April Heinrichs on Under-17 World Cup, Development Academy vs. ECNL and high school options

Interview by Mike Woitalla

April Heinrichs, World Cup winner as a player in 1991 and Olympic gold medal-winning coach in 2004, was named U.S. Soccer's Women’s Technical Director in January 2011. We spoke to Heinrichs about the USA's failure to reach the second round of the 2016 U-17 Women’s World Cup, the 2017 launch of the Girls Development Academy that has ignited a turf war with the ECNL and club vs. high school.

SOCCER AMERICA: The USA was eliminated in the first round of the 2016 U-17 Women’s World Cup after failing to qualify for the 2014 U-17 World Cup. Will B.J. Snow continue to be the U.S. U-17 girls national team coach?

APRIL HEINRICHS: We’re certainly in the process of evaluating the program, how we approached the World Cup, all of our age groups underneath it -- and we’re all doing self-evaluation. There will be a process in the coming months.

SA: What was your assessment of the team’s performance -- a 6-1 win over Paraguay and losses to Ghana (2-1) and defending champion Japan (3-2)?

APRIL HEINRICHS: Results aren’t the sole measurement stick. I view it in the two-year cycle and the processes leading up to the tournament.

The group play was really disappointing in a way and I really understand, as do most of us who have coached against an African nation and an Asian nation, how difficult it is.

We started off extremely well against Paraguay and started very well against Ghana, and then it just started slipping way.

In a meaningful game at a World Cup, I understand how these young players can lose track of the game plan. Japan is a world-class opponent at any age group, so I think we all look back and believe we missed going forward as a result of the Ghana game.

We’re obviously a very physical and psychologically strong nation. We can make games athletic and for nearly 20 years, that was our style of play: physical and psychological and very athletic.

We can do that against a lot of nations and we always want to be the most athletic team on the field and we always want to be psychologically strong.

But when you play an African nation, the game is more athletic than any you have ever played. If our default when things are tough is to be more physical, quicker or faster, to solve problems physically, that’s negated when you play an African nation. It’s negated for the first time in your career in a meaningful game. The stress of that game, Oh my gosh she’s faster than I am, she’s quicker -- and that doesn’t happen to American teams very often and when it does it’s in a World Cup.

We have those two qualities of being physical and psychologically strong, but for the last five to 10 years I’d say as a country we’re aspiring to be tactical and technical and we have layered that in. That’s clear in the players we’re selecting.

SA: Is judging a U-17 team mainly about how many players move on to the full national team?

APRIL HEINRICHS: In our vision statement, the No. 1 thing we stay focused on is developing players for the women’s national team, which is very hard to predict at ages 15, 16, 17.

But we ask ourselves all the time: If we know a player is not going to make it to the next level, do we owe it to the program to make sure she’s not continually selected? The answer is yes and we push ourselves on that.

Bigger, faster, stronger is effective at 15, 16, 17. If I had a dollar for every college coach who said, “This kid is too small to play college soccer I’d be a very wealthy person.” Because bigger, faster, stronger, more athletic dominates the college game. Don’t get me wrong, there are some colleges that play fantastic soccer. And athleticism is a huge component, at every level. But we’re looking for the more technical, tactical, sophisticated, two-footed players, players who use the sole of the foot, the outside of their feet. Players who can manipulate the ball and are not worried about coping with the first pressure. And those players at 15, 16, 17 are quite often a little bit smaller.

Then the question we ask ourselves is do we invest in them and how much? And will they grow? Of course, they will.

We’re trying to do a paradigm shift in player selection. In the past two years, I’ve gone into camps and at games -- the players are getting better. The selection process is getting better. We’re scouting better players and getting more technical players into our program. In that regard, I think there are a lot of good things happening in that cycle.

SA: Are you saying that the players being selecting for the U-17s might be the right players for the long-term at the risk of not getting the results now?


SA: Snow’s 2016 U-17 World Cup team was also a young one. For the World Cup for which 1999-born players were eligible, he included five 2000s and four in 2001s. Is that an example of taking a long-term approach?

APRIL HEINRICHS: I would say yes. I think it’s one of the things historically we had not done well, particularly at the U-17 age group …

We are such a structured sport society that we literally have competition for every age group in America – 10s, 11s, 12s, 13s, 14s, 15s, 16s. It’s why girls don’t play against boys anymore in this country whereas in Europe they’re designing programming around girls playing with boys up until 16.

