Girls vs. Boys: U.S. Soccer's Development Academy dilemma

By Mike Woitalla

Generalizing about genders is a precarious venture, especially when one side is making assumptions about the other.

But I’ll go out on a limb: Girls care more about playing high school soccer than boys do.

I bring this up because the U.S. Soccer Federation is set to take over the top level of American girls youth soccer the way it did on the boys side when it launched the Development Academy (DA) in 2007. Since 2012, playing DA ball required boys to forgo high school soccer.

That was a sacrifice that the boys were willing to make. By the time the DA banned high school ball, it had already become the main place for college coaches to scout boys. So it was easy for clubs to make the case to players and parents that skipping high school ball would be worthwhile.

Moreover, the DA had become the most likely path -- however tiny the odds are -- to becoming a professional player. And that’s what soccer-loving boys dream about.

Ask young soccer players about what they aspire to. Who do you want to play for? The boys will name pro clubs. The girls will say the U.S. national team and college ball.

A generalization, yes, but also a reflection of the soccer landscape. The boys are thinking about the men they see playing soccer on TV every weekend. The girls know about the older girls at their club who went on to play college ball.

There is a pro women’s league, the NWSL -- which, by the way, only exists because the USSF runs it – but the holy grail for the girls remains college. And the main place college coaches scout is the ECNL -- the Elite Clubs National League, sanctioned by U.S. Club Soccer. The ECNL has been, more or less, the DA’s equivalent on the girls side, also serving the U.S. national team program as the main player source.

There may be clubs on the girls side in some areas that discourage their girls from playing high school ball, but the ECNL doesn’t have the DA-kind of ban. A case in point is Real Colorado’s 17-year-old Mallory Pugh -- the world’s best player at her age -- who plays high school ball amid her national team and ECNL commitments.

Not to be neglected when considering a different approach for boys and girls is that men’s and women’s college soccer are significantly different. There are 206 men’s Division I programs and 333 women’s Division I teams, and lots more scholarships for the women than the men. The very elite girls commit to colleges at a younger ages -- sophomore year of high school being common -- than the boys.

There are boys who return to high school play from their DA teams once they lock into a college program, but that usually happens in their senior year of high school. If U.S. Soccer’s DA for girls prohibits high school ball, girls may opt to stay in ECNL because they want to keep playing for their schools -- or leave the DA once they get a college commitment. With the top girls committing as high school sophomores,  such an exodus would greatly dilute the talent at DA's higher age groups.

Prohibiting high school ball for boys has not prevented the Development Academy, which benefits greatly from MLS’s involvement, from being the top level of youth soccer for American males. But banning girls from high school ball could significantly diminish the quality of the USSF’s DA for girls.

So does the USSF treat girls differently than the boys? Or does it risk launching a girls program that isn’t the top competition in the country?

12 comments about "Girls vs. Boys: U.S. Soccer's Development Academy dilemma".
  1. Ron Benson, February 5, 2016 at 5:17 p.m.

    Oh well , here we go again .Separating high school kids from their friends , family etc by " high level" soccer teams .Traveling hundreds of miles and eating up holidays / weekends etc. Encouraged by " professional" soccer folks to spend lots of $$ and be on an "elite" team .Guess what , soccer is fun without the constant long trips , expense , changing teams etc . To much stuff .

  2. mark courtney, February 6, 2016 at 12:04 p.m.

    I'm going to say that while this debate goes on no one seems to be aware of the fact that HS soccer is a tragedy for the most part. And college soccer ... it's pretty bad as well.
    In one of the first articles I read from this site I was stunned when Tom Howe stated that "he didn't even like to watch college soccer ... except for Akron."
    I know know exactly what he means. College soccer is just a more aggressive example of sloppy HS soccer.
    Kick-ball is not soccer. Football is not Futebol!

  3. Lisa Lavelle, February 6, 2016 at 1:57 p.m.

    Excellent observation!!!

    High school soccer is about your home town, the community, pride and home.

    So many people live vicariously through them, it's about the kids representing their community, their town, their parents, friends family both near and far.

    Its about friend going for the goal and knowing they got your back .. it's your school, it's your turf and its your time to shine .. that is something that can never be replaced. It simply is your Friday night under the lights.

  4. Goal Goal, February 6, 2016 at 2:14 p.m.

    Yeah US SOCCER should put the same limits on girls soccer as they have on boys for for the last three years. If it's good for the boys it should be just as good for the girls. Right? First tell me how good has it been for the boys by eliminating the opportunity to play for their high school. Tell me what improvements the US SOCCER ACADEMY PROGRAM has realized since the implementation of this limit they have placed on the boys? The numbers ain't there. In my opinion the boys side of US SOCCER is spinning its wheels at this point in time and if they aren't aware of it that presents a bigger problem for the future of soccer in the U.S. Now they want to mess with the girls program which by all appearances seems to be providing quality players to both college and the national teams. Just look at the shellacking the U19 men took against France and then tell me how succesful our national program is. The numbers aren't there. Sure there is poor HS coaching in some areas of the country but there is also excellent coaching in some areas. The same applies to the academy program. HS sports are not only an athletic experience but also a social experience and a tradition in this country. Who doesn't want to letter for their HS? There has to be a middle ground here. Educated people should be able to negotiate an agreeable end to this nonesense. US SOCCER in my mind has no legitimate argument that their boys program is better because they eliminated play in HS SOCCER.

