Anson Dorrance on the Girls Academy, ECNL and his fears of over-bureaucratic American soccer

Interview by Mike Woitalla

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?

SA: Yes.

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.

23 comments about "Anson Dorrance on the Girls Academy, ECNL and his fears of over-bureaucratic American soccer".
  1. Gary Allen, March 17, 2016 at 3:09 p.m.

    Well said Anson. It is the same type of over-structure and bureaucracy in the youth ranks that has created the homogeneity (at a less than optimal level) that has permeated the men's side.

  2. Kevin Sims replied, March 18, 2016 at 12:09 p.m.

    Anson is spot on; ditto Gary Allen. The Academy does not have a monopoly on quality player development.

  3. Raymond Weigand, March 17, 2016 at 3:43 p.m.

    Bravo! Seems to me that USSF are setting bureaucratic barriers into the game to keep the USSF (and there sphere of influence -service providers) into a better poaching position. With barriers to competition, of course, the game is going to suffer ... and it is going to become much more expensive - for the parents.

  4. stewart hayes, March 17, 2016 at 4:34 p.m.

    You cannot argue with a bureaucracy. I am sure they have a reason to justify every policy. Right or wrong it will be their way of doing things and no other. They need to relinquish some control, give players and coaches more freedom.

  5. cony konstin, March 17, 2016 at 4:44 p.m.

    In the end what's good for the boys must be good for the girls. You can't have a federation that sets up a boys academy when our men and our youth national teams have never won a World Cup or a gold medal in the the Olympics and not set up a girls program whom our young ladies and our women have won several world cups and Olympic gold medals. Yes I agree we need to make this financially frugal but the pay to play model has become all about making money. We need radical change. We need a new vision. We need new leadership. We need a 21st century master plan. We need a soccer revolution in the U.S. Stay tune!!!!!!! There is more to come.....

  6. John Fields, March 17, 2016 at 5 p.m.

    Anson has it correct..... not allowing players to play HS ball is stupid. Soccer is the only sport in the US with the academy restriction. On the girls side, the really good players will be playing another sport... a sport that allows them to play HS ball. And with the age classification changes, both sexes will decide to play another sport in which they can play with their classmates, not a grade up or down.

  7. DJ Johnson replied, March 27, 2016 at 11:57 a.m.

    - HS playing time in exchange for choosing the "right" club -
    But in some metropolitan areas the head coach of the local high school team is also the head coach for one of the local club teams; and unless you agree to play for (and pay big $$$ for) that coach's particular club team, he/she will mostly sit your butt on the bench of your local HS team. (Yes, even if you are a star for the "other" local club team and are a regular US National team camper.)
    How is this anything but corrupt -- putting the interests of the adult/coach ahead of the child/player?

  8. R2 Dad, March 17, 2016 at 5:33 p.m.

    Obviously this guy is a well-respected coach in women's soccer(though he has run a fair number of girls into the ground over the years with injuries). He can complain about systems and bureaucracy, but that's the coach's perspective which I don't really care about. Look at this from the player perspective. Very talented and skillful kid at U8/7, playing on a competitive youth team. How does she get to the best training as soon as possible? It's unreasonable to drive her 90 minutes each way at age 7, just so she can get trained by the best coach in the area at that age. Her current coach doesn't want to give her up, so she spends a year here, a year there, pretty soon she's 12 and finally on someone's radar, but she's missed the most important and formative years not really improving much beyond what she's managed to do on her own/with her family, because the U8/9/10 youth coaches are usually the least experienced/youngest/right out of school coaches. Beginners. It's only because of sheer numbers of girls playing do we have the largest pool in the world of women to choose from, and our USWNT has so many skilled players. But it's only by chance do they get correct training early enough to stress the vision/skills/drills that can really improve her play at that crucial stage: U8-U12. It's the lack of local structure and incentives that prevents this kid from playing to their potential. It's TOO easy for random coaches to go out and create a club. I see this especially with immigrant teams. Coach W is from country X. So he goes around recruiting players from country X because he can persuade the parents. In the mean time he's blowing up other teams by cherry-picking players, only to have his team/club melt down after 2-5 years because there was no critical mass of players and parents to create an ongoing entity. Coaches use the kids as pawns for their own benefit--THAT'S something worth fixing.

  9. Lisa Smith replied, March 18, 2016 at 12:44 a.m.

    I agree with several points you make, however, I am going to play devil's advocate here. While it certainly is important to have young kids, really all kids, with experienced trainers, it's also important to remember another key component to youth development at that age. Motor development. That is aside from the point I want to make.

    It has been argued that soccer players do not reach their peak until 24-26. Can you imagine? I can't remember the name of who I am thinking of, so soccer community please help me out, but I remember reading a story maybe 2-3 years back of a girl on the US national team who had not started playing seriously until her late teens. Instead, played multiple sports and found success as a multi-sport athlete. Now this is an outlier story, certainly, but proof nonetheless that ANYONE given the right instruction, desire to succeed and willingness to train toward a goal, can do so. Again, I realize this is an outlier. But it's also a reminder of how much pressure is put on youth soccer players. Pressure put on them by coaches, parents, structural systems.

    Not to say coaches education is not important. It very much is! And I do agree with many of your points. However, keep in mind there is SO MUCH more developing in an 8 year old than just soccer.

    Please. Google is not my friend right now. Does anyone know of the women's soccer player I am speaking of?

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, March 18, 2016 at 2:58 a.m.