In previous World Cups, we’ve almost always taken a pure birth-year roster. Are there no young kids who can help us? Don’t we need to challenge ourselves to make sure there aren’t younger kids? … I think while the U-17s didn’t win, it will pay dividends down the road.

Now, they’re hearts are broken, but we’ve seen an Ashley Sanchez can play with the U-20s [and is on Coach Michelle French’s roster for the U-20 World Cup Nov. 13-Dec. 3]. If this U-20 World Cup were six months further down the road we might be talking about a couple more making the under-20 team.

We’ve really made a concerted effort at every age group to get a little bit younger. The first principle is to go deep into the birth-year and make sure you’re scouting every place and following up on every recommendation and tracking players in that birth year. The second principle is finding which young players can play up. Because we’re so structured, we’ve gotten to a place where players don’t play up. Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, myself, Carin Gabarra -- all played up. Heather O’Reilly, 15 years old, played on the U-19 national team.

Jill Ellis is doing the same thing with the women and Michelle French with the U-20s [has eight 1996s, eight 1997s, four 1998s and one 1999].

SA: How would you assess the process of launching the U.S. Soccer Girls Development Academy for fall of 2017?

APRIL HEINRICHS: The runway to the Girls Development Academy launch has been thoughtful and methodical. We’ve evaluated more than 200 applications and narrowed it down to 74.

We think the geographic makeup and the competitive makeup combined with some of the new interest in the women’s game are going to make it a great league. When it launches in August of 2017, it will be a game-changer. It will take club soccer to a new level, which is very exciting. The Girls Development Academy will be very closely linked with our youth national team program and scouted heavily by our scouts and birth-year experts.

SA: The launch of Girls Development Academy has created a turf war with the ECNL, whose president, Christian Lavers, recently described to me the U.S. girls soccer scene as a “house divided.” Could you speak to that?

APRIL HEINRICHS: We’re all on the same team, is how we look at it. Even college soccer, which does not fall under U.S. Soccer’s umbrella -- we’re still on the same team with college soccer. They are some of the most professionalized coaches in America. They are great player managers. They take players under their wings for four years and they make them better.

I think the same thing of the ECNL. The ECNL has served women’s soccer extremely well for seven years. And they’ve done a tremendous job of raising the watermark and taking the game to a new level.

At the same time, their model is a business model more so than what the Girls Development Academy is going to be. The Girls Development Academy is going to be a Player Development model.

Our model will be player-centered. We will try to create the very best environment for a player on a daily basis. There will be coaching standards, from licenses to methods of coaching to coaching behavior. There will be a competitive standard. We know from the Boys Development Academy, that over time girls will gravitate toward the Girls Development Academy, whether it’s in one year or three years.

Players will have a choice in which league to play in. The time is uncomfortable right now because there’s change and we all know change is unsettling to people and we all know when there’s a higher level of accountability the level goes up and the watermark will rise even higher.

SA: I got an e-mail from a parent whose daughter is with an ECNL club, but one that is not going to the Girls DA. The parent is trying decide whether the girl should switch to a DA club because the parent is worried that if she doesn’t switch from her ECNL club, the girl won’t be scouted by national team coaches …

APRIL HEINRICHS: That’s a question I got yesterday. A mother of a girl not in Development Academy club, asking if she should move …

Here’s what I said: Your daughter’s 13 years old. The most important thing is her happiness. If your daughter is happy now, continue to find a solution where she’s happy. If she’s asking to be more challenged, then the Girls Development Academy is the option for her.

We’re launching in 2017, when she’ll be 14, so she could play on a Girls Development Academy team next year, or do it the next year.

I think what parents have to do is sift through clubs that promote themselves and are very structured and organized and, in fact, recruit players, which is in the end a good thing. And here’s the simple answer from me: Do you think your daughter’s college-bound? And if she is, she should play on a Girls Development Academy team.

Because in college soccer, those girls are getting “paid” $30,000, $50,000, $60,000 a year [in scholarship] to play college soccer. College coaches want their future players to be in the Girls Development Academy.

