Tony DiCicco coached the USA to crowns at the 1996 Olympics, 1999 Women's World Cup and 2008 U-20 World Cup. We spoke to DiCicco about the state of youth soccer in the USA.
SOCCER AMERICA: What are your general thoughts on state of the youth game? It seems to me that if one roams the fields of America at various levels, we’re seeing much more good youth soccer being played than 10 or 20 years ago. Would you agree?
TONY DICICCO: Yes. I think the kids are getting better coaches earlier. When I was in youth soccer, I was amazed at how cutthroat it was. It was all about winning. I think now there's more consciousness about player development, developing technique in your players.
It isn't all just about winning. But winning is still too important, in my opinion, because it's a business. That's why I think the MLS academies are the closest thing we have to getting it right, because for them it’s not as much a business of winning, it's about player development.
But for most of our girls clubs it's about winning. If you win, more girls come to your club, you're going to make more money, you're going to win more.
You'll see some decent soccer. People trying to play soccer and not just knock the ball over the top, and your speed player gets behind the defense and scores goals. Unfortunately, we still do too much of that and that player doesn't develop how she should.
But it has gotten better because there has been some [U.S. Soccer] direction now from the April Kater [named Head Development Coach in January 2013] and April Heinrichs [Technical Director since 2011] and Jill Ellis [Development Director from 2011 until taking the full national team’s helm in May] when she was there. There has been a fundamental shift. But we lost seven years.
SA: How so?
TONY DICICCO: Greg Ryan had no interest in youth soccer when he became national team coach [in 2005]. Pia Sundhage wasn’t going to have the time. By the time Jill and April were hired, we lost seven years. We lost our compass on player development on the girls side. Now there's more of a consciousness of player development, technique development at the younger ages. And it is better.
SA: Some alarms went off with recent results from the women’s youth national teams. The USA fell in the quarterfinals of the 2014 U-20 Women’s World Cup and the U-17s failed to qualify for the 2014 U-17 World Cup …
TONY DICICCO: Our U-20 team underachieved. I didn't like some of the player selection, yet it was [Coach] Michelle French's first time and she's going to get better. I believe that she was over-influenced with some of her player selections.
One positive is the team was young and a number of those players will have another U-20 cycle.
Here's the thing that troubles me. There's a kid, Janine Beckie, playing for Texas Tech and Coach Tom Stone. I really liked this player but Tom informed me that she got cut from the U.S. U-20 team. Then she ended up playing for Canada. She starred for Canada, and now is playing with their full team. … We can’t let quality players like that end up playing for other federations.
I heard she got cut "because she didn't understand defensive concepts." This is a goalscorer. This is a girl who breaks down defenses with individual flair. And she didn't make the team because she didn't understand defensive concepts? The odd thing was that our U-20 team didn’t look like they really understood a collective defensive concept either. Bottom line, I believe we have to do a better job of player identification.
SA: And the U-17s failing to qualify?
TONY DICICCO: That was the second time the U-17s haven’t qualified out of Concacaf [also having failed in 2000]. I think U.S. Soccer let those teams down a little bit. Their first international event is qualification, and although they are going to dominate athletically in Concacaf, they're not going to have the sophistication of some of these teams. Certainly Mexico, Costa Rica and a few others are going to be pretty smart players. The American female game -- club or college, is different than the international female game.
Five, six years ago when I was on a girls development committee I said we need a U-16 girls national team. The U-17s’ qualifying is every other year. There's a percentage of players who aren't going to end up in that U-17 pool training for a World Cup, but given time they may emerge.
SA: On the boys side, there’s the U.S. Soccer Development Academy whereas U.S. Club Soccer’s ECNL plays the role for the elite on the girls side. Should U.S. Soccer launch a Development Academy on the girls side?
TONY DICICCO: Before April Heinrichs became Technical Director, Anson Dorrance and I were on a committee. And they asked, “What's our next step for girls youth development?”
We said Academy, and they balked on it. We said Academy again. They admitted to us we have stretched our human resources and it has cost us so much to build a boys Academy that we're just not ready to do it. So let's go with the ECNL.
At that time I thought the ECNL was doing a very good job. They were monitoring what the boys Academy was doing with not all the resources. I'm not as close as I was a few years ago, but I think the ECNL does a pretty good job.
But I said we need full-time coaches on the girls side. If not an academy, we need more scouts. We need an infrastructure.
I think our men's challenges are more acute. Do I think we should go to a girls academy now? I'm not sure. I'm not close enough. That's a question for April Heinrichs and April Kater, because they know what the money is.
SA: One big difference between the ECNL and the Development Academy is that the ECNL is age-pure, so younger players aren’t being challenged by playing with and against older players …
TONY DICICCO: I think a lot of the [ECNL] clubs do play their players up. But right, we have what I call it the “under syndrome.” Even college is U-21 and we're "under" in every age group. If you look at the European teams, they've got 16-, 17-year-olds playing with national team players in their club system and that's a quicker learning curve.
There isn't as much [U.S. Soccer Federation] oversight in ECNL but I think U.S. Club Soccer does a pretty good job.
I'm not absolutely sure that the Development Academy is giving us players beyond what ODP might have given us. Would DeAndre Yedlin have been discovered in ODP? Would he have been discovered in college ranks? Is our system perfect, no? Is the ECNL as effective as the boys Academy? I don't know, to be honest with you. Is the boys Academy working? Are we developing World Cup players?
But it's what they're doing and right now the ECNL I think works and and so does ODP, which in some states is still quite good. You can find players from a lot of different areas for our women's national team.
SA: So amid the alphabet soup of youth soccer – what is the main issue for progress on the girls side?
TONY DICICCO: U.S. Soccer has spent a tremendous amount of money on youth soccer. They've done a very good job. But the truth is, we have hundreds of thousands more players than any other country in the world.
We should be excellent in every position. We should be athletic in every position. I hear people say the U.S. is just athletic. But would anybody say Mia Hamm was just athletic? Would anybody say Alex Morgan is just athletic?
We can be athletic in every position with players who also have technique and mentality. We just gotta find them.
Why haven't we found more Christie Rampones? They're out there. I'd like to see us have more people looking for players.
Are we going to look deeper for players or just the top 40 colleges and the PDAs and Slammers of the world for players? There are players in other areas. Not as many and they’re harder to find. But we have to find them and they can be special.
Last week we spoke with Tony DiCicco about the full national team and this summer’s Women’s World Cup: “Hope Solo has used up her bonus points”
(Tony DiCicco served as an assistant to Anson Dorrance when the USA won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 and as goalkeeper coach of the U.S. men’s team at the 1993 U-20 World Cup. He became women’s national team head coach in 1994 and during his tenure guided the USA to gold at the first women’s Olympic tournament in 1996 and to the 1999 World Cup title. He coached the USA to the 2008 U-20 Women’s Cup title and served as head coach of WPS’s Boston Breakers in 2009-2011. He was commissioner of the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) in 2000-2003. DiCicco is the Founder and Technical Director of SoccerPlus Goalkeeper School and SoccerPlus FieldPlayer Academy. He’ll be serving as an analyst for Fox Sports during the 2015 Women's World Cup and for ESPN2 for the USA friendly at France Feb. 8.)