New leaders aim to boost girls soccer

By Mike Woitalla

The first ear-piercing wakeup call for U.S. women's soccer came at the 2007 World Cup, where a dazzling Brazil outplayed and routed the USA, 4-0, in semifinals.

Last year provided more examples that the benefit of the USA’s huge head start in the girls and women's game was evaporating. The USA lost to Mexico for the first time ever, and at the U-17 World Cup, it wasn’t the Americans being hailed for skillful, entertaining soccer -- but South Korea, North Korea, Japan and Spain.

Tony DiCicco, coach of the 1999 World Cup-winning U.S. women, said, “On the girls’ side, our players are not smart players, they lack sophistication, they're not technical enough" – and he blamed the youth soccer structure, which he referred to as a big business.

The U.S. Soccer Federation, which four years ago became ambitiously involved in the youth arena on the boys side with its launch of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, and last spring appointed Claudio Reyna as Youth Soccer Technical Director, is now taking on the youth game on the girls' side.

For the first time, U.S. Soccer has appointed full-time positions to oversee the women's youth national team program and the programs’ overall development.

April Heinrichs, the former U.S. women's national team captain and coach, was named Technical Director. Former UCLA women's coach Jillian Ellis, who has also coached the U.S. U-21 women, is Development Director.

A key part of their task will be assessing the youth club environment. “We’ll go out and see exactly what is being done, then evaluating and getting feedback,” says Ellis.

But they already know what a key focus will be.

“You’re going to hear us shout from the top of every tall building: technique, technique, technique,” says Heinrichs.

Says Ellis, “We've all come to the agreement that technical development is the greatest need. The simple message is spend half of your practice doing technical work.”

That other nations would improve may have been inevitable. That they’re producing more skillful teams than the USA -- whose participation figures and investment in girls and women's soccer are unmatched -- demonstrates that something had gone wrong somewhere at the American youth level.

Heinrichs starred on the U.S. team that won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. And she coached the USA in 2000-2004, winning the gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games.

“I think in the women’s game we identified our great qualities and they became our strengths, going back to the 1980s and 1990s,” she says. “And now some of our strengths have evolved into weaknesses that we want to address.

“We are tough psychologically, competitively, physically. When we got into a sticky situation we could default to the physical. We could default to the psychological.

“Now we need to default to a little more possession and control the tempo of the game. Sometimes we just need to hang on to the ball. And because of our lack of technical skills in some situations we can’t.”

As they evaluate the youth soccer landscape, another key issue is the number of games.

“I certainly think the volume is an issue,” Ellis said. “You can play 80 games a year but it’s not going to get you technically proficient. We’ll look at the ratio of match play to training. You have to look at how many games our youth players are playing and at what level.

“There are enlightened people out there who are changing those. I think there are people who are recognizing that four games in two days are just too much. You definitely want to tap in and encourage that type of thinking."

Game and tournament overload was one of the issues that led U.S. Soccer to launch the Development Academy for boys.

“We need to get the training-to-game ratio correct,” Heinrichs said. “We need to consider more festivals, where they come in and play two games.”

The boys Academy’s other charge was to influence the approach its member clubs took to the pre-Academy ages -- de-emphasizing results at the young ages and emphasizing player development.

Whether the Federation should launch a similar program on the girls' side is something Ellis and Heinrichs will consider.

“We talked a little a bit since they’ve been appointed about the Academy on boys' side and the pros and cons of that,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “We’re encouraged from what we’ve seen on the boys’ side and certainly are looking seriously at the possibility on the girls’ side and are open to that. We’ll address that in the months to come.”

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at

13 comments about "New leaders aim to boost girls soccer".
  1. Kent James, January 23, 2011 at 10:43 p.m.

    This raises the difficult issue of the inherent contradictions between "more practice, more focus on technique" v. "letting the game be the teacher". Playing games for fun, v. getting serious about training. Ideally, kids would learn by watching their favorite stars on TV (or live) every week, practicing what they see in their backyards or in the streets around their homes for a few hours every day, playing with and against their friends until it's dark. As they get older, they get into organized soccer in a more competitive environment Unfortunately, that ain't happening.