If I had a daughter who wasn’t Division I college-bound, I’d just want her to happy and play soccer for as long as she can.

SA: Will the U.S. national team program continue to scout ECNL players?

APRIL HEINRICHS: Obviously, our shift in focus will be to scout every girl in the Development Academy environment through our scouting network. And we’ll continue to send scouts to ECNL, ODP and national events as we always have. We’ll always make room for outlying programming.

SA: By not allowing Development Academy girls to play high school soccer, U.S. Soccer has given the ECNL some leverage in convincing girls to stay in their league. Are you still 100 percent confident that “no high school soccer” was the right move?

APRIL HEINRICHS: First of all, let me clarify. Girls can play high school soccer. They just can’t do both at the same time.

SA: So can they play for a Development Academy team and play high school soccer?

APRIL HEINRICHS: Not at the same time. The club can roster them. They can spend those two months out of the Development Academy, and then come back later in the season. The Girls Development Academy will be a 10-month season.

We’re saying girls have to make choices. There’s the Girls Development Academy. There’s high school soccer, ECNL, other leagues -- girls cannot do it all.

SA: But if I am a Development Academy club, I can roster them, let them go to play high school soccer, and they can come back and rejoin the team after the high school season?

APRIL HEINRICHS: Yes. … There a couple of points. No one is talking about high school soccer as a player development environment. It’s a social environment. A “my daughter gets her name in the local newspaper” environment. It’s not a player development environment. In fact, it develops bad habits and complacency. For any player who wants to play in college, the best environment is going to be club soccer

SA: The timing of this argument against high school soccer coincides with the rise of Mallory Pugh, who played high school soccer. That makes it fairly easy for the advocates of high school soccer to respond – well, it didn’t seem to hurt her …

APRIL HEINRICHS: It did actually. She did take some injuries because of wear and tear. We had to manage her physically. Has anyone asked Mallory Pugh, would you attribute your development to high school soccer? ... She would say I love my high school team. I love playing with my high school team. It was a lot of fun. But my core development came from my club. ...

We know from research and from leagues around the world and our own experiences in this country that the rate of injuries is tremendous in girls soccer, and largely it’s an overuse issue. It’s much like the baseball pitcher in Little League -- there’s actually a limit on the number of innings that they can pitch. In soccer, there’s been no moderation. We’ve been asking our players to play on high school teams, club teams, ODP, state teams … The Development Academy puts standards in place that are player development standards.

51 comments about "April Heinrichs on Under-17 World Cup, Development Academy vs. ECNL and high school options".
  1. James Madison, November 3, 2016 at 8 p.m.

    Historically most of our better female players have played against males growing up. Whether in high school, AY, Club or Academy, we are losing out if that is not part of "the program."

  2. Coach FloRida replied, November 4, 2016 at 9:59 a.m.

    It is. One our local clubs has both boys DA and ECNL teams. Many of the top girls train with the boys teams on a daily basis.

  3. Wooden Ships, November 3, 2016 at 8:11 p.m.

    I like what April offered and that it was with confidence. I coached women at the university level for 11 seasons. There wasn't anything I disagreed with and the paradigm shift was good to hear. I haven't heard anything close to equivalent coming from the boys/men's side.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, November 3, 2016 at 11:09 p.m.

    Excellent points WS.

  5. Stanislau Petrovich, November 3, 2016 at 8:34 p.m.

    I couldn't disagree more. Talking about the old days and players playing up as though it were still the same situation just shows how stuck in the past US Soccer is.
    Years ago players had to play up because they didn't have enough good players at their own age groups. Now we have ECNL, NPL, and DA coming. There are plenty of places to play and get a great experience without having to play up.
    The more I hear from Ellis and Heinrichs the more convinced I am that we have only a few years left until we fall to the level of Serbia. They completely misunderstand the world as it is now and continually rely on outmoded solutions to [problems that no longer exist.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, November 3, 2016 at 11:22 p.m.

    I did not see what you are referring to. AH talked about playing up on the National Teams, not club soccer. In my view she has her eye on where the program needs to succeed--control of the training load and focused on player development rather than developing teams. The concerns I have are the same concerns I have with the boys DA program. Are the clubs moving to the DA actually going to change their culture and focus on player development or are they still going to chase trophies. I am not so concerned about girls playing on organized boys teams. The women can get the challenge they need in pickup games and practicing outside of organized soccer (i.e., practicing with and going 1v1 against brothers and male friends).

