Women's soccer gets wakeup call

[MY VIEW] One loss in 36 games is certainly no reason to panic, but the USA's 2-1 loss to Mexico Friday in Women's World Cup qualifying is a wake-up call. More troubling than the result was the manner of the U.S. performance. Unless there's an overhaul in the women's development program, the USA runs the risk of quickly falling behind the rest of the world. A real scary thought if you realize the USA throws many times more money into girls soccer than any country in the world.

In the short term, Pia Sundhage's women will probably do fine. They'll probably defeat Italy in the playoff and qualify for next summer's World Cup in Germany, where they'd be considered among the favorites.

The risk, though, is that she sticks too long with the same team she's had since taking over in 2008 and winning Olympic gold in Beijing. It's the same risk the coach of every dominant team eventually faces. And the USA is certainly an aging team.

That was evident in Cancun, where the USA struggled to take control of games in midfield. The central midfielders, Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd, are 33 and 30, respectively. Boxx, who came back from knee surgery in 2006, helped FC Gold Pride win the 2010 WPS title but now faces the possibility of having her third WPS fold in less than a year. Lloyd has also had an inauspicious WPS career for different reasons. She endured an indifferent first season in Chicago, moved to Sky Blue FC but quickly went down with a broken ankle.

But in the bigger picture, the concern is that the Americans looked technically inferior to the Mexicans in the semifinals and even struggled to shut down Costa Rica's Ticas, who should have posed no problems in Monday's third-place game.

As the world catches up, all the problems the USA has had on the men's side pop up on the women's side, where it's only exacerbated because of the lack of a soccer culture among elite girls.

In a recent interview with L.E. Eisenmenger of examiner.com, Tony DiCicco -- coach of the U.S. women when they won the 1999 Women's World Cup -- ripped girls development.

"On the girls’ side," he said, "our players are not smart players, they lack sophistication, they’re not technical enough."

DiCicco, who predicted that it would be 11-12 years before the U.S. women had a chance to win another World Cup, didn't blame the players or their parents, he blamed their coaches and the programs they run.

Girls soccer has become such a big business that the chase for the almighty soccer scholarship -- a chase that begins earlier and earlier in a player's career -- has become an end in itself.

Lost has been the emphasis on technical development. Nowhere was that more evident than at this summer's Under-17 Women's World Cup, where South Korea, North Korea, Japan, and Spain reached the final four and dazzled fans with their skills.

And where was the USA? It didn't even qualify, albeit by a fluke loss to Canada in the semifinals of Concacaf qualifying in a shootout.

The point is, countries like South Korea and Japan are putting the time into doing things right way at the girls level and reaping the benefits.

To a greater extent than even in Mexico, girls soccer in Spain benefits from improved support by the soccer federation and clubs and greater acceptance from society at large.

At the 2010 U-20 World Cup in Germany, the USA met its match with a pair of African team, Ghana and Nigeria. Both played the USA to draws, and Nigeria's Falconets outshot the Americans 27-9 in the second half and overtime of their quarterfinal match they won in a shootout.

Forget Germany or Brazil or the Scandinavian countries, the USA's traditional women's rivals. Barring major changes, the USA risks being overtaken by the South Koreas and Spains and Nigerias of the world.

U.S. Soccer pours tons of money into the women's national team program, so money alone won't solve the problem. It must work to change the culture at the club level, just as it has done with the Development Academy for boys.

WPS is in danger of folding just as the U.S. women's game needs it the most to serve as a yardstick for what young Americans must do to keep up with the likes of Marta and Kelly Smith.

Just as Friday's loss to Mexico was a wakeup call for the media -- they gave far more coverage in the days following the defeat than they would have done if the USA had won -- an early exit from Germany next summer might be a wakeup call for the women's game at large.

20 comments about "Women's soccer gets wakeup call".
  1. Lloyd Elling, November 10, 2010 at 8:06 a.m.

    I absolutely agree with your comments. The rest of the world has caught up with the USA and our dominance is finished. You are right on with the lack of technical development of our players. You are right on the about our coaches and the feeder system we employ in the USA...PROFIT/WIN. You are right that our players do not dazzle anyone with their skills. We are organized and can move the ball around the field. We can cross the ball and attack with headers. We have an abundance of keepers. We do not see players at every postion who can dribble and juggle their way forward, sideways or backward. The USA game is deeply boring with non-creative players and a lack of technically skilled players. Here are my suggestion for players who want to be challenged to be the world's best. Play in our Spanish speaking leagues. Pay to be technically trained in Brazil, Spain, Mexico, South Korea or Japan.

