

“I had no problem with Jurgen challenging Americans to be better,” said Alexi Lalas, the former U.S. international who is now an analyst for Fox Sports. “But it began to feel more personal. Combine that with his results and that is where the problems came.”

When Arena was brought back in November, he seemed like the perfect antidote—a prideful veteran of U.S. soccer, who believed strongly in the value of MLS, having won its championship five times. But Arena’s conservative approach made the Americans vulnerable, especially on the road when Concacaf opponents felt emboldened to attack.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard, 38, looked every bit his age, getting beat from the flank 40 yards out on Tuesday’s winning goal.

Now, there are no quick fixes, and the U.S. will likely spend the next year and a half completely turning over its roster. They have to hope their next generation that is trying to break through in Europe continues to improve. These are players like 21-year-old Emerson Hyndman of Bournemouth, 22-year-old Matt Miazga of Vitesse in the Netherlands (on loan from Chelsea), and 19-year-old Cameron Carter-Vickers of Sheffield (on loan from Tottenham).

“It’s not going away anytime soon,” Bradley said of the disappointment of this year’s failure. “It’s not something you just forget.”

Thank you Matthew Futterman (matthew.futterman@wsj.com) and Joshua Robinson (joshua.robinson@wsj.com) for the research and writing.

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

Clarifying rules for development academy players (boys and girls)

With the recent expansion of the US Soccer Development Academy (DA) to the younger U-12 age bracket (which will actually be the ‘old’ U-11 age bracket starting Fall 2017) for boys and the launch of the Girls’ Development Academy in the Fall next year, it might be helpful to clarify the rules for DA players doing non-DA activities.

The rules are more difficult to understand and interpret than I expected, and even emailed clarifications I received directly from the DA aren’t necessarily 100% clear, at least to me.

Please let me know in the comments below if you think there are inaccuracies and/or missing pieces of information.

With that in mind, here are the rules for all DA players, boys and girls, starting at U12:

DA clubs are responsible for developing an individual development plan for each player. This plan is meant to have each player’s best interest in mind to further his/her soccer development.

With that in mind, the DA is very focused on an appropriate train-to-play-to-rest ratio for the longer-term healthy development of players. This ratio is understood by all DA clubs and is taken into consideration when designing the individual player development plans.

Given that the DA-mandated activity load is already substantial, any additional outside activities are cause for concern.

Therefore:

DA players are not allowed to compete in *any* non-DA league or tourney. This includes activities such as high school soccer, beach soccer tourneys, and winter futsal leagues/tourneys. In fact, this applies to any *sport*.

DA clubs can apply for exemptions to compete in elite non-DA activities such as Dallas Cup, Surf Cup, and tournaments in Europe, but this is at the club/team level, not for individual players. Approval requires a written request by the club to academy staff for decision making.

And any non-DA *training* done outside the club’s training program such as additional strength conditioning sessions, private clinics, or weekly futsal practices are at the discretion of the player’s club and have to fit into the player’s overall development plan.

In other words, the player’s club can make a case-by-case decision to allow non-DA *training* if the DA club believes it to be beneficial for the player’s development.

However, my understanding is that any training exemptions are rare, so for all practical intents and purposes you should assume that non-DA training won’t be allowed.

During the DA off-season from mid-July (after Nationals) to the first week in September (about 6-8 weeks), players are permitted to get outside training and attend outside camps (ID camps, soccer, camps, college camps etc.).

But any consideration of outside training even during the off-season has to be brought to the attention of the club and discussed with them to make sure the training is in the best interest of the player.

I’m in two minds about this.

On the one hand, having flexibility to pursue soccer activities outside the regular DA structure could help youngsters enjoy the game more and for longer. For example, traveling to Spain during the Christmas/New Year break to train and play futsal at FC Barcelona (with a Bay Area non-DA futsal group) would surely help motivate a soccer-passionate youngster.

But on the other hand, the schedule for DA players truly is heavy already. The time commitment and physical exertion is considerable. And how many parents are in a position to make the right decisions regarding their youngster’s possible over-exertion? Many of us might think we can make the right decision “because we know our son or daughter best”, but I’m not sure about that, at least not at this elite level.