  7. uffe gustafsson, November 3, 2016 at 9:15 p.m.

    Excellent interview.
    Good hard questions.
    Dead on about overuse of players.
    Club season straight into HS and then back right away into spring club season.
    Way to many games played.
    Mix in tornament and they never get any down time. Wish clubs would shut down everything after spring season for at least a month.
    But I guess you have to keep coaches employed all year.

  8. Futbol Mom, November 3, 2016 at 10:02 p.m.

    My son has been a part of the Academy program for the past three years. He's an efficient player that does not hurt his team. He has very good skills - tactically, technically, & physically. He is not exceptional in any one facet. Add this to his stature,he is physically small, he is not being recruited for DI programs. My son could have played school ball and participate on a very good club team which will yield him the same college prospects (for him) as Academy. He chose to play Academy ball due to the quality of the training, speed & agility, strength & conditioning, soccer play, the 10 month season and most importantly the lack of injuries. Before joining Academy there always seemed to be an injury. Tournaments were always torturous. By the end of a weekend with three, four or five games there were injured players. The overuse injuries caused by school ball were also grueling. Playing "up" [freshman on the Varsity team] he was targeted by opposing teams. With Academy, he is healthy and happy.

  9. Wooden Ships replied, November 4, 2016 at 12:11 a.m.

    That's encouraging to hear. It's been a slow transition with many coaches to get their soccer brain functioning with regard to player selection. Back in the day it didn't use to be that way. Height, strength and flat out speed were ancillary qualities. Don't know of your sons complete soccer attributes, but height shouldn't rule him out for D-1 or any other competitive rosters. I was around numerous pseudo coaches that didn't recognize the sophisticated game when it struck them between the eyes. This isn't necessarily an ethnic thing as much as an immersion thing.

  10. Cindy O'hara, November 3, 2016 at 10:22 p.m.

    Hope most people do realize that she is full of crap. Ever since she's taken over as the technical director in 2011, our youth programs have all dropped off and there's no sign of them getting any better. Not getting result is one thing, but the way our youth team's been playing is another story. Our youth players are more technical than ever, so she has no excuse in not having players to get the job done.
    If you doubt what I have to say, I'd suggest going to her sessions. You'd be beyond underwhelmed, but should give you a good indication of why we are struggling. If you can't go to her session, find anyone who played for her, they can all tell you how clueless she is. Our youth players aren't stupid any more.
    I don't have any personal vendetta against her. It's just that she is that bad, and I believe nothing will change until she will step aside.

  11. Wooden Ships replied, November 3, 2016 at 11:59 p.m.

    Cindy, I don't know April nor have I attended any of her sessions and its also not unusual to have strong feelings good or bad about coaching. If you're referring to tactics, for me that is mostly overrated. Other nations have, women's side, have made their necessary leaps to counter the traditionally strong and physical tactical game plans. Where we lack, IMO, along with the men, is the close control dribbling and creative, imaginative play-and soft feet. Training sessions can assist in that but that's most likely changes with the ball at the feet in countless hours of free or pick up play. The Most recent Pulisic article touched on this. April might not be the Svengali of session work, but I feel like she has an accurate accounting of the game today in the states. You say we have the needed technical players now, if we do I haven't seen them, at least in numbers enough to be considered the best girl-women players in the world. Pugh, Heath, Pulisic rate excellent in skill and imaginative play. We have work to do and adults can't make these types of players.

  12. Bill Dooley replied, November 4, 2016 at 2:25 p.m.

    Our youth players may be more technical than ever, Cindy. But still woefully inadequate and losing ground compared to the rest of the soccer world.

