The U.S. Soccer Federation made it official on Tuesday:
It will launch the Girls Development Academy (GDA) in fall of 2017 -- a nationwide league with 60 to 80 clubs fielding teams at the U-14/15, U-16/17 and U-18/19 age groups.
Having launched a boys DA in 2007, the USSF will thus be in control of the highest level of youth soccer for both genders.
Since 2009, the U.S. Club-sanctioned ECNL laid claim to running elite soccer for American girls. The ECNL has 79 clubs nationwide that field teams at five age groups, from U-14 to U-18.
One great achievement of the boys DA, thanks in large part to fully funded MLS academies, is that it vastly increased the number of elite boys players participating at no cost or reduced cost.
So will the GDA be less expensive for players than the ECNL?
“It’s our plan that the cost will be reduced to play in the league,” said U.S. Soccer Technical Director April Heinrichs. “In general, U.S. Soccer is going to pick up a lot of the expenses in terms of running the league, so the cost will be less for the players.”
Ryan Mooney, U.S. Soccer’s Director of Sport Development, said that in premier leagues such as the ECNL and the Development Academy that require vast amounts of travel, per-player costs can range significantly from one club to the next.
“We want to make sure that we’re mindful of the cost impact that is reaching the end-user, both the player and their parents,” said Mooney. “Whether that’s through the cost we cover from an event perspective, whether it’s a reduction in registration fees, whether it’s scholarship program funding, etc. Those are all things we’ll look to contribute to the program to try to help minimize costs.
“At the same time I think it’s fair to say that there will still be a pay-to-play component, certainly from the onset, and we’ll see how that changes over time. It was no different eight years ago with the launch of the boys Academy and how that cost now has changed between then and now.”
Heinrichs said that the Federation has been discussing a Girls Development Academy for years and that a recent influx of financial commitment makes the timing right.
“For me it was quite simple,” she said. “When we looked at all these new resources post-World Cup win [in 2015] that want to invest in, be a part of and integrate with our youth national team program on the girls side – this was an easy decision. An exciting decision for us as well.
“Five years ago, we had two full-time employees in the girls youth national team program. Now we’re looking to hire potentially 10 to 15 new people to be involved and committed on a full-time, daily basis to improve the women’s game. And then there’s going to be a large budget to run the [GDA] ... and the full force of U.S. Soccer’s leadership and the ability to run a national league -- we’re already running the NWSL and the Boys Development Academy.”
A key difference between the GDA and the ECNL is that while the ECNL is age pure and requires clubs to field five teams, GDA teams will field three combined age group teams.
“The use of combined age groups will require clubs to form teams with a balanced roster of players from two distinct birth years,” reads the U.S. Soccer statement.
Heinrichs calls it a way “to get players playing up more naturally.”
“If I had a list of player development initiatives that help players grow, one of the top, top, top things on that list is playing up,” she said.
In the age-pure setup, clubs may resist moving players up because it decreases their changes of winning trophies. In the DA setup, for example, a team’s star player one year will be among the younger players every two years. Fewer teams can also mean fewer roster-fillers -- players who might not be suited for the elite level but are needed to round out the squad.
Moreover, by having to field only three teams, Heinrichs believes the GDA will be more inclusive to smaller clubs.
“Let’s say there’s a super club out there and they’ve got 60 girls teams under their umbrella,” she said. “It’s quite easy for them to put a team out there in every age group. But with a smaller club that’s doing it well -- and this is where I think our model is pretty attractive -- all they have to do is put out three really good age groups.
“I have seen non-ECNL doing things really, really well but they’re not a super club. They don’t have a business model that’s so huge that they’re all about making money. But they’re doing it well from the leadership standpoint. They don’t have so many teams, but their focus would be on getting the three age groups right.
“Having birth-year every other year with the Girls Development Academy makes it more elite and more inclusive of clubs that aren’t a super club.”
The other big difference compared to the ECNL or U.S. Youth Soccer leagues is that the GDA will ban players from participating in high school ball. That, Heinrichs said, will only affect “1 percent” of the players in girls youth soccer. And she expects players with college and national team ambitions to be OK with skipping high school ball.
That it doesn't ban kids from high school ball will no doubt be a selling point from the ECNL when it starts competing for players with the GDA, which begins taking applications this May for the fall 2017 launch.
The applications will be evaluated by U.S. Soccer technical staff on:
• Leadership of the club and quality of the coaching staff;
• Desire to embrace and promote the core values of the program;
• U.S. Soccer license levels of coaching staff;
• Infrastructure of the club and the resources currently being invested in development (facilities, scholarships, staff to player ratio, etc.);
• History of player production for youth national teams, the senior women’s national teams, and professional leagues;
• Market and depth of the player pool, geographic location and travel implications, and proximity to other elite clubs.