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?