  13. Sara P, November 4, 2016 at 12:09 a.m.

    There are so many things wrong here I don’t know where to start. So I’ll just say this interview highlights to me all that’s wrong with the girl’s coaching at US Soccer, top to bottom. I’ll pick one – if April and her cohorts in US Soccer have been selecting more technical and tactical players over the last five to ten years, then why the Ghana debacle in Jordan? She admits that the physical, psychological, etc, wasn’t enough to beat an African nation, that the girls needed different tools to solve the problems presented by Ghana – yet BJ had two full years and meticulously built his roster. Where was the technical and tactical? The style of play was typical and historical US – let’s boot it down the field or cross it in and have a couple of power forwards try and bully in a goal. No matter how much lip service is given by US Soccer to more technical and tactical the current women’s leadership is absolutely clueless on how to identify and develop technically and tactically superior players. Even if a few squeak through, the current staff have no idea how to deploy a commensurate style of play.

    p.s. if April is still pulling herself and Mia Hamm out to make player references in 2016, doesn’t that alone tell you there is something wrong and that she is completely stuck in the past?!

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, November 4, 2016 at 3:46 a.m.

    The first thing I thought of when I saw the group draw was that this was a really difficult coaching problem. 3 games in a short time against very different teams. No game would help prepare for another one. The second thing that occurs to me is that soccer really has not changed much in the last 15 years. Neither has the best coaching practices. What has changed is that the general population is less active mentally and physically which imo has reduced mental and physical development as compared to 2 or 3 generations ago when there was more attention to fine arts and physical education both in schools and at home.

  15. aaron dutch, November 4, 2016 at 12:39 a.m.

    It will only get worse as the rest of the world invests, and leverages their men's leagues to build out a full pyramid for women. Until USSF/MLS/SUM create a pyramid, real leagues for women which is linked to each team in MLS/NASL/USL Pro/Rel etc.. our football for women will only get worse and fall every 10 years from #1 to #2-4 (where we are right now) from U-17 to National. On our way to #5 - #8.

  16. Bob Ashpole replied, November 4, 2016 at 3:56 a.m.

    Aaron I don't think we have a problem at the senior level. Between college soccer and the women's professional league senior playing opportunities are there. I think the improvement is needed at the youth and junior level. The biggest problem is the exclusive nature of USSF programs and the trend for making the programs more insular. I think the conventional wisdom is that youth programs should be as inclusive as possible, but I think we need to be more inclusive through U16 which is probably not conventional wisdom in the US.

  17. Brock Hotaling replied, November 4, 2016 at 10:17 a.m.

    Totally agree with Bob here. What he's pointed up is the essence of changes that need to take place at the grass roots for real progress.

  18. R2 Dad, November 4, 2016 at 12:40 a.m.

    I can attest that HS ball, while great for our daughter socially, was an enormous waste of development time. 27 matches over 10 weeks, tons of injuries. The bad coach got replaced---by another bad coach. little to no cross-training. We are advising our 8th grader to skip HS soccer. Unless school districts dictate some rules to protect players, I don't see HS soccer continuing much longer in our neighborhood. As I understand it, San Fran USD now says club players can't play HS ball. Not sure what that achieves--more field time for other sports?

  19. Soccer Mom, November 4, 2016 at 9:48 a.m.

    She makes some great points, however I'm still really caught up on how she is going to make the GDA a Player Development Model versus the ECNL's business model?

    The GDA will still be run by the same clubs that run ECNL. They still need to receive enough revenue to pay coaches, fields, etc. Its not like US Soccer is paying for the coaching and fields. There is just a big financial disconnect for me.

  20. Brock Hotaling replied, November 4, 2016 at 10:19 a.m.

    Very interesting points. Hadn't thought about that. Would hope that someone on this board with more knowledge might clue us in on addressing this disconnect.

  21. Wooden Ships replied, November 4, 2016 at 11:04 a.m.

    For me, the disconnect, while access and funding will always be a challenge, the weight we give coaching is inflated. As Bob and someone else mentioned, the deficiency is occurring in the younger years. Our players lack the requisite touch and control and imaginative play. After witnessing now 60 years of play, it is still obvious that we giveaway the ball way too much. Our version of the game is is dominated by well meaning parents, coaches and training sessions and continuing education credits, clip boards, film study, you show me yours I'll show you mine, creditinials. Is this game really that complicated? Nope!

  22. R2 Dad replied, November 4, 2016 at 1:16 p.m.

    Good points. As long as parents believe paying means their kid will be playing, we as a nation will be unable to get beyond this. Now, if MLS/US Soccer decided that, along with rights to all these players, the corresponding responsibility meant the DA and GDA need $50M/year to eliminate the pressure of pay-to-play, the country could alleviate the trophy hunting and replace with player development. But I don't think these clubs actually know what that would mean since they've never considered it. We DO need more ex-pros in club management to make this happen, regardless of who funds play.

