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Is it time for a new approach to women’s youth development in the U.S.?

Recent results suggest changes might be needed at the youth levels in order for U.S. women's soccer to stay on top.

Korea DPR v USA: Quarter Final - FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Canada 2014
Mallory Pugh will be an important leader for this year’s U20 World Cup team
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

This is part 1 of a pair of articles that will be looking at the future of the women’s youth national teams.

With the U20 Women’s World Cup beginning this week in Papua New Guinea, all eyes will be on the U.S. team to perform better than the U17s, who failed to make it past the group stage of their own World Cup in Jordan earlier this fall.

Michelle French’s squad won’t have it easy. Just a glance at the other teams in their group illustrates the growth that’s occurred in women’s soccer development worldwide the last few years. The U.S.’s first-round opponents are France, whose roster includes many players from this summer’s U19 European Championship-winning team; Ghana, a country that memorably defeated our U17s in October; and New Zealand, whose dedication to the grassroots game has seen a striking climb in girls’ participation in recent years. [Update: The U.S. and France tied 0-0 in their first group match on Monday, and though both teams had chances, France had noticeable advantage in shots (17-3) – and possession – (60 percent to 40 percent.) New Zealand defeated Ghana, 1-0.]

There’s a lot riding on the U20s’ performance in this tournament – not only because U.S. women’s national teams are (at all age levels) expected to win any game and tournament in which they compete, but also because failure to bring home silverware could confirm what has been quietly discussed for some time – that the U.S., for so long the benchmark for women’s soccer, must adjust its methods of developing young female players in order to remain competitive with international opponents that are rapidly catching up.

The U17s’ early World Cup exit in October revealed, once again, larger problems with women’s youth development in the U.S. (In the five U17 Women’s World Cups that have been held biannually since 2008, the U.S. has finished second in the inaugural year, lost in the group stage in 2012 and 2016, and failed to qualify the other two years.) This year, they managed to win only one game – a 6-1 thrashing of Paraguay – and suffered a shock defeat to Ghana, in which they were outshot 24-11. In their final game, the U17s were noticeably second-best to a Japan side that went on to be runners-up in the tournament.

Whether or not different tactical decisions could have been made in the competition, the fact remains that the U.S. U17s were outperformed by other top youth national teams. There was a noticeable gap in tactical sophistication between the Americans and the Japanese in that final game, and it is cause for concern. Yet there’s no doubt that we have the talent and commitment to continue to produce top players and teams. We have more resources to put into our youth programs than any other country in the world, and the 2015 Women’s World Cup victory has inspired an entire new generation of young girls to follow their dreams in soccer. Additionally, the advent of personal training apps and online technical programs has made individual development accessible – and appealing – to young girls like never before. So what’s wrong, and how do we fix it?

The fact is that other countries are catching up to us, and that’s not going to stop. It’s already starting to show at the senior level, particularly in the last World Cup and Olympics cycle. We’ve been top dog in women’s soccer for decades, but since more traditional soccer-loving countries (on the men’s side) are finally investing in their women’s programs, we must ask the question: are there things we can learn from these countries in terms of how we develop our girls?

Just look at the transformation of France into a women’s soccer force in the last few years. Beginning with the opening of its national training center for girls at Clairefontaine in 1998 – and aided by the growing national acceptance of women playing what has traditionally been seen as a man’s sport – the French have put a huge amount of work into their development of female players. It’s paid off. In the past five years, they’ve won the U17 Women’s World Cup and the U19 Women’s Euro. At club level, their Division 1 Féminine is among the top women’s leagues in the world, boasting European powerhouses like PSG and Lyon, and has become one of the top destinations for international players (current USWNT stars Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan all spent time in France before coming to the NWSL.)

England is another example of a country with a long soccer culture that has put significant work into their women’s development in recent years, with gratifying results. But perhaps the most striking example of this in the next few years will be Spain. A country as steeped in machísmo as it is in its love for soccer, Spain is nonetheless catching up with the times and is investing in its girls’ development programs like never before. The results, at least at the youth level, have been a striking indication of what a country with such footballing DNA – where children play pickup at practically every street corner – is capable of producing when it gives its girls a chance. Though they haven’t fully caught up at the senior level, Spain were finalists at both the 2014 U17 Women’s World cup and the 2016 U19 women’s Euro. And in the opening match of their U20 WWC campaign this Sunday, they pulled off a 5-0 win over Canada with startling ease. Spain has a ways yet to go, but with the results at youth level and the senior side’s first appearance in the Women’s World Cup last year, it’s only a matter of time before they, along with a handful of other countries, are able to give the USWNT a real run for their money.

There’s been a lot of talk about the U.S. Soccer Federation continually giving the MNT preferential treatment over the WNT. But just as much, the USSF needs to make women’s youth development a priority. And in doing that, serious thought needs to be put into the question of whether a new approach – perhaps inspired partly by the approaches of other countries’ programs – is necessary.

How the U.S. U20s will fare this go-around is hard to predict. The expectation is, of course, to win it all. But should it be? In the lead-up to the U20 World Cup, the U.S. team has had mixed results. They most recently posted a pair of lopsided victories against Venezuela in early October, but before that went winless in a trio of friendlies against Korea Republic, England and Brazil in September, and suffered devastating 5-0 loss to Japan back in May. They will, however, have the experience of full-team member and Olympian Mallory Pugh (also the only member of the roster to have played in the 2014 U20 World Cup) who, due to her involvement at the Olympics, was absent for the game against Japan, and played only a marginal role in the September friendlies.

It is important to remember that at the youth levels, results shouldn’t be valued at the expense of development. But the recent trend of worrisome results, without much indication of progress in development, might be a sign that we need a new approach. There’s no doubt the U.S. has the resources, the talent, and the desire to continue to produce top women’s players and teams in this country. We might just need to employ a little humility and open-mindedness in our search to find the best way to harness this potential in the coming years.

Stay tuned for part 2, which will explore some of the options USSF might have to help keep the women’s YNTs on the right development path.