    So we've got situations where the only soccer the kids play, and from a very early age (4?!!), is organized by adults. As adults, we need to set up an environment that allows kids to develop, but does not exclude weaker kids (who may one day be the stronger ones). Help them get as serious about their training as their maturity and desire allow, while still making sure they enjoy playing. Challenging them, but not having them always play in a high stress situation where they feel they cannot make mistakes. And we've got to do this at a cost that is affordable. Our work is cut out for us!

  2. Larry Massengale, January 23, 2011 at 11:46 p.m.

    With two daughters and now two grand daughters playing competitive soccer over a 20+ year span, I have become a dedicated observer and a strong advocate for womens soccer. My u15 grand daughter does year round technique training 3 or more days a week. We usually attend 2 or 3 top tournaments a year.

    My contrary opinion-the U.S. women were dominant because they were the greatest athletes in the world (advantage U.S.) with good to very good skills. Now great skills come first, with great athletes second (equality with the rest of the world).

    And in my opinion, the biggest factor in the routing of the U.S. Women by Brazil was the benching of a great athlete in favor of a former great athlete.

  3. David Flanagan, January 24, 2011 at 1:05 a.m.

    To many games, to many leagues, stop kidding ourselves, clubs play to win, rosters for US Youth ECNL/US Club events all show the same names. Boys Academy is direct benefit of MLS, in the US Soccer, women have limited professional opportunities, its all about the money. Player development will be limited until the women have reasonable professional opportunities. The pressure now at the youth level is to win, win, win; to keep their jobs and their players. USWNT will face a tremendous challenge to maintain previous standards. Good Luck I hope this effort pays off!

  4. Miriam Hickey, January 24, 2011 at 8:59 a.m.

    Great! Hopefully the women's game will get the support from US Soccer needed to grow the professional side and create a true pyramid from the bottom up. And ensure that our national women's team can continue to compete for World Cup championships and Olympic gold metals.

    To ensure that soccer continues to grow at the grass root level (for both boys and girls) we need to ensure that:

    1. Soccer is affordable for every child that wishes to play the game. From recreational players to ODP State and ODP regional level players.

    2. A higher number of quality facilities need to become available supported by local and state government. There are numerous lighted baseball facilities, roller hockey rinks, basketball courts etc. but there are hardly any lighted soccer facilities. Children should have the opportunity to play on a daily basis without supervision from coaches (street soccer).

    3. The small sided game format needs to be adapted by all leagues to make the game more fun, and easier to learn by players in the younger age groups. (U6-U11)

    4. The rules for the small sided games should be the same no matter what league or tournament teams play in. The State associations and USYSA need to be stricter in the way soccer is run.

    5. Programs need to be established to give all children a chance to experience the game at a young age so soccer can become a choice (cooperation with local schools and leagues/clubs).

    6. The retention rate needs to improve as too many players leave the game while in middle school and high school.

    7. Experienced soccer players need to stay involved in the game as coaches, trainers, referees, team managers, board members etc.

    8. Coaching education needs to be a priority at the grass root level and the select/ premier level to ensure a higher quality experience by the players.

    9. Referees need to be assessed more often so that promising young referees can be identified and further developed and weaker referees can get the support they need to improve.

    10. Leagues and clubs need to cooperate to provide each and every player with the environment needed to reach his or her potential.

    11. The soccer hierarchy or pyramid idea needs to be developed and made clear for players and parents so that talented recreational players can matriculate to travel soccer, to ODP, and ultimately to National Teams.

    Players should not be held back at any level by a coach or club if that player is talented and driven and could succeed at the next level if given the opportunity.

    Just my 2 cents...

    Good luck!

  5. Rick Figueiredo, January 24, 2011 at 9:50 a.m.

    Dear America:

    Wow. At last after all these years we start to address comparative technical skills in the USA!

    When she was very young, Marta trained in a hallway. Bouncing the ball from wall to wall trying to keep it in the air in a number of different ways. Imagine that for a few seconds. Understand the impact on her TECHNICAL development. When Pele was young he played barefoot. Imagine that on his development of feel and touch.

    Players will learn their technical skills not from coaches but from other kids! Including in Brasil, Argentina, Italy. America loves to organize the hell out of everything! Please stop!!! You don't go to the ones who were not technical to find out why we are not technical. See the list of coachesd you named above. Find the right person, people, futebol minds to figure this one out! You go around in circles built in circles on top of other circles so much you are driving me crazy!

