Commentary

Women aim not to get run over

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

U.S. women's national team coach Jill Ellis has a warning: “If we sit where we are, we’ll get run over.”

The USA has won two Women's World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals -- including the last three in a row -- and it puts more money behind women's soccer than any other country in the world. But that won't be enough to keep the USA on top for very long.

In the last youth cycle, the U-20s did not make it past the quarterfinals and the U-17s did not even make it to the world championships. The USA will head to the Women's World Cup this summer in Canada as one of six seeds. Sure, it will be one of the favorites, but a case can just as easily be made that all the other seeds except for the host Canadians are as good or better than the USA.

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati is not about to let the results of recent years, good or bad, cloud the big picture. That's true for the senior national team, beaten finalist on penalty kicks at the 2011 Women's World Cup yet the gold-medalist a year later, and for the two young teams, who both exited in shootouts in the last cycle.

"On the youth side -- it's true on the men's side and women's side -- it's very hard other than looking at a specific tournament in a cycle to evaluate the program beyond that group of players," Gulati said in a conference call to update reporters on women's initiatives. "So while this last under-20 team lost in the quarterfinals, the previous under-20 team won the world championship. The team before that lost in the quarterfinals, I think. Prior to that we won it. So there is no long-term trend there. The long-term trend is that there are a lot more teams around the world, a lot more federations spending a lot more time, money and resources on the women's program. That's a positive thing, so achieving the sort of results like winning every time is not practical."

April Heinrichs, the U.S. women’s technical director, says the goal of the women's program is still to win at every level, but U.S. Soccer is putting a new emphasis on development in an attempt to stay ahead.

"The expectations in terms of our community and our fan base and even U.S. Soccer is to find ways to win," she said, "but we want to make sure that along the process, we are not sacrificing development pieces, like playing time, opportunity to play different styles of play, different opponents.”

As a means of evaluating the women's program at the youth level, U.S. Soccer is tracking the number of players it is sending through to the next level -- a key component for the U-20s -- and emphasizing other less tangible things at the younger levels -- style of play, quality of coaching, the quality of the training sessions.

Of the 28 national team players Ellis brought into January camp, 19 played for the USA at the U-19 or U-20 World Cups. Of the nine who didn't, six finished their youth careers before the first youth world championship for women was held in 2002. That leaves just three players -- Whitney Engen, Ali Krieger and Christen Press -- who came through the ranks without going to a world championship.

U.S. Soccer is exploring three initiatives that it hopes will strengthen the women's program:

-- residency program for girls;
-- development academy for girls; and
-- summer program for college women.

"I think it is quite likely that at least a couple of those programs will be implemented relatively shortly," said Gulati, "and we'll look at all three."

The most ambitious is a residency program different from the under-17 boys program that has been operated in Bradenton, Fla., since 1999 with a new cycle of players coming in every two years after the Under-17 World Cup.

"On the girls side," Gulati said, "what April and others have come to us with is a program that would not be tournament-focused with a specific age group, but development-focused. So players in multiple age groups playing a lot of competitions, as much competition as we can get them. Really very much development-based with no specific event at the end of that process."

For Heinrichs, the emphasis would not be on one age group.

"One of the biggest differences between girls soccer and boys soccer is girls can and should and need to play up," she said. "You don't often hear of a kid from Colorado playing up four birth years at the national team level on the boys side. But on the women's side it's needed."

(Heinrichs was referring to 16-year-old Mallory Pugh, who started for the USA at the 2014 Under-20 World Cup.)

"We need girls to play up more often, push them more, challenge them, to get them out of their comfort zone," she said. "We still need more international games. As much money as we've put toward the national team program, we need more international games because we are lagging behind top teams in Europe in terms of the average number games their young players play."

The measuring stick, Heinrichs says, would be the number of players the residency program pushes up to their next age group. But there is also a more intangible goal: creating a greater soccer culture and better playing environment for younger girls to thrive in.

The other two women's initiatives are more straightforward.

U.S. Soccer works with the ECNL, the 77-club circuit operating nationally in five age groups, in terms of player development. The next step would for U.S. Soccer to operate an academy-like setup like it does on the boys side with the Development Academy with its own rules for monitoring player development. To provide more opportunities for college players, U.S. Soccer is looking into launching a summer program perhaps in conjunction with the NWSL, the women's pro league it manages. (Gulati reiterated that U.S. Soccer is also considering operating a summer league on the men's side.)

He stressed the difference between the men's and women's game in terms of the role of college soccer.