  2. Heather Scott-molleda, November 10, 2010 at 8:26 a.m.

    Right on! You and Tony DiCicco are absolutely right. The performance of the U-17, U-20 and WNT show the flaws in youth development. I truly admire and respect Kristine Lilly but if our youth development was working as it should she would have been forced to retire years ago due to the overwhelming number of talented young players in the pool. Ditto Boxx & Lloyd. Much of the blame must go to the broken ODP system which is largely about money for the state associations, and consistently seems to pick players who look flashy in practice but can't get it done in a game. As DiCicco said, the focus should be on smart, effective players, not those who can do one Cruyff before losing the ball.

  3. Randolph Rompola, November 10, 2010 at 8:57 a.m.

    Could not agree more. What the United States had and still has is a culture that has encouraged women to strive for athletic success. It seems to me that is the "what" that the rest of the world is catching up to the U.S. -- the culture that encourages females to find success athletically. And those countries are now applying the soccer education structure latent in their cultures to females. Agree with DiCicco, the chase for the almighty dollar limits the ability to grow dynamic players.

  4. Mike Murray, November 10, 2010 at 9:09 a.m.

    I don't think Mr. Kennedy should refer to WNT members and hopefuls as "girls." Maybe there's something in that attitude, if it's general, that adversely affects the development of skilled players?
    That aside, most of what he writes seems correct. I'm glad he's taking a reasonably critical look at the WNT and its feeders. So much of what we hear and read from the media amounts to uncritical praise. So much of what we see on the field looks like practice sessions.

  5. F. Kirk Malloy, November 10, 2010 at 9:44 a.m.

    Spot on Mr. Kennedy. Too much structured play too early in US, even in those areas where soccer is hot (i.e., where parents are dishing out serious bucks for kids to be trained by pros and not well-meaning parents with little or no soccer background). Up to age 14 or so the SOLE focus should be on player development, not the team's record or whether they were invited to play in some meaningless weekend tournament. Much more 4 x 4 instead of full field games. Much more free play where the players can take risks without the sense that a coach or parent is watching out for mistakes. Much more emphasis on skill development so they'll have the tools to compete at age 14 plus. We owe a duty to the big or fast athletic kid to NOT let them dominate in the early years by playing long ball or scrum ball in the box. Works fine at 12, not so much at 17. The US is relatively early as a nation in the soccer development curve, and we do like to win, so we will eventually get it right. Let's hope a whole generation isn't lost to learning pains and USYS truly gets the focus on PLAYER DEVELOPMENT soon. The WNT and MNT should influence as much as possible by sending clear signals regarding the direction the senior game is heading. Watching Barca or Arsenal, or the Spanish national team, shred the opposition leaves little doubt what our goal should be.

  6. monica trevino, November 10, 2010 at 10:28 a.m.

    There are some very skillful and tactically smart players out there right now. Tobin Heath and Casey Nogueira are two that have played together many years and helped UNC win National Championships. If you ever had the pleasure of watching them play in person together you would say it is "magical" as my daughter described them. We definitely need players like them in the mix sooner rather than later.

  7. jack lighthiser, November 10, 2010 at 10:56 a.m.

    It's easy to support all your comments. Don't forget the best player in the women's pro league on the best team was Marta and the league will probably fold again because of the unexciting style of play propagated by ODP. The women are following the mens trend, maintaining the good old boy (girl) network. They (men) had a chance to change with Klinsman, but didn't want risk losing control (power). Looks like the same thing is occurring with the women. Good luck. Nice looking women's Mexican team, though.

  8. James Zenere, November 10, 2010 at 11:56 a.m.

    I'm no soccer coach, but with 3 daughters who play, I have been around my share of games/coaches the past 10 years. Certainly there's a component of aggressiveness that is a must, but I see it all the time...if you're big, fast and recklessly hit people, you've got it made, actual soccer skills be damned. If you can actually trap, dribble, make a pass to a girl in the same jersey and show any propensity to do a "move" or "create," that's secondary. We've been relatively lucky with our club coaches, but I feel bad for players who have to play for some of these knuckleheads. Message: enjoy the game girls, practice skills and play the right way. Use your brain to get into college. The pursuit of the "scholarship" carrot dangled by some (not all) of these egomaniac ODP folks and others is a joke.

