Is the GDA/ECNL war getting nastier?

One of the more interesting stories of the past couple years is that various competing elite platforms on the girls' side.

For about a decade now, US Club has operated a national travel league for elite girls called ECNL (Elite Clubs National League). Many highly-regarded girls clubs have signed up, and ECNL is now highly regarded in girls' soccer circles. It's a travel league--elite teams from one city will travel to other cities (including by plane if necessary) for league matches, rather than playing against local hometown teams that they would probably dominate. The league also includes various "showcase" events, as well as a championship tournament in the summer. ECNL teams generally don't play in their local state cups or in the USYS national tournament; they do often compete against non-ECNL teams in other competitions (such as Surf Cup and other prestigious tournaments).

Two years ago, US Soccer--perhaps buoyed by the perceived success of the US Development Academy on the boys' side--decided to launch a similar program for girls--the US Girls' Development Academy. The primary purpose of the program would--like the boys DA--to identify and train talent for the national team(s). Many of the rules and regulations long in place on the boys side (one match per day limitation, a ban on high school soccer) were applied to the GDA. The GDA has just concluded its inaugural season.

And while this doesn't get openly mentioned at the highest levels of the sport--the two elite platforms seem to be in a state of war.

Unseating the incumbent

The Boys' DA program, while unpopular with some, hasn't gotten much in the way of organized opposition. Most of the complaints about it seem to be whether it is doing the right thing or not, not whether or not it should exist. This is one area, I think, where US Soccer partnering with MLS has been productive; MLS sides also need top-level players, either for their own rosters (there is tremendous benefit under league rules to developing "Homegrown" players) or for the transfer market. Many MLS-run DA programs are free or low-cost; and quite a few MLS programs are actually good at reaching out to communities underserved by the traditional club scene that the DA is displacing, at least at the high school ages. Some legacy clubs are upset at essentially being relegated to DA feeders (though quite a few have their own DA programs); and many soccer hotbeds still aren't well-served by DA (much of south and west Texas, for instance), but the DA program is generally regarded as an improvement, if not a success.

The Girls DA, on the other hand, has entered a space where there already is an incumbent player providing a similar function--ECNL. Which motivates the obvious question--why? There are many legitimate criticisms of ECNL that can be made, and have often been made, concerning the program:

  • It's expensive--unlike many of the DA teams (particularly at U15 and up, where the funnel shrinks), most ECNL programs are unsubsidized, and involve a lot of travel. The costs to participate are often quite a bit higher than a typical local pay-to-play team. If you think that pay-to-play is a bad thing; ECNL as it is currently structured doesn't have much to offer.
  • It is focused on college recruiting. This actually makes sense given the economics of girls' / women's soccer; there is virtually no transfer market for female players, and few professional opportunities. Thanks to Title IX, however, there are many opportunities to earn college scholarships for girls, and ECNL focuses heavily on this: promoting players, arranging showcase events for college scouts, and the like. One criticism is that it has been too successful at this, and that it is managing to corner the market on college access (making it more difficult for girls NOT in the ECNL program to get noticed, particularly those who aren't stars). From the point of view of college coaches with limited budgets, ECNL is a godsend, if it limits the amount of trips to the field that need to be done to fill a roster--but if it gets to the point where college scouts are no longer interested in attending state cups and other non-ECNL tournaments, or assuming that players who aren't on ECNL rosters are inherently second-rate (assuming there is one in town), then there is much opportunity for mischief.
  • In some places, we have seen that happen, with ECNL club coaches openly disparaging their local competitors as inferior, and using their ECNL teams as a recruiting tool for their non-ECNL "B" teams that compete in the state league (suggesting, for example, that they will more readily promote from within than accept prospects from outside the club).
  • One other important attribute of ECNL is its accommodation of high school soccer. ECNL, like USYS leagues, generally shuts down during the local high school season, and expects that players will play prep soccer.
Into that breach has stepped GDA. It has, in many ways, a similar offering, but with some important differences:
  • Some GDA teams (not all) are subsidized, and some are operated by NWSL franchises. (A few NWSL franchises have academies in ECNL, on the other hand; the relationship is nowhere near as tight as the relationship between MLS and the boys' DA).
  • The program is ostensibly focused on the needs of the women's national team, not on getting girls into college. The GDA isn't blind to college placement and recruiting, but this isn't its focus. Whether this means anything in practice is hard to tell. (Most of fielding a good team is done in recruiting, not in training--no amount of coaching expertise will overcome a lack of natural talent at the highest levels of the sport).
  • One of the biggest differences--GDA is a year round program that (like the boys' DA) that bans players from participating in high school soccer.
  • Like ECNL, but even moreso; the GDA generally competes only against itself--GDA teams don't enter State Cup, or anything like that. GDA goes even further, limiting participation in non-GDA tournaments or requiring separate brackets for GDA teams. (At the recently completed Surf Cup, for instance, GDA teams competed in the "academy" brackets; ECNL and USYS teams competed against each other in the traditional brackets such as "super black", "super white", etc.)