"The third piece is recognizing that it is still the case that on the girls side college soccer is absolutely going to continue to be a very important piece of development," Gulati said. "Over the last 25 years, I can name certainly only one top player [Lindsey Horan at Paris St. Germain] who's chosen to opt out of college initially and play professional soccer. With that being an important piece, how do we supplement the program, how do we make it better in the offseason?"
10 comments about "Women aim not to get run over".
  1. ROBERT BOND, February 3, 2015 at 1:56 p.m.

    schatzis gonna rock!

  2. Alan Peace, February 3, 2015 at 2:18 p.m.

    All of that sounds great, but until the coaching mentality changes, none of it will matter, and the US will continue to decline on the women's side. Players are coached like robots, with physical and athletic ability emphasized over soccer ability. Winning is consistently emphasized over development. Until technical skill and soccer development is emphasized at the youth level in an environment that fosters and rewards creativity and problem-solving, the same problems will remain. Soccer is coached like football and basketball, in the US, with players treated like chess pieces. Consequently, we produce athletes with no problem-solving ability at the highest levels.

  3. R2 Dad, February 3, 2015 at 2:29 p.m.

    "on the girls side college soccer is absolutely going to continue to be a very important piece of development". Seeing how women's college soccer isn't much different, development-wise, from the men's why is Sunil so big on this? Is the Summer Program going to turn into a big pay-to-play vehicle?

  4. cony konstin, February 3, 2015 at 3:27 p.m.

    We need a REVOLUTION in US Soccer. We need 300,000 futsal courts in our inner cities and 300,000 futsal courts in our suburbs. The kids need a place to play for free, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and no adult interference. Kids need a place that is theirs. They need a sanctuary. They need a home that is theirs so they can experiment and not become robots but instead magical players. REVOLUTION!!!!!

  5. Futsal nation, February 3, 2015 at 6:04 p.m.

    Cony, I like your drive man but offer realistic solutions. Not a dream that will never come true. There are futsal courts popping up all over as indoor facilities and you knwo what?? They are more expensive to play than synthetic!!! Any good idea will only result as an opportunity to turn into a money maker in this country. You should know that by now!!

  6. Futsal nation, February 3, 2015 at 6:11 p.m.

    I gaurantee you that if kids start playing Futsal outdoors Park districts will find a way to charge them money

  7. Wpsl League, February 3, 2015 at 6:29 p.m.

    The (WPSL) Women's Premier Soccer League has been providing playing opportunities the last 17 years, with over 80 teams in many locations. We provide one of the highest levels to play in and survived and prospered the last 17 years. We provide opportunities for female athletes a place to play in college and out of college.

  8. Chris J, February 4, 2015 at 2:51 p.m.

    More empty rhetoric from a tired old model for the women. I’ve been hearing for years about changes and needing to be more technical, and produce quicker speed of play to keep up with the Europeans and Asians, blah, blah. Yet, nothing changes at the youth level. I think the track record is absolutely clear – last three U17s have flamed out, last U20 result was a complete embarrassment, and Sunil says there is no long term pattern? The senior team is loaded with aging superstars – where are all the youth players coming out of this supposedly great youth program? I would also say that it’s not just the talent it’s the style of play. Banging the ball long and running on to it, and hammering crosses in hoping to get a head or touch on it is not entertaining to watch. You don’t need technical wizards to play that style, just big, fast, strong, and tough. Works great against weaker opponents, not so good against technical teams where you can’t even get the ball.

  9. Sara P, February 4, 2015 at 3:09 p.m.

    Totally agree, Alan P. Physical and mental remain the top selection criteria, which means you get the girls who develop early and in the early birthdays in each birth year. Pushing playing up? I think that only reinforces the priority on the physical. Occasionally a girl with technical ability sneaks into the system, but the overwhelmingly clear message our young girls hear from the selection choices made by this coaching staff at all ages is – if you’re not the biggest, strongest, fastest, leading goal scorer in your age group, you're not going to get a look. It doesn't matter if you can't strike a ball with your weaker foot, or use multiple surfaces of your foot, just run fast. How can you go through the last three U17 cycles and the last U20 debacle and not realize something needs to change in the selection and coaching?

  10. David Huff, February 4, 2015 at 10:07 p.m.

    What on earth is USSF thinking? Residential academy for a small # of players?!? Hmmm, sounds familiar, oh wait we have done that on the mens side for years and what has it really produced?? USSF and the youth clubs emphasize big girls and physicality rather than technical skills, futsal is a great way to help develop "touch" for sorely needed technical skills. USSF and the youth clubs Brit orientation are the gift of coal that keeps giving unfortunately. : (

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