  5. James Madison, February 6, 2016 at 6:03 p.m.

    US Soccer is making a mistake in both girls and boys soccer by not allowing academy players the option of also playing high school soccer if they want to.

  6. uffe gustafsson, February 6, 2016 at 7:47 p.m.

    I think all you have good points.
    Yes I see a lot of kick ball and not as good soccer you get from club teams.
    For starter the season is short and packed full of games. The players and coaches don't have time to build a team that will play good soccer.
    Clubs play almost year long except for the high school season.
    Secondly yes it's great fun to play for your school and community, and they get to play with new players and new school teams.
    Club you pretty much play the same teams year after year. And beside how many girls are we talking about that will play academy?
    Not really sure how many of academy players would play high school, my guess that many of them might not, partly of getting hurt.
    They will play lesser skilled players that can't keep up and get kicked at to slow them down.
    But more clubs are forming academy teams so it will be an issue.

  7. R2 Dad, February 6, 2016 at 10:35 p.m.

    The worst of high school soccer are the coaches that make their teams train every day during the season--this is practically abuse, perpetrated by bad coaches that don't know better. I think THAT is why academy players aren't playing for their high schools.

  8. Goal Goal, February 6, 2016 at 10:37 p.m.

    It's all relative as to where you are located as to how you see the game played whether it be club soccer or high school soccer. Go to New Jersey, Illinois or Missouri, and many other states, and you will see great HS soccer with very capable coaches. There are many great HS coaches across this country who have better credentials than the club coaches and some of the national team coaches we have in place. I do not understand why we don't utilize this talent in US SOCCER. Can someone tell me why? I see many club teams kicking the cover off the ball. I have seen many club teams playing a controlled possession type of game. So it's relative to where you are at. If US Soccer thinks they have all these clubs playing their game they have their head in the sand. Somebody, some group needs to take control of the game in this country and forbidding kids to play HS SOCCER isn't a good move. This my way or the highway attitude taken by US SOCCER is not the way to go.

  9. Chris Stokes, February 8, 2016 at 10:19 a.m.

    Perhaps US Soccer should think a little bit more like the kids they are trying to attract to soccer? If you (head of US Soccer) were a 12 year old boy or girl and a phenomenal athlete and you are forced to make a decision between: 1. Moving to be an academy soccer player where almost none of your non-soccer playing friends will ever get to see you play and where future player salaries in the MLS are low relative to other us pro sports, or 2. Playing basketball, us football, baseball etc. for your middle/high school where you will receive huge recognition from those most important to you, have a chance for a good college scholarship and the possibility of turning pro, which would you choose? Until US Soccer recognizes the importance of high school sports (and the recognition that goes with it) they will continue to not attract many top athletes and continue to have teams that are not as good as they could be. They should spend more of
    their resources and efforts helping improve the high school system and to use it as a feeder like other major us sports. They have the same issue with the new age brackets...doing things that make soccer less fun (breaking up teams) is not going to improve the sport. It will drive kids away when they have so many other good choices for sports here in the us. Soccer in many countries around the world is "The Sport" with the most glory and money and thus attracts the top athletes. We are not Europe and should stop trying to emulate Europe and find a system that works here.

  10. Joe Wilson, February 8, 2016 at 1:58 p.m.

    ECNL is very expensive for parents. HS is free. If my daughter was an excellent player, good enough to make her club's ECNL team but not a star, it's hard to make the argument to keep playing ECNL in her junior and senior years. If she wanted to I'd somehow scrape the $10-$12K a year (yes, that is the cost), but if she asked my opinion, I'd talk to her about what type of college she wants to go to. If she's not getting recruited by top-level D1 schools, or good academic schools, or being offered at least some money...I know my kid might be quite happy passing on the ECNL in her latter HS years. Look at most of the top clubs - after the first 3-4 girls the rest are going to lower level D1 schools, D2, D3 and NAIA. They're not getting valuable free rides and playing in the NCAA tournament, and honestly, a lot of them are very poor academic schools.

    Now someone who is DA caliber? That's different. They are the upper level of elite and presumably it costs less than the ECNL. Those are the girls that can crack the USWNT roster and at the end of the day, that's all anyone seems to truly care about around US soccer. I'm sure the girls wouldn't be conflicted about missing HS soccer. Mallory Pugh has barely played for her HS and ECNL team in the last year, for obvious reasons, she's being asked to play for US programs all year.

  11. Scott Johnson, February 9, 2016 at 1:31 a.m.

    Boys don't need to play $10k/year to some club to have a shot at either college or the pros; nor should the girls.

  12. Jack Steele, February 10, 2016 at 10:50 a.m.

    I don't disagree with Mike W's point that the calculus is different for boys and girls, but I do question some of his assumptions- that girls care more about HS soccer than boys, that pro soccer is the endgame for boys. Seems to me that if the WNT is the endgame for girls, then a girls DAP will be able to draw the best players if its made clear that DAP is required by the WNT (the question will be all the ECNL players who are not WNT candidates). The big difference in the college calculus is that a boy's chance to play D1 and/or get some athletic one for college is increased exponentially if they play DAP, whereas the college need is much less for a girl to play DAP or even ECNL. I just think there's more leverage to cause boys to play DAP, as opposed to them caring less about HS.

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