This is Part 2 of our look at the women’s YNT programs while the U20 WWC is ongoing.
Earlier this week, we examined the state of women’s youth development in the United States, as other countries continue to catch up and invest more heavily in their women’s programs. With that – particularly in light of some of the recent results of U.S. youth teams in international competition – comes the question of whether we need a new approach to developing our female players.
The senior team is fine...for now
There are signs, that the United States is poised to make notable changes to its girls’ development scheme, both in the short term and in the long term. At the senior level, Jill Ellis has already placed considerable attention on adapting and remaking her team from what it was even a year ago. Since winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup, and the retirement of several key veterans, Ellis has shown refreshing willingness to gamble on both new players and new systems. 11 of the players called in for the friendlies against Switzerland in October were previously uncapped, and through those friendlies – and the subsequent matches against Romania last week – new faces like Andi Sullivan, Kealia Ohai and Lynn Williams have emerged as exciting new prospects and potential mainstays for years to come. Meanwhile, slightly more seasoned youngsters like Crystal Dunn and Morgan Brian are fast becoming dynamic leaders and – most promisingly – creative forces for Ellis’ team.
In her recent selections, Ellis has shown preference for technical, intelligent players who are also – as per U.S. tradition – athletically gifted. To this end, she’s spoken candidly in recent months about the need to scout players with an eye towards the future, especially at the start of a new cycle. This is encouraging to hear after years of the team’s over-reliance on traditional direct play and coaches’ inclusion of veterans over taking chances on untested talent.
The U20s are doing okay at the WWC but could be doing better
At the same time, it means that youth teams need to continue to produce players capable of being game changers at the international level. Though a point against France on Monday in their opening World Cup game is hopefully indication that they’ll fare better than the U17s did, the U20 WNT needs to be more daring going forward in the tournament if they’re to offset growing concerns about the direction of U.S. women’s development. On Monday, France were superior in both possession and chances created, and despite the promising result and shutout, the U.S. looked uncomfortable and second-best – and, perhaps most worryingly, largely devoid of creativity. Michelle French seemed less willing to experiment tactically than Ellis has shown to be recently, and Mallory Pugh was unable to carry the team by herself -- all of this again begging the question of whether a new long-term development approach is needed.
There were more promising signs for the U20s on Thursday, as they recovered with a dominant 3-1 win over New Zealand, which puts them on top of Group C after France’s 2-2 draw with Ghana. Mallory Pugh and Ashley Sanchez were much more influential in the attack, providing a goal each (Ally Watt scored the third), while the insertion of Katie Cousins provided much-needed control and urgency in midfield. It was an encouraging performance by the USA, who looked far more poised and creative than they had three days prior against France. Still, they’ll have to show they can perform at this level against more challenging opponents than New Zealand, who looked a step behind throughout the match.
Development Academy vs ECNL
There are signs, though, that such a shift could be imminent. Although girls’ programming has arguably taken a backseat to boys’ development in the U.S. recently, in just the last few years, plans have arisen for more nuanced development of female players at the national level. More coaches and staff are set to be brought in for women’s YNT teams, and plans of more regular training and residency opportunities for top youth female prospects are in the works.
The launch of Girls’ Development Academy in 2017 could be the most groundbreaking of all these moves in terms of changing the landscape of female development in the U.S. But it’s also been controversial. Girls who play in the Development Academy reportedly won’t be allowed to play high school soccer at the same time – something which has been met with criticism from a number of coaches and parents who value the intangible, broader benefits of the high school playing experience. Many have questioned why U.S. Soccer has pushed the Development Academy over the already-existing Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), which does allow its players to participate in high school soccer while competing for their club teams.
More Lindsey Horans?
It brings about a larger issue in the scheme of girls’ development in the United States: should we continue to endorse the college route as the desired path for top women’s prospects in this country? Elite club experience is already seen as more valuable than high school soccer in minds of most college coaches. With the Development Academy taking us a step further towards favoring more of an academy-style system, will we eventually see more women’s players opting – as Lindsey Horan did with her move to PSG – to go the professional route and bypass the college game? And, critically, will we see this happening more with professional clubs inside the U.S.?
We’re already seeing the payoff of girls’ development through club academy structures in Europe and elsewhere, as federations worldwide are turning more attention to their women’s programs. It begs the question: will U.S. women’s soccer, in efforts to restructure its girls’ development programs, take the drastic step of direct academy routes to professional play over the third-party middle ground of college ball? Or can some kind of balance be struck that allows us to reap the benefits of the former without having to move away from the unique American experience that comes with being a student-athlete?
One argument for more academy-minded training – in whatever form that takes – is the professionalization that happens earlier, as seen in Europe and elsewhere, according to U.S. women’s youth teams’ technical director April Heinrichs. There’s an argument to be made that players who come up through professional club-affiliated systems and go pro as early as their mid-to-late teens are more prepared from a younger age for the responsibilities that come with international competition.
This has been evident for some time in Germany, and now more recently in France, a country that has shown drastically improved commitment to developing the women’s game since the founding of the federation’s national girls academy at Clairefontaine in 1998, and the subsequent rise of powerhouse Ligue 1-affiliated women’s sides like PSG and Lyon. In England, too, the top girls’ teams are affiliated with well-known professional clubs, and the English FA even made the bold – and controversial – move this year of mixing elite girls and boys’ leagues at the U10 and U12 levels. In Spain, club loyalty has shown to be of great importance and benefit to the growth of female players. FC Barcelona’s women’s team, in particular, is becoming a mainstay in European competition through a value of homegrown players, mixed with key international signings (not unlike their men’s team). And in Asia, countries like Japan continue their commitment to developing top technical players for the future.
Is it time for the U.S., too, to take drastic steps in terms of women’s development? If so, what form will that take? Whether or not it means ultimately scrapping the high school and college system – so long a staple in American girls’ soccer experience -- in favor of a more European professional/academy system, or finding some kind of middle ground between the two, remains to be seen. But it’s clear that a more definitively-outlined philosophy as to how to best develop creative and polished talent on the women’s side is necessary as we attempt to stay on top of the fast-improving global game.
Perhaps the more pertinent question is, how can we keep the best aspects of what has historically made our women’s program great, while also having the humility to admit that maybe we could learn some things about development from other countries, too? We definitely have the resources, the commitment, the talent to be on top of the women’s game in decades to come. We just need to find the best way to improve how we harness and cultivate all this potential.