Anson Dorrance, coach of the USA’s first Women’s World Cup championship team in 1991 and head coach of the University of North Carolina since 1979, has been closely following the major change in the girls youth soccer landscape that’s coming with the introduction of the Girls U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
The Girls Development Academy kicks off its inaugural 2017-18 season in August with 70 clubs. The ECNL, founded in 2009, will return with about 80 clubs.
Since U.S. Soccer announced its Girls DA launch, it has been competing with the ECNL for membership. We asked Dorrance, who has won 21 NCAA Division I titles, for his views on the strife between the two organizations and what he would like to see happen in American youth soccer.
SOCCER AMERICA: Is there a best-case scenario in how this battle between U.S. Soccer and the ECNL might play out?
ANSON DORRANCE: The best-case scenario is to agree that all of us are an important part of player development.
My huge fear is we’re all pointing fingers at each other claiming that different parts of the American player development constituency is falling down on the job. And I don’t like it.
I think we should come together, basically agree on best practices, agree on directions, and recruit each other to be a part of each other’s success.
Because right now, there’s just not a good feeling out there and I don’t like it.
SA: What concerns you about how the plans for the new girls soccer landscape are unfolding?
ANSON DORRANCE: I’m always afraid of an individual or a collection of individuals who really feel like they’ve solved the player development conundrum. I get nervous when all of a sudden we’ve discovered this is a certain way that we have to develop our players.
And I’ve never appreciated people who feel there’s only one way to go in the right direction.
SA: How would rate U.S. Soccer’s work on the girls and women’s side?
ANSON DORRANCE: Obviously, I think U.S. Soccer is in a fantastic leadership position for all of us. And I think in general they make fantastic decisions. They certainly have on the women’s side. What [U.S. Soccer President] Sunil Gulati did in organizing the NWSL is absolutely fantastic. Here’s a league that survived beyond the typical length of a women’s professional soccer league. He figured out a way to develop a business plan but also a way to basically grow the league, and it’s getting better and better. I love where the NWSL is right now and where it’s going.
[Editor’s note: the NWSL, which is run by U.S. Soccer, is entering its fifth season. Its predecessors, WUSA and WPS, lasted only three years each.]
So I think U.S. Soccer is making a lot of good decisions. But I also think we have opportunities to continue to impact the growth of the game in this country and I think for that to happen in a very positive way -- it shouldn’t be legislated. It should be led. And by led, I mean sold. To sell us on best practices on the girls and women’s side, because it’s clear we have a lot of tremendous challenges.
We have an opportunity to unite everyone agree -- and not blow everything up and start over.
SA: Can you imagine a future in which American soccer thrives with both the Girls DA and the ECNL?
ANSON DORRANCE: I do. I think there are all kinds of scenarios that we can design where the two are in sync with each other, working to support each other, working to learn from each other. And I don’t think there’s any question that can be achieved.
Now can they [U.S. Soccer] also achieve it the way they did on the men’s side? Yeah, I think they can come in and be very aggressive and still achieve some good. But I just don’t like that direction.
I think we have so many excellent people working in our game in this country on the boys and the girls side and I don’t want to alienate a soul. I want to embrace everyone for whatever positive quality they care to bring. And figure out a way to blend everyone together in the most positive way.
And if that means we’ve got to make at least an organizational compromise here or there to make sure we have this thing running smoothly and effectively, to have us all on the same side, I think it’s worth visiting.
U.S. Soccer has got some tremendous coaches who I respect immensely on women’s side. And I also have huge respect for people like [ECNL president] Christian Lavers and many others on the ECNL side who have been doing an incredible job across the country.
I mean where did Mallory Pugh come from? She developed in an ECNL club [Real Colorado] that allowed her to play high school soccer and she’s a fantastic example of our ECNL coaches and the American player development environment at its best.
I think there are a lot of different things we can do to blend everyone together -- certainly impact and push each to our potential, but the only way that’s going to happen is if we agree to embrace everyone.
SA: One measure of success for youth clubs and leagues is whether they attract college coaches. Now that there will be a Girls DA and the ECNL, where are the college coaches going to scout?
ANSON DORRANCE: They’re going to go wherever they’re embraced and encouraged. And sometimes I fear for some of the people on U.S. Soccer’s side, the collegiate coaches are a pain in their rear ends. And they’re not going to be as embracing and engaging as the ECNL, and that obviously concerns me.
We have a culture where the collegiate education still is something that is a priority for most of the families whose kids play elite soccer, so I think the collegiate thing should be embraced, at least considered within our culture. And I think there’s a way to have the best of both possible worlds.
SA: What would you like to see happen in American youth soccer?
ANSON DORRANCE: If we truly want to change our culture, all this talk about the Development Academy is missing the boat. We have to pour more of our resources into Zone 1 [age 6-11].
If we want to compete with the Japanese or the North Koreans, by the time we get to a U-17 and U-20 level, honestly it’s too late.
We’ve got to focus on honoring the technical coach who transforms the kids with an exciting personality and a thorough understanding of the joy for the game, and technical growth -- and make that person our youth coach hero.
Right now, the biggest prestige for a youth coach is to win a championship at a more advanced level, U-14, U-16, U-18 … So that’s where most of our top coaches are going. And it’s a poor investment of resources.
We have to figure out how to get our top coaches to coach U-12. To focus on what to do at our U-6 level, to make sure that by the time the players get to the U-14 level, they’re the best in the world because of what they’ve done at U-6 and U-12.
Make coaching the youngest players a prestigious position -- the coaches who inspire children to love the ball, to love the game, and to play every single day.