  23. Philip Carragher, November 4, 2016 at 10:21 a.m.

    I am puzzled as to what to think about all this but here goes anyway: the effect of the past 20 years of U.S. soccer pedagogy is starkly visual: our players don't demonstrate "the beautiful game", and as a consequence, spectators don't view the symmetry and flow of a game that captivates audiences in other parts of the world. Might that be one of the reasons why great college soccer match-ups appear poorly attended? I'll turn on the TV and check out the crowds at these college games and if there are even several hundred spectators I'm surprised. Hosting the World Cup years ago was such a treat; a couple of non-fans of soccer that I invited became fans that day due to the beauty of play.

    On another matter, should we invoke "no player left behind" rule when coaching youth soccer? How many of our less-athletic youth players find themselves overwhelmed by faster, stronger players and rarely experience success on the field? I believe contributing to a team's success plays a significant role in the enjoyment and subsequent re-upping for next year's soccer for many youth players. Keep them active and they'll be healthier for it and maybe, just maybe, some of them will develop into impact national team players with the savvy of a Pirlo.
    We must develop a better approach to coaching the heterogeneous talent found on youth teams.

  24. Wesley Hunt, November 4, 2016 at 11 a.m.

    Problem 1
Pay to play.....the money comes in the door with the parent. All you need to do is convince the parent that you are good through how many trophies your club has. Most parents are clueless when it comes to accessing training. If the litmus test is those trophies then there is no need to really pursue developement for the long term goal of a technical savvy player. You can just give that lip servis and pick the best early developed race horses to win those trophies. While you can argue that a girls DA will focus on developement the USSF is not putting any money where their mouth is so those clubs have to come up with it somewhere. Therefore, nothing has changed for the majority of the players out their.

  25. Wesley Hunt, November 4, 2016 at 11:01 a.m.

    Problem 2 While it is good to say that American kids should play more pick up the truth is fewer and fewer of them do so in any sport. Except for basketball in the poorer neighborhoods it is rare to see pick up games. Our culture has changed. The little kids have not. They still would play till dark if Mommy and Daddy would give them some free time and kick them out of the house. I know this because we have set up outdoor futsal courts for the summers and unless we call for a scrimmage they are rarely used for pick up games. When the kids are there they have a great time picking their own teams and playing the game, no differently than I did many years ago playing basketball after school with my buddies. However, I still have to make it happen. Dissapointing to say the least.

  26. Wesley Hunt, November 4, 2016 at 11:02 a.m.

    Problem 1,2 and 3 with some thoughts. If you want skilled creative players boy or girl you have to get to them young. They need to grow up in a soccer rich enviroment where Parents, Aunts, and Uncles, Siblings and Freinds all play, watch, and live soccer. They need to go to games where the local High School teams battle it out for the regions bragging rights. They need to see their their parents watching it on TV and discussing their teams latest victories and mishaps. They need to be able to go in the back yard with thier freinds, pick thier countries and pretend to score the winning goal of the world cup final. In short the game should be absorbed like a langauge with lots of free play and joy. When you get this happening then you will start to see the geniuses arise. You will see creativity and joy in all our players. We just are not their yet as a country. In most areas of the country soccer is still a mostly upper middle class game that your parents have to pay for your playing time. If US soccer wants to speed the improvement of soccer in this country they need to think about how to get it to change from the bottom rather from the top. Small sided fields everywhere, futsal courts, and they should embrace high school soccer while trying to change it at the same time. Like it or not High School is the only place a crowd of your community will show up to watch a game. It is the only place that even comes close to the excitement of a friday night football game for a soccer playing kid. They should definitly play less games, and I would never expect much developement to happen there but every kid should expeirence that thrill of playing for a cheering crowd of people who know you. Last but not least HS soccer is free to even the poorest kid.

  27. Wooden Ships replied, November 4, 2016 at 11:09 a.m.

    Good stuff Wesley. Safety in our society is different for sure.