The war rages on

To say that the formation of GDA was not received well by ECNL and US Club Soccer (which ECNL is organized under), has been an understatement--the two leagues have been in a state of mutual antagonism for quite a while:

  • GDA started by recruiting away a good number of girls' programs that had previously been in ECNL.
  • Since then, ECNL has been trying to win many of them back, and has had some success doing so. Their biggest coup was when LAFC Slammers, one of the prized teams to jump ship to GDA, announced that it was returning to the ECNL fold--and then went and won the inaugural GDA U19 championship. For some reason, this is the only GDA/DA champion from the past season that is not conspicuously feted on the USSDA web page.
  • US Club has retaliated further by starting a competing boys' program, ENPL (Elite National Premier League). This hasn't yet had as much of an impact, but it was clearly intended as a shot across the bow of US Soccer.
  • Just this past week, the US Girls U15 national team announced its roster for the CONCACAF U15 Championship--and it consisted almost entirely of girls from GDA programs and only one girl from an ECNL club (a forward from Mountain View-Los Altos SC). Perhaps there is a better explanation for this--but this sure looks like a deliberate snub. If the national team is excluding or ignoring players for not choosing to play in the GDA, this needs to stop--now.
  • Both sides have been continually sniping at each other in social media for quite some time.
  • The failure of the US men's team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was treated by many ECNL proponents as a godsend--as proof positive of the incompetence of the Federation, and evidence that the DA program (and by extension, the GDA) are failures that should be abandoned. Note that I don't think this isn't a very good argument--while the transition to the DA might help explain the "generation gap" that damaged the prospects of the US men (the players that did play for the US were mostly products of the old system); the quality of the players now coming up from the DA is much better; they were simply mostly too young for this past cycle. OTOH, this might simply be due to the US maturing as a soccer nation--more and more of us know what good soccer looks like--and not due to anything US Soccer has done.
How did we get here, and how do we end this?

It seems to feel like both sides are digging in, hoping that they can win a war of attrition and force the other side to capitulate and go away. ECNL is in a good position to survive such a war, with their strong focus on college recruiting--for many girls, getting a scholarship is the culmination of their soccer dreams, as there are simply far fewer professional opportunities for women than for men. The GDA, of course, is sponsored by the Federation, so it's not another fly-by-night league that can simply be driven out of business (though if the US national teams start failing in international competition while not calling up players on ECNL rosters--and there are many talented girls in ECNL that should definitely be in the national team pool--it would be rightfully embarrassing).

But both sides seem to be acting like their success depends on the failure of their rivals. ECNL seems to view the GDA as a mortal threat, but the GDA likewise acts as though ECNL is a curse and not a blessing on the youth soccer landscape. Both camps seem to think "if we can corner the market on blue-chip clubs and blue-chip players, and entrench ourselves at the top of the pyramid, then we can relegate the other to permanent second-tier status".

But is this true?
  • The main technical difference between the two programs is high school. ECNL allows and encourages high school play; GDA bans it (and trains and competes year round). Depending on what a girl's goals are, and the quality of the local high school soccer scene, either might be the better choice. A focused, professional training environment is arguably better than a high school team--but playing for your school is often fun, and if the NCAA isn't demanding that players train year round in an academy setting to get a scholarship--why not? Both sides act like there is only one right answer here.
  • A lot of this seems to be about control. It's natural for a national federation to assume that it ought to be in charge of things, especially in training its player pool, and in driving technical standards. Many local clubs are frequently "bad actors" in terms of encouraging pay-to-play (and a business model that focuses on travel and which caters to wealthy families). OTOH, many clubs value their independence, and see ECNL and similar programs as a way to not be dictated to by a Federation that remains widely viewed as incompetent. (And impotent--in many other countries, the national federation would win such an argument by default, and anyone who resisted would find themselves banned from organized soccer in that country).
  • Above and beyond the present debate--having a zillion different "elite" platforms, each proclaiming themselves The Best, and each with their own parallel tournaments and champions, and generally refusing to play each other--is a bad thing. Especially if a player's choice of club or league impacts their future prospects down the line. If a given college coach says "I only sign players from ECNL", or if the national team ever says "we only cap players from the GDA"--either should be viewed as wholly unacceptable.
How to fix this, given all the egos in the room, and the money on the line, while addressing the legitimate grievances of both camps? I don't know.

But I do know that this war is incredibly corrosive for girls' soccer in this country.

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