And then there are the resources that USSF and the DA clubs invest in the development of our elite players. Shouldn’t the DA and the clubs be able to protect that ‘investment’ for the longer-term?

Nevertheless, clubs need to do a much better job providing individualized holistic player development, not just focus on improving team-level play. And this is supposed to set the DA apart from non-DA programs – individual player development.

In contrast to non-DA players, who have a lot of flexibility to change teams/clubs/coaches and engage in a range of different soccer activities, DA players have to put a lot of trust into their DA club and coaches to truly take care of their entire player development needs and interests.

This isn’t easy – there are many points of view supporting both sides of this debate. Please let me know what you think in the comments section below. Keep in mind that we are talking about the most elite girls and boys players in our country when you consider the pros and cons of these DA rules.

Thank you!

Here are some relevant links and pasted information from those sources:

From http://www.ussoccerda.com/overview-program-benefits:

No Outside Activity/Competitions

To maintain a focus on club training environments, Academy players and teams do not play in any outside competitions without written permission from the U.S. Soccer Development Academy staff.

This includes any other leagues, tournaments, State Cup competitions, ODP or All-Star events. Development Academy players for all teams must choose to participate in the Academy full-time and forgo playing for their high school teams.

Full-time Academy players can only participate on their designated Academy team, with only two exceptions: U.S. Soccer Training Centers and Youth National Team duty.

The Development Academy upholds this rule because we believe elite players require world class environments. The Development Academy’s 10-month Program allows for a greater opportunity to institute style of play and implement a system according to U.S. Soccer’s Development Philosophy.

It also gives teams increased opportunities for younger kids in their club to “play up” against older players in both training and matches, thereby accelerating their development.

From http://www.ussoccerda.com/overview-academy-structure:

Outside Activity/Competition

Academy players and teams cannot play in any outside competitions without written permission from the Development Academy staff. This includes any other leagues, high school season, tournaments, State Cup competitions, ODP or All-Star events. There are two potential exceptions to this rule, provided they are approved by Development Academy staff:

  1. Domestic and international tournaments: Domestic & international tournaments may be permitted if they meet Academy’s technical standards of one game per day and elite competition. Examples of permitted events include the Dallas Cup, Surf Cup, Disney Showcase, and other International events
  2. Possibility for friendly games: Academy clubs can schedule friendly games to provide players with a heightened development experience. The games must not be part of an organized competition (i.e. tournament, league or camp) as defined in the non-participation regulations, and all competitions must adhere to all Academy standards and guidelines.

From http://www.ussoccerda.com/faq:

Can Academy players participate with non-Academy teams during the season? Full-time Academy players are only permitted to participate on their Academy team, and National Team duty.

Which teams participate in 10-month programming and do not allow high school participation? The entire Academy program does not participate in high school programming.

The American Soccer Culture Problem (3Four3)

Some of you might be familiar with the Kleiban brothers already. Brian is a coach at LA Galaxy’s youth academy and Gary writes about soccer in our country through their blog 3Four3.

They have a reputation for, shall we say, ‘rocking the boat’ and their most recent post definitely hits hard. You might not agree with everything they say below, but their views are worth reading if you’re interested in the broader debate about coaching quality and player development in our country.

I wanted to re-blog their post, but couldn’t figure out how to do that, probably because we’re using different blogging platforms. So I decided to simply paste their post here.

To be clear, full credit for all of the content below goes to Gary @3Four3.

I suggest you first watch this clip and then continue reading Gary’s comments.

First, I want to applaud both Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock for bringing an important truth about the state of American soccer to the masses. It speaks volumes that these sports generalists call it like it is, while entrenched American soccer media doesn’t.

American soccer media, hence its consumers, coddles our players.

You don’t hear much public criticism for a variety of reasons

1) Incumbent American soccer media has been practically curated by the establishment. An establishment that naturally doesn’t want to be critically examined, particularly not at the foundational level. Hence, it neuters its media. How does it accomplish this? Well, it  holds a monopoly over the ecosystem. Anyone who doesn’t align with its foundational narrative, its founding culture, is in danger of losing access.