    Growing up we played in the streets for hours every day. I learned by imitating the greater players. That was in Rio de Janeiro. And I am an AMERICAN!

    Coaches are by nature tactically minded. I am a coach. I know and I am heavy technical. And I work with Nationakl teams and under 12 year olds only. Coaches tend to discourage technical and imagination and individualism because it is riskier in games. Totally understandabloe. Coaches pretty much no matter what they say to you, just NEED to win. If they do not win their structure collapses.

    You can only get away with being a ball hog (which by the way is where the greater technical abilities are learned) in the streets playing against your friends. I live in one of the hottest "soccer" zones in America and in the 19 years I have been here I have yet to see 1 pick-up game in the streets or parks with kids other than the ones I create. THAT IS YOUR ANSWER. Stop thinking like Americans. Point blank: If Ronaldinho or Beckham had grown up in America under the best of conditions they would not have been who they are. The culture and environment makes the player. RICK FIGUEIREDO - NEWBURY PARK CALIFORNIA -

  6. Marilyn Oldham, January 24, 2011 at 11 a.m.

    Saturday, Jan. 22, 201

    New leaders aim to boost

    Coach DiCicco seems to be right on target with his comments about the US women's recent performances. However, I can't help wondering if Ms Heinrichs, et. al., appointment is the correct approach. Coach Heinrichs has already shown her favoritism to the big, bruiser player. The whole youth and collegiate systems both seem to favor the bruiser type of player - big, athletic girls, but not much soccer finesse. Smaller, fast players who show soccer abilities can't even get a look in the ODP programs or at the D1 collegiate teams.

    Further, our kids seem to be uniformly coached toward conservative play with fixed notions about how to play. This seems to happen at all levels. Maybe too much emphasis is placed on winning. Even though much lip service is paid to saying winning isn't everything, throughout the elite of youth soccer the overall actions support winning and only winning. Innovation is squashed at all levels. It seems like same old, same old as this pattern continues year after year and into the collegiate levels and at the National team camps.

    Do we need sweeping changes? Is it possible to create a new youth organization with broader view of players and opportunities? Is it possible to coach the players less and let them play more? The US female soccer players are out there among our 300 million people.

    From my perspective in the stands and as a former youth coach, I am not optimistic about this current endeavor. I hope for better, but the changes seem unlikely to come given the path choice US Soccer is choosing.


    Nick Fusco

    Croton on Hudson, NY

  7. Chance Hall, January 24, 2011 at 1:33 p.m.

    Wow, great input in all the comments. As a long time US soccer fan, player, and coach, I agree - - it's time for a major change in how we "grow" our kids in youth soccer. Winning shouldn't be everything, but currently it's how players, teams, and coaches, are graded. Absolutely agree that the big bruiser players have been what the US women coaches have been looking at and for in the past. That has to stop. Putting long balls over the top and "crashing" the goal seldom works now. It's not just technique we need to develop, but creativity and fun that are missing in our game. All the great players, men and women, have always understood that the same moves don't work in every game. Sometimes they only work once in a game. Take some of the excellent advice from some of these folks and build on it. Change is always difficult, but change for the better takes vision and hard work. Go USA!

  8. ferdie Adoboe, January 24, 2011 at 7:39 p.m.

    Solutions. We have solutions.
    Mike, You can take the horse to the fountain, but you can't force it to drink. provides solutions.

  9. Kevin Leahy, January 24, 2011 at 8:18 p.m.

    It might be better if our more creative player were involved!

  10. Mick Whitewood, January 25, 2011 at 3:14 a.m.

    Here's a start, ban all parent coaches who are not certified to coach, I am amazed at what I see out there, In a U10 practice session I watched an unqualified parent coach, who obviously didnt have any experience in soccer, talk for 25 minutes, incorrectly instruct for 15 mins, the players had 10 minutes of touching the ball and a 10 minute warm up which consisted of 2 laps around the field ! Discusting, this goes on everywhere and until we get serious about the game and mandate anyone who is coaching, including a volunteer parent coaches to get certified, then we will be behind the rest of the world. Period.

