We’re in the midst of confounding times for women’s and girls soccer in the USA.
Within the last eight months, the USA won the 2015 Women’s World Cup and the U.S. U-20s and U-17s impressively qualified for their World Cups -- all three teams with plenty of impressive young talent.
Yet the American girls game is about to undergo an overhaul with U.S. Soccer’s launch of a Girls Development Academy in 2017.
We checked in with Anson Dorrance to get his perspective as a college coach who has for more than three decades been recruiting top youth talent to the University of North Carolina, and who led the USA to victory at the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. Dorrance has guided UNC to 21 NCAA Division I titles.
SOCCER AMERICA: U.S. Soccer is launching a Girls Development Academy [GDA] in 2017 while the ECNL, currently the top level of the girls game, plans to forge ahead. No doubt a key component to the success of either attracting the college scouts. …
ANSON DORRANCE: Assuming the new U.S. Soccer Girls Academy and the ECNL are dividing up the youth talent, we’re going to have to genuflect to both organizations if we want to effectively recruit.
We’re going to be loyal to the ECNL, which I think certainly did a magnificent job when U.S. Soccer was not interested in or at least not investing in girls development.
We’re going to have to follow where the best players are wherever they happen to be. We’re going to have to make that adjustment as collegiate coaches, unquestionably.
(Photo by Grant Halverson/Courtesy UNC SID)
SA: A big difference between the ECNL and the GDA is that U.S. Soccer will ban players from playing high school. Do you think that’s a good idea?
ANSON DORRANCE: No. But I understand where the Girls Academy is coming from. Unquestionably, in terms of a training environment it’s going to be best to keep the elite players with each other playing against the elite players.
But I’ve never been one to feel you shouldn’t give a kid an opportunity to represent their high school. There are a lot of really positive social ramifications of that choice that I would fully support.
I also think there are a lot of extraordinary high school coaches who have had a very positive impact on the evolution of the game with the players they’ve trained.
I just think it’s unfortunate that [U.S. Soccer] is going to take a hard-line position. But I certainly understand why they would.
SA: It’s not like they've shown us proof that the USA would be producing better players if they didn’t play high school soccer …
ANSON DORRANCE: Did Mallory Pugh play high school soccer?
ANSON DORRANCE: Then I think giving her the freedom to do that is fantastic. And I don't think it interfered with her career. Look at where she is.
Watching her play right now, it is stunning how extraordinary she is. She did it without the Girls [Development] Academy and by playing high school soccer.
I think there’s no better defense for that kind of freedom than Mallory Pugh.
SA: Another difference between the GDA and the ECNL is that U.S. Soccer is being strict about Development Academy clubs’ coaching staff having U.S. Soccer A and B licenses. U.S. Soccer has also stopped giving waivers for NSCAA diplomas.
ANSON DORRANCE: I taught in both schools. I was an instructor for U.S. Soccer for years and I absolutely loved it. I was also an instructor for the NSCAA for years and absolutely loved that.
But you and I both know there are some extraordinary coaches out there without those kinds of licenses.
I understand why they’re making that rule. They’re trying to drive coaching education.
But this is an area where they should have some flexibility. If there’s an extraordinary coach out there who has this wonderful capacity to help the kids get to their potential, I don’t they should let a lack of a U.S. Soccer license get in their way.
I think there are some extraordinary schools out there where other people were educated that have huge value and having those people coach our youth would be wonderful.
I would hate to set up all these bureaucratic hurdles, rules and regulations to basically cripple us. I don’t see the point of it.
We want to drive coaching education, but not at the sacrifice of eliminating extraordinary coaches just because they don’t happen to have an A or a B license.
SA: The USA won the 2015 Women’s World Cup and the U.S. U-20s and U-17s qualified for their World Cups. As the pioneering coach of women’s soccer in the USA, how do you see the current state of the American women’s game?
ANSON DORRANCE: Obviously, I’m extraordinarily proud of the evolution and development of the game in the U.S. at all levels.
I would like to take this opportunity to let the ECNL know publicly that when there wasn’t a Girls Academy out there, they took up the gauntlet and improved the level of the girls game in this country and did an incredible job. So much so that U-17s have qualified, the U-20s as well, and the USA has won the Women’s World Cup.
I’m also incredibly proud of the contribution of collegiate soccer. Unlike what seems to happen all over the rest of the world, an elite young woman after playing high level college can go right from the college soccer field into a world championship and not be any worse for the wear.
Morgan Brian and Julie Johnston are great examples of that. Obviously we’ve [at UNC] have had our share of incredible young women who while they were playing collegiately stepped into the U.S. full team scheme and competed with professionals from other countries.
I feel particularly good about the state of the American game. Which is why what I’d love to see with U.S. Soccer is some sort of collaboration with all the different player development groups in the United States. We could make this an incredibly positive collaborative event with the leaders of all the disparate groups from the ECNL to certainly the Girls Academy to the collegiate game and the other groups who are doing a fine job helping develop.
SA: What are your concerns about the future of U.S. women’s and girls soccer?
ANSON DORRANCE: I have a fear that if we become too bureaucratic and too structured we’ll have this homogeneity that will end up hurting us.
I like when someone disagrees with me, who plays a different style, who wants to win a different way, because I’m going to learn something playing against that person.
My huge fear is that we’re following the path of what’s happened in Holland recently. The Dutch are very concerned about the fact that they’re not developing elite players anymore. And what they’ve sorted out is that at the core of this problem is they started this structured program where everyone has to play this certain system. You have to follow this rule, you have to follow that rule, you have play this system, you have to play that style.
I think a part of it is the over-bureaucratic holds and laws and rules about systems they have had to play with and this sort of top-down structure – and I have this fear it’s heading our way.
SA: It’s indeed in vogue to talk about getting all coaches to follow instructions from above …
ANSON DORRANCE: One of the greatest things about our soccer culture is it’s just like the classic immigration story. What made the United States extraordinary is this melting pot of ideas, where we can all get up on our soapboxes and claim that this is way the game should be played. That’s been an incredible benefit for the American soccer population that I think has put us in this unique position.
We’re all great at debating our systems and our styles of play and our player development methodology. And even in the debate itself we end up producing an extraordinary collection of people who are tactically agile, who aren’t tactically locked into doing something. They are incredibly flexible.
One of my favorite moments in the [Women’s] World Cup was the turn during the game against China where before that all of us were just holding our breath because we’re wondering if the U.S. would actually win. Then all of a sudden Jill [Ellis] decides to use a pressing system. She decides to put different players out there. All of a sudden we roar to a world championships.
Well, if we had played only one style with only one methodology, one sort of coaching structure, with everyone going to the same coaching schools, learning from the same coaches -- I don’t think we would have had that.
We’ve done it our own way. I don’t want us to lose our place. And I think a part of the reason we’re in this place is because we are an incredibly positive melting pot of soccer opinions, soccer systems, soccer views, soccer methodologies, player development platforms, with people with different licenses from all over the world, and even people who just have driver licenses who are coaching at the elite level and have it figured it out. I don’t want to lose what makes us unique.
I think we have evidence of how extraordinary we are on the girls side right now. And we should mine the reasons why. We don’t have to follow someone else’s methodology. Because let me tell you something -- we are the world f****** champions.