2) Incumbent culture has a recreational mentality – a property that is the antithesis of the hardcore culture the rest of the world has. The soccer structure we live in has been built of, by, and for a casual soccer demographic. It extends from youth all the way to the pro level being addressed here.

When something is casual, there are no stakes. When there are no stakes, nobody gets too heated over things.

After all, “it’s just a game“. That phrase, right there, is the (convenient) foundation upon which American soccer has been built. It’s no wonder we’re mediocre, anybody with that kind of mentality will not achieve excellence.

Contrast that with the rest of the world, where a portion of people’s very identity and self esteem is hinged on their clubs and national teams.

Now, before you robotically react and think that’s sad, reserve judgement until you understand that clubs and national teams across the world represent people at a social, political, economic, and cultural level. It is their flag.

3) Most soccer-first households (the largest and most critical of demos) in the United States aren’t paying attention to American soccer. Because well, it’s low level, inauthentic, and most importantly has historically discriminated against them – preferring instead to cater to the soft suburban soccer-mom demo.

As a consequence, it’s that soft culture that both dominates the narrative and creates policy when it comes to the American game – it has inculcated that softness into the very fabric of American soccer.

Yes, the soccer-first demographic, like 3four3, does call it like it is (e.g. as Colin put it in the above clip, “Michael Bradley is completely pedestrian”) but that has historically, and to this day, primarily occurred in relative isolation – as anyone from this demographic is not hired and graced with a large media platform. If one is hired, they are systematically neutered.

But there is someone with a heavyweight platform that has dipped his toe in the culture challenge.

Jurgen Klinsmann

Jurgen has criticized the players, and has been trying to send the message of “not good enough”, and lists reasons.

The result of his action and criticism?

The soft soccer-mom media turned on him and (at the behest of its master, MLS) launched a smear campaign against him that continues to date.

  • Prior to the World Cup, he stated the US can not win it. In other words, he told the unvarnished truth. He was real.
  • He deemed Landon Donovan not a good fit for the 2014 World Cup squad. (Note: Assessment of a player goes beyond his ability on the field, there are other critical factors a coach considers in making selections. This is a team game, after all. It’s not about 1 player.)
  • Players should go overseas to challenge themselves. This was an indictment of MLS, and the domestic culture.
  • He transmitted disappointment when he saw some of his key pieces coming back to MLS (e.g. Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore).
  • He said many moons ago, and continues to say, that our players are naive and “need to be nastier”.

There have been a variety of other incidents where the soccer-mom culture looked at him as “throwing players under the bus”.

They were also pissed when he suggested the media needed to further educate themselves in the game.

See, the culture here is precisely as Cowherd observes. The culture is soft. Even the words and phrases we use are soft.

If you look at what incumbent soccer media’s reactions/responses to Cowherd & Whitlock’s comments were, you a hard-pressed to find support for their observations.

Quite the contrary, most that’s been published whether on established media outlets, or social media commentary, was crafted to undermine these observations and uphold the soccer-mom status quo.

“We need to tell US soccer players, coaches, and fans the truth” – @WhitlockJason

“We’re not catching up with the rest of the world as long as soccer’s a sport for the upper class.” – @WhitlockJason

Alexi Lalas represents the establishment’s (convenient) myths

Jason Whitlock hits the truth, again.

Absolutely. Absolutely that certain cultures are a better fit to becoming great at soccer than others. Those coming from an affluent suburban American culture, in general, just don’t “have it”.

Those coming from a socio-economic strata below affluence, in general, are better suited. There’s a particular mentality and set of values the latter has, and the former does not.

Some of the biggest inhibitors the suburban players face are:

  • The “it’s just a game” mentality. The other demo treats it as an arena to “best” others, since from a societal perspective they are looked as ‘lower class’. It’s personal.
  • The suburban players are brought up in an environment where ‘following the rules’ of the traditional American industrial complex is sacred, where self expression is only ok within narrow boundaries. In other words, being robot-like automatons vs flavorful full-range humans. Top level “creativity” isn’t being stifled by coaches on the field, their cultural upbringing is doing that job.
  • The suburban player derives his self-esteem from things other than how good he is in sport. For instance, getting good grades on some standardized test. They measure themselves on how good they are at following societal norms. They don’t need to be great at soccer.