  11. Robert Robertson, January 25, 2011 at 9:47 p.m.

    I've made the point before but it must be stated again - the biggest obstacle to strengthening womens soccer is the role of money. There is no segment of the leadership of US Soccer officialdom who pays anything more than lip service to the greater incorpation of working class children into the sport. To play on teams which make it to college showcases costs thousands of dollars. From specialized training to make it on club teams, to travel expenses to tournaments, etc. ODP does not train players at the beginning of the girls playing career. ODP chooses players who already play at a high level and charges a significant fees, parents pay for travel, etc. The creation of National league controlled by the 'super clubs' for girls soccer just blocks more players from gaining exposure. This limits the different styles of play offered by a greater number of teams and clubs. In New Jersey, in most of the age groups there are many teams which can compete at the highest levels featuring a wide range of styles but, with the National league, the organization of more exclusive tournaments, and the formation of 'super clubs' they will not be seen. There is of course no easy answer, but, the direction in which the leadership of US Soccer is going will only lead to less diversity and creativity. D

  12. John Scaldaferri, January 26, 2011 at 9:48 p.m.

    More technique, especially under pressure, with limited decision making time and in tight areas is needed. But in addition to all the formal training, there remains a lack of creativity, individuality and uniqueness. Serious teams train often but there must still be a driving love and passion for the game that causes girls to simply take the ball, find a wall or a field and work on their own, just for the fun of it. Trying individual moves, getting creative and your own time and loving it is required to create that special player. Just training when the team trains, even if that is 3 times a week, is not enough. Too many distractions and alternatives for one's time prevents girls in the USA in general from finding that one on one time just her and the ball. That is a difference maker in the long run. Formal training and alot of it tends to create more robotic players, not creative and inspiring play-makers. Sometimes girls in other countries don't have as many alternatives and distractions and therefore find more one on one time, just her and the ball. For the player training heavily already and already at match fit level, that is where the magic is developed.

  13. Gole goal, February 25, 2011 at 3:17 p.m.

    This article is true to form but is late in awareness by the US soccer. Female soccer in the US has come to a cross roads on player development in full in what works and what doesn't. This has been seen in plain view in the performance of the Women's senior side and also the U-21's and U-17's side. US Women’s soccer has hit the ceiling and has stayed stagnate with nowhere to go. Countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Japan, North and South Korea as mentioned in this article are out playing the US Women’s National sides. The athleticism and the physical, are not always going to be the superior tools for strong and consistent Women’s National team program anymore. As April Heinrichs put it, "When we got into a sticky situation we could default to the physical." The physical isn’t doing it anymore and it won’t always be the true factor for success from here on out. Heinrichs goes on to state, "We are tough psychologically, competitively." Yes this is very true but being tough competitively can be implement in training sessions and matches with repetition after repetition. The one advantage US Women’s soccer may have left is psychologically, we have the history and tradition of success. Nonetheless, in concerns to the subject of technique. Making technique the biggest concern and possession is a great thing. But! But, what type of technique is being taught, who is teaching it, and what is considered technique in the eyes of the coach? These are question that need to be asked. Also, I must ask who is trying to answer such questions or better yet why have such questions gone on deaf ears.
    What is needed in US Women’s soccer from youth to the senior side is very simple. Creativity is needed in full, imagination is needed in full, perhaps US Women’s Soccer just doesn’t get it. What is flawed is not so much the Women’s National sides but rather the selection process to get to the National side. ODP is very flawed in the selection process and I have seen this first hand. The ODP system is for the one who can afford it, also ODP is political in the sense that club youth coaches are on staff and select players from their own club at times. Let’s face it ODP is a flawed system. Also, College soccer doesn't help either where well over 85% of programs in the US dismiss skill and creativity and care for hard hitting fast playing go forward brand of soccer and player. Let’s face it US Women’s soccer is not as dominate as it once was and the farm system that is college soccer and ODP isn’t helping.
    I have coached and seen 10, 12, 13 year olds in my area do things with a ball that would be marveled at and applauded and welcomed in Brazil, Japan, and Mexico but not here in the states.Let’s face it, it’s time to be out with old and in with new. US Women’s soccer, it’s time to play soccer that has culture, creativity, and purpose.

    Its time US Women’s Soccer stops being the overpowering Wolf and starts being a little more like the creative and imaginative Fox.

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