  28. Bob Ashpole replied, November 4, 2016 at 1:14 p.m.

    Agreed. What is clear that the root cause is fearful parents making decisions for their children based on ignorance and misinformation. This is not just a "soccer" or even "youth sports" problem. It is a national problem.

  29. Becky Hylton replied, November 5, 2016 at 7:02 a.m.

    Wesley - some great thoughts (i.e.: problems 1,2,3). Grassroots is where it starts. If you read the article on S.A. about Pusilic - his passion (other than a strong family influence) started when he was exposed to the English soccer culture. My husband (who is English) and I often dialogue about the differences of the U.S. culture and the English culture. From a development standpoint - my coaching licenses taught me to let the game be the greatest teacher. This is important, because I have watched young players who have never seen a real game or really learned to play the game struggle while a coach sits on the sideline saying nothing. The coach feels (or has been told) that he or she shouldn't/can't say anything and let the game teach, but the players haven't even been taught basic concepts about the game. Then there are the coaches that focus purely on technical development without explanation on how to use technical tools in conjunction with tactical decisions. Players go to technical training during the week and then get yelled at during game play as to why they did or didn't do something - not their fault - they simply don't understand how to use the tools they have been given during game play. And then there are the coaches who simply tell their players what to do and create robots who have no idea that the game is actually their own - to make decisions as they see it. While the game may be the greatest teacher, we need to first teach them the game - BECAUSE we are not England or anywhere else in the world where soccer is the #1 sport. We can't expect tactically savvy players to develop if we focus on technique before tactics - they go hand in hand. If we truly want to change the soccer culture in the U.S., we have to change our approach with the youth....teaching them to enjoy the game (having fun so they will stay in it), how to play the game (decision-making) and giving them the skills to execute. Otherwise - these smaller, technical, tactical- savvy players that April speaks of will always come along as a 'special' player who has largely been produced outside of our development system from outside influences.

  30. Bob Ashpole replied, November 5, 2016 at 1:21 p.m.

    Becky, good points. There are a lot of ways for coaches to go wrong. There is a long learning curve for coaches. I think the USYSA coaching materials have been pretty good over the years. By basing youth training on SSG the kids are getting mixed tactical and technical training regardless of what aspects of the SSGs the coach is focused on. As coaches gain experience they will learn how to make the training more effective. I think a common problem arises when coaches put their priorities on something other than player development and forget that soccer is a game and supposed to be fun. Youth coaches need to teach a love of playing soccer and sports generally. US culture already places a high value on winning. At the youth level, mentality is just as important as technical to long term development.

  31. Bill Dooley, November 4, 2016 at 2:19 p.m.

    In Colorado a chilly springtime girls HS game on a weekday in (very small town) Buena Vista draws more people than the recent U18-19 State Cup final, played on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon.

    This is but one illustration of the central flaw in the D.A. model: the loss of peer affirmation for high school kids who are soccer players. Should they choose to play D.A., they not only lose the recognition that comes from playing - and usually leading - the HS team, they are restricted from doing many other things. With no other sports, no band, no parts in the school play, no participation in other after school activities, the high school experience is largely reduced to being in the building from 8:45 to 2:45.

    (As to the claim that these girls can opt out of the DA during D.A. the HS season, that’s less than forthright. It is certainly NOT an option in the boys’ programs here. And are we to understand, as April’s answer implies, that the 2 months - actually it’s three - can be fit in during the two months the DA team is not active?)

    A 10-month, five-days-a-week-plus-games soccer regimen for middle and high school age kids may work for a very, very few, although there’s little compelling evidence it’s working on the male side. Kids that age need to have time that allows them opportunities for other sports, interests, activities and friendships that bring texture and equilibrium to their lives. It’s troubling that April fails to recognize this most important element in the success of so many of her early WNT teammates, including the ones she cites.

    The ECNL has largely implemented a model that allows for that balance. The D.A. model decidedly does not.

    P.S. Not that any of these programs for 13-19 year olds is going to solve real problem – the lack of solid individual technical foundations built during the younger years, particularly age 9-12. That’s the emphasis in places like Japan and North Korea whose players have regularly been handing it to our of late. Add to that the fact that in the USA “once selection starts, technical development stops” and future prospects for individual and team success on the world stage are less than promising.

  32. Ric Fonseca, November 4, 2016 at 3:50 p.m.

    Cindy, why do I sense that you may be a bit envious or even jealous?