“The people in our stands, at the MLS games, they’re wondering where their next glass of wine is coming from.” – @WhitlockJason

Alexi has it totally wrong about pretty much everything. And he really goes off the rails at the end of the video when he tries to defend the absurdity of expecting the US to beat Argentina. It’s completely disingenuous, derived from the campaign to fire Jurgen Klinsmann, and frankly condescending to all US Soccer fans.

“And I saw the 3 American [analysts] pick us to win [vs Argentina], I was like … ‘nah man, don’t lie to us’” – @WhitlockJason

When an admitted soccer layman like Jason Whitlock can sniff out the bull shit, you know we have a serious problem.

Dribbling, creativity, and movement of U12 FCB vs RM. I doubt they hear “stop dribbling, pass quicker” much! And notice the size difference.

We hold this truth to be self-evident, but let’s hear it from one of the best coaches in the world

img_0042

Youth National Team coach: “Players aren’t as creative as they used to be”

If you’re familiar with my blog then you know how important I think creativity is for player development and that I’m concerned about an overemphasis on quick passing at too early an age. I hear “don’t dribble” too often.

Click here, here, and here for just some of my posts on this topic.

So I was glad to read the following comments from our U16 National Team coach, Shaun Tsakiris, during an interview with GoalNation at Surf Cup a few weeks ago:

“It’s interesting, I think our youth soccer players aren’t as creative as they used to be.

We’re so structured in training that we’ve lost a little creativity in our players. I think we’ve created more good players and less special players.

I often remind myself not to take the love of the game and the creativity away from my players.

While the Federation has made great strides in coaching education in the past few years, even I have to remember not to over-structure.

It is our responsibility as coaches to help our players develop the creative aspects of the game.”

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.

First 25 elite Girls Development Academy clubs announced by USSF today

Hot of the press, here are the first 25 Girls DA clubs:

Beach SC (Torrance, Calif.)
Boston Breakers (Watertown, Mass.)
CASL (Raleigh, N.C.)
Cincinnati Development Academy (Kings Hammer/CUP) (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Colorado Rush (Littleton, Co.)
Concorde Fire (Atlanta, Ga.)
Crossfire (Redmond, Wash.)
De Anza Force (Saratoga, Calif.)
FC Dallas (Frisco, Texas)
LAFC-Slammers (Los Angeles, Calif.)
Lamorinda (Moraga, Calif.)
Michigan Hawks (Livonia, Mich.)
Mustang (Danville, Calif.)
Orlando Pride/City SC (Orlando, Fla.)
Penn Fusion SA (Westtown, Pa.)
Portland Thorns (Portland, Ore.)
Real Colorado (Highlands Ranch, Co.)
San Diego Surf (San Diego, Calif.)
Seattle Reign (Seattle, Wash.)
Sky Blue FC-PDA (Bernardsville, N.J.)
So Cal Blues (Rancho Capistrano, Calif.)
Sockers FC (Palatine, Ill.)
Solar Chelsea SC (Dallas, Texas)
Tophat NTH (Atlanta, Ga.)
Washington Spirit (Boyds, Md.)

I don’t see any surprises here, but please comment below if you do.

USSF will announce additional clubs these next six months.

One point to note is that the MLS teams don’t seem to be getting an automatic spot, like for the boys. But that might just be because they haven’t submitted the paperwork yet.

I suspect that the total number of GDA clubs will eventually approach the roughly 80 boys DA clubs and roughly 80 ECNL clubs.

Or maybe USSF will want to start smaller and focus on quality. Then later expand.

We shall see.

Also, here’s some additional information from U.S. Soccer: The program will feature three combined age groups: U-14/15, U-16/17 and U-18/19. Clubs will be expected to train a minimum of four times a week. The use of combined age groups will require clubs to form teams with a balanced roster of players from two distinct birth years. The games will be scouted by U.S. Soccer and the program will serve as the primary pathway to the Youth National Teams. 

The GDA kicks off for the Fall 2017 season.

Also, if you’re not familiar with some of the tension with ECNL, here’s a recent post on USSF declining to work with ECNL and my thoughts on why.

We’re not developing risk-averse robots, right?

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.