  9. David Sirias, November 10, 2010 at 12:23 p.m.

    Jack L's comments remind me of a post I made a few months ago when I said WPS is basically unwatchable, with the exception of or or two teams. Why? Because most of the coaches are from the american system, misusing even the international talent they have on hand. So you get punt and run, turnover after turnover. That dark that is coming to ladies soccer is almost at hand and it's not the fault of the players. We are a big enough country to produce skilled and smart players. We just dont have enough of them and the ones we do have are not utilized. (The men have alrady turned this corner.) This is a systemic problem. The first change that needs to be made is the test that coaches take. Anyone can learn the fifa rules and management skills. It's the skill to identify skill and soccer brains that is not being tested. Until those coaches are in place, the dark days will be long...

  10. Quan Bui, November 10, 2010 at 12:48 p.m.

    There has been a lot of emphasizes on development of the men's program and the obsession of winning the WC, that the women's program gets neglected over the past twenty years. I don't hear any initiative on having an academy for girls. Where is the MLS involvement in this? WPS is not strong enough to support this academy infrastructure. The sucess of the women on the international scenes over the past few years had created a false sense of security that our girls are among the world best. Why is a country like North Korea, where women are oppressed and one of the poorest coutries in the world can out play the best atheletes money can buy in the US?

  11. . Lev, November 10, 2010 at 1:53 p.m.

    For all who want a more exciting (faster and more skilled) girl/women's soccer with fewer injuries:


    A very serious soccer ball made for girls/women only.
    It is worth your while...

  12. John Riley, November 10, 2010 at 2:27 p.m.

    The US game is dated and boring but things are going to change. Take a look at how Stanford and FC Gold Pride play soccer. While traditional power houses are still playing Nor-dic long-ball, these two Nor-Cal teams are playing Latino soccer. It is a thrill to watch and the results have been spectacular.

  13. Christopher Tallmadge, November 10, 2010 at 7:11 p.m.

    MLS has no obligation whatsoever to the women's game. It is has more than enough to deal with as it is.

    I think the team has been hurt by over reliance on a powerful striker that few teams have been able to deal with. So the team is set up with a bunch of destroyers who just bash the ball at Amy Wambaugh and hope something happens.

  14. K Hakim, November 10, 2010 at 9:42 p.m.

    What a load of rubbish. It is amazing how when a National Team struggles or loses a major match, the whole country has a problem with developing players. Brazil has no fundamental girl's league infrastructure, and yet produced Marta, Sissi, Daniela, Rosanna, Pretinha, et al...The truth is that the wrong people are in the head coaching and admin positions. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so when an ODP coach picks girls who are all big and blonde, then naturally a diverse team of varied skills and talents will be missing from that state team. We have a Scandinavian picking the US team. Since when did coaches in that part of the world develop world class players that everybody was excited to see? So of course her frame of reference to what a skilled and talented ball player is, is limited to her upbringing. If Arsene Wenger was coaching the US National Men's or Women's team, believe me, there would be a totally different athlete representing this nation and totally different style of play. We'd all be excited to watch the games and that excitement and skill on show is what would transfer down to the grassroots. That's what happens in Brazil and since their culture is the most successful in the world, we need to follow their model. Pick players who can master the ball under pressure, dribble from all positions, and combine at speed. Play the game for enjoyment as a youth player, not for medals fearing any mistake. We need to dump coaches who win championships but nurture no individual talent for the next level. The 2010 Men's World Cup was full of these fear to lose coaches that stifled the best players and teams. The US Women are boring because of the same kind of attitude. There are easily 20 young ladies in this country who can dribble and attack with the ball and excite a paying crowd, but they are just not being picked by these sterile coaches who want to preach tactics and sophistication all day. DiCicco was part of the problem, not the solution. He was lucky to win what he did being the only game in town and now have a voice in the game. What has he done since the 90s? To me he will always be just a goalkeeper coach who bored the heck out of a nation used to attacking at will soccer. So let's change these dull US Soccer coaches, the college coaches, the ODP coaches and youth club coaches who all preach discipline and 2 touch soccer, and let's get the coaches who know how to entertain in the game, allow players to express themselves despite mistakes and give them the top jobs. Then the game will change for the better, and maybe leagues like WPS will have a future too.