    In my mind having a good coach teach fundamentals is very important, but I disagree with the majority view that there is such a thing as a talented and skilled 7 year old "soccer" player. That is too young to specialize and too young to concentrate on soccer specific skills. (Before I start a controversy, kicking and throwing balls are not soccer specific skills.) I also disagree with the popular view that U8 "competitive" teams should exist. Too much attention paid to team tactics instead of fundamentals. Breaking out "elite" U8 players is a mistake. At that age everyone should be getting the same training opportunities. Training U8 teams (instead of players) is a waste of time and resources. The focus should be on developing players, not teams. The desire to win meaningless matches interferes with player development at the fundamental stage. (Development of the apparently weaker players is limited because of the coaches fear of losing matches.) The reason that they say soccer players don't reach their full potential until the mid-twenties is because males don't reach physical maturity until their mid-twenties. No one should travel 90 minutes to train.

  11. Steve Coates replied, March 18, 2016 at 10:24 a.m.

    To Lisa was Alex Morgan that didnt start playing soccer until she was 14. She was a multi sport athlete.

  12. Bob Ashpole, March 17, 2016 at 10:30 p.m.

    Could not agree more with what Coach Dorrance said. USSF has become more entrenched and bureaucratic. The restrictions against playing high school and the rejection of NSCAA coaching education indicates a move to an insular organization. The danger is that like the ivory towers of academia they will lose effectiveness and relevance.

  13. R2 Dad, March 18, 2016 at 1:49 a.m.

    Not sure I agree entirely with Dorrance's assessment of the Dutch situation. There is a significant amount of dog-eat-dog in the Dutch system, with lots of pissing contests between pros at the highest levels. I think their system doesn't do a good job of integrating all these top dogs into a cohesive unit, certainly not like the Total Football days of old.

  14. Don Cohen, March 18, 2016 at 9:22 a.m.

    If the Academy system is the answer, why must the USMNT search the world for dual citizenship players to stock their roster ? Being a 3 time world champion says that we are doing something right on the women's side.

  15. GA Soccer Forum, March 18, 2016 at 9:56 a.m.

    Bottom line as successful as ECNL is and has become, there are some things that I'm sure caused issues with US soccer. A true club evaluation process for exmaple. There are many clubs that really do not belong in ECNL, they under perform in every age group and their style play is less then desired, and there are many clubs that could be possibly accepted, but are or were not. No system is perfect

  16. Fire Paul Gardner Now, March 18, 2016 at 1:13 p.m.

    Don't agree with some of this - such as his advocating elite players wasting time in HS soccer. But I do agree that the idea of having one system throughout the program is stupid and detrimental.

  17. Roth Mald, March 18, 2016 at 10:14 p.m.

    Seen in a few forums that ECNL has clubs that does not belong. The boys DA also has the same situation where there are many clubs that do not belong, How is girls DA going to be any different.

  18. James Madison, March 20, 2016 at 9:52 p.m.

    Anson's concern about homogenization is well taken. We need to remain open, both on the women's aide and on the men's side to developing players of ability and creativity---we're not there yet, particularly on the men's side---and then adapting our style to to the talents of the players.

  19. Aidan Davison, March 21, 2016 at 8:06 a.m.

    Coaching is education, would you send your children to a school without qualified and licensed teachers? Just because a person attended school does not make him or her a qualified teacher!
    As Anson said, if there are quality coaches who are working without USSF licenses then they will pass the 'A' license with ease so why would they not take it.
    There are many young coaches in the USA who want to forge a career in coaching, I would suggest that everyone is licensed to USSF standards even MLS coaches, continued professional development needs to be implemented for MLS,USL,NASL coaches also. This way the young and aspiring coach can get to pick the brains of the pro coach at one of the coaching licensing CPD courses.

  20. Joe Wilson, March 21, 2016 at 12:05 p.m.

    Not sure Anson was aware that Pugh played with Real Colorado her entire childhood and ECNL in high school when she was available. They lost in the championship game at U15, and she was obviously a big part of it (the soccer they play without her available the last 2 years isn't that great). So while I'm sure she loved playing with her friends in HS, it had little to no impact in the player she became.

  21. Bob Ashpole replied, March 21, 2016 at 4:34 p.m.

    Nobody gets as good as Pugh without tremendous self-motivation. That is what sets them apart from others getting the same training opportunities. Coaches only help players develop. They don't do the work. AA's comments on this topic make a lot of sense to me.

  22. robert evans, March 27, 2016 at 3:48 p.m.

    IMO this is all about USSF envy of the ECNL, which, make no mistake, has been very successful at developing very talented players. I believe most of the players on the US U17 team are ECNL. Yes, ECNL is expensive, and there are lots of good non-ECNL players and teams--but the cream is in the ECNL nowadays, and they are getting very good training. I disagree with the idea that there are a lot of ECNL clubs that are not good. As far as I've seen, most ARE good--the competition is pretty intense, which of course drives development. This is about USA soccer trying to glom onto what ECNL basically created. Save for the cost, ECNL has been a very successful model.

  23. Gary Blanton replied, July 3, 2016 at 8:07 a.m.

    I agree with much that was said in the article and with many if the comments above but I want to point out another view. When the ECNL started I believe they were going to relegate clubs every so many years which would allow new clubs I had improved to the point of being invites in to the ECNL. At least in my area the local ECNL club is no longer as strong as a non ECNL club but due to politics locally and a board member from the ECNL running the local ECNL club there has been no chance of the other club being invited in. When was the last time a club in the ECNL was relegated out of the ECNL?

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