  33. Ric Fonseca, November 4, 2016 at 3:54 p.m.

    Ge gosh and gee willikers, lots of good feedback, but I must say that after reading and then again this article, I got a better sens on what she's going to do, much better than all that stuff spouting from the men's side. IMHO, I'd say, GO FOR IT COACH APRIL!!!

  34. Cindy O'hara replied, November 5, 2016 at 9:39 a.m.

    I would love to hear your thoughts if you've ever seen her coach or talk soccer with her. I have, and I'm just giving my perspective.
    IMO, the only difference between DA and ECNL is who is in charge of each leagues. These "new" DA teams will be coached by exact same coaches they've had, and you can bet that they wouldn't want any "help" from April. They all know her, and know what she is about. You think these clubs joined the DA because it's going to be a better developmental league? Not a chance. They did because it was the right business move

  35. Sara P, November 4, 2016 at 7:23 p.m.

    Why does someone with a critical opinion have be envious, RIc? Have you been to any of April's trainings? Have you watched any of her team's play? If you have then my apologies, otherwise, why discount Cindy's perspective? I have seen the exact same thing she describes.

  36. Sara P, November 4, 2016 at 7:24 p.m.

    Part 2, Ric, these are just words! US Soccer on the women's side has been spouting this same rhetoric for the last 5 years, yet player selection and style of play has not changed from the warrior girl, we're tougher than you approach April played in her day.

  37. Bob Ashpole replied, November 5, 2016 at 12:39 a.m.

    What is wrong with being the toughest or the fittest team? Seriously I don't understand. Soccer is a 90 minute long collision sport. So your description of the style of play must be a metaphor which I don't understand. Please be more specific about the style of play you are talking about? As an aside, it is very difficult to bring true change to any organization, but especially difficult when that organziation has been successful. I don't understand why April and Jill are not both getting a more positive assessment given that there is now a girls DA. Regardless of its initial effectiveness it is progress by any standard.

  38. Bob Ashpole replied, November 5, 2016 at 12:41 a.m.

    I want to add that I thought that the US coaching at the 2015 world cup was brilliant.

  39. Philip Carragher, November 5, 2016 at 1:45 p.m.

    Based on my experience as a parent of a graduate of the DA system, the biggest developmental advantage for my son was having good players to practice against. He did learn a few things from the coaching staff but not much. They mostly just scrimmaged. Competition was disappointing. I really thought we were going to see great soccer and great players. Mostly it wasn't great soccer and rarely did we see a player that looked like a candidate for the national team. Maybe one player every ten to fifteen games looked outstanding. We were constantly amazed at players who did get invited to play up. I had high hopes going into the DA, was extremely disappointed, and regret him giving up high school soccer-my biggest sport-parenting mistake.

  40. Bob Ashpole replied, November 5, 2016 at 2:11 p.m.

    Interesting comments. The DA system is unnecessary to provide greater challenges in training. Mixing genders and age groups will do it without having to travel to the next state for a match. Some coaches and clubs are mixing age groups and genders during training. The league/team structures and competitions are not necessary for development before the teen years and counterproductive at the younger ages.

  41. Ken Jarrett, November 6, 2016 at 9:58 a.m.


  42. Chance Hall, November 6, 2016 at 5:40 p.m.

    What is wrong with being the toughest or the fittest team? Really Bob? This is a prime example of why our youth programs are stuck in the past and getting beaten when we go to the FIFA youth World Cups. Did you watch our U17s get outplayed and out coached in the last two games? Unless I was watching different games, the coaching had a lot to do with what happened. I thought our girls played their hearts out. But, it was just the same old kick it long and hope we can muscle a goal in. Times have changed in soccer. Possession, foot skills, soccer sense (some say soccer IQ), and passion rule the day. When you continue to kick the ball away and play defense in front of your goal for 60 or 70 minutes, it takes a tremendous toll on the players. It wears them down physically and mentally. DA for girls won't change anything unless we change how they're coached and how we choose who is selected for player development. OK, I'm done...

  43. Bob Ashpole replied, November 7, 2016 at 1:30 a.m.

    Sidney you are criticizing the coach's game plan and the tactics. Don't confuse a player's fitness and mental