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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By mshawhan  Oct 3, 2018

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

The way we lost

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

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

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

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

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

The wrong players for the wrong job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why miss out on obvious talent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disgraceful – time to cut the BS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing Girls’ Development Academy with ECNL and High School Soccer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gdaecnlhighschoolnationwide

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

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

So the chart for NorCal looks something like this:

gdaecnlhighschoolnorcal

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

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

girls-da-map

What it takes to become a national team player (talent is a given)

“You are very strong technically and tactically. But you are not fit. Mentally, you are weak. You don’t push yourself hard and you are lazy. You aren’t the sort of player who is going to thrive under pressure.

And your character? That is poor. You make excuses and find people to blame. You always have a reason things are not working out, instead of focusing on what you can do to make them work out.

If you keep working at 80%, you won’t get anywhere. You need to stop with the excuses. You need to start treating every training session, every game, as if it were a World Cup final.

You need to be the hardest-working person out there every time. You can’t just sit behind the strikers, feed them through balls and be a one-way player. You need to play box-to-box, defend and do the dirty work.

Soccer needs to be No. 1 in your life – not your boyfriend or your social life or anything else. Soccer. If it’s not, let’s go home right now.

If I call you at 10 p.m. on a Saturday and say, ‘Meet me at the field in a half-hour,’ you turn to your friends and say, ‘Sorry, everybody, I have to go train.’

You have to be ready and willing to train on Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving – that’s the commitment it’s going to take.”

-Carli Lloyd’s new coach after she was cut from the U21 national team

It took Carli a couple of years to work herself back into the national team player pool, and many more years to ultimately end up playing in the 2015 World Cup Final against Japan where she scored a hat-trick, including one of the best goals ever scored in the WWC. Later that same year she became the Fifa World Player of the Year, alongside Messi.

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.)

U.S. Soccer’s Gender Wage Gap

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.

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.