  15. Nivaldo Queiroz, November 11, 2010 at 9:49 a.m.

    I totally agree with Hakim's comments. When I moved from Brazil to play College soccer here in the US I was told by my coach not to do some moves cause I was not being effective. I coached club soccer for 5 years and I tried to teach my players how we play in Brazil, using creativity, not being afraid of making a mistake, being comfortable with the ball on our feet. I believe that soccer can go to another level here when kids starts playing soccer on their own. I only see kids playing soccer when there is practice with their clubs. Growing up in Brazil i never had a coach till I was 14 playing for this club. All the skills I learned was on the streets playing without anybody telling us what to do. No coach taught me how to do a step over, scissors or any move. By the way, the move I made in college when the coach told me not to was the " lencol" which even today I still do when I play with my over 40 team. The direct translation of lencol from portuguese is blanket, in another words you just stay closer to a defender and you flick the ball over his whole body, very normal when we play futsal in Brazil. That's my two cents about playing the game with happiness

  16. Gole goal, November 11, 2010 at 11:12 a.m.

    US Womens Soccer isn't what it was and lets face it their are prime factors to blame for the the stagnant state that it has been for over 4 years and will be in years to come. The question we need to ask is this. Why is US Womens Soccer standing at a bit of a stand still whats contributing to such? The contributors for starters is bad Youth Coaches, bad ODP Coaches, and bad College Coaches. Lets face it Soccer is using imagination, having passion, wits, and its the beautiful game. This is what soccer is made out to be on the "World Stage" but its not in the "US Stage" and it never was. US Women Soccer doesn't care for the skillful player, for the creative, the smart, rather US Womens soccer in long run only cares for size, speed, strength, and a run and gun style of play. US Womens Soccer is losing its identity and lets face it skill and wits overcomes strength and power in the long run, hell just look at Barcelona, Spain, and Brazil, lets learn from the best and understand that creativity and imagination is most important.

  17. Paul Bryant, November 11, 2010 at 12:05 p.m.

    When Pia Sundhage first took over the WNT, she did change the style of the team. I thought she deemphasized the use of Amy Wambach as the main offensive weapon in favor of spreading the scoring around. Hence you had the emergence of Carli Lloyd. I believe what we are seeing is a program that is in the initial stages of transition; older players who will probably be playing in their last WC, and the eventual promotion of younger players who have not been called up. Ms. Sundhage herself will need to be evaluated after the WC to determine if she will lead the WNT through this transition.

  18. K Hakim, November 11, 2010 at 1:42 p.m.

    OK, some people just don't get it. Any half decent coach can pick a US women's team and win 50 on the trot. Heck, I can pick any top 5 college team and do that. The fact is there is no competition in CONCACAF and that includes Mexico and Canada. In the world there is only Brazil, Germany and maybe China or S.Korea. England should be up there but are poorly coached. So to win an Olympics or World Cup is a no brainer. In fact, it is pathetic not to win it. The problem is the women's team is not entertaining to watch. There is no style that impacts the fans watching. Attendances are poor for the lack of excitement. No overlapping fullbacks who can dribble and shoot, no central mids who can combine and slot thru balls, no forwards who can do tricks on the ball and create combinations with each other. There is no comfort on the ball, no composure, no quality. USA relies on athletic and physical play. Always dangerous on restarts and counter attacks, but horrible at keeping the ball or attacking in numbers. What is sad, is that it can be done. The players exist. They are simply not selected together by the coach or his or her scouts. The selection process is poor. Until we see a head coach who has a vision to play like Wenger, Rijkaard, or Hiddink, we will always be bored to death with the women's game.

  19. James Madison, November 11, 2010 at 2:28 p.m.

    In the early years, Anson Dorrance scouted for women who were willing and able to take on an opposing player one v. one, i.e., players with technical skill and self assurance, as well as brains and athleticism. However, in more recent years, as the women have received more attention, those who are available for selection have taken unfortunately to copying the men---technique and a sense of the game have been subordinated to long balls and running. The US Soccer coaching staff preaches the correct priorities, but those out in the field at the development level continue to practice preference for speed, size and strength. This limits the choices available to Ms. Sundhage and her counterparts at the U-20 and U-17 levels and prevents them from making more effective use of the minority of their selections who really can PLAY.

  20. . Lev, November 11, 2010 at 2:39 p.m.

    Solution: please take time to look at this, if you SERIOUSLY want to see better women's soccer.
    Give the women a ball made for their OWN size: It has been made, it's called Sensational 1, by Umbro.
    Motto: Level the Playing Field.
    Women can do with this ball, what men do with a 5. FIFA IS involved, as is the German, danish, Sweden and Scotland FA (Soccer Association) So is ADIDAS.
    It makes for a faster game where skills count more than size, and reduces injuries.

    Bye bye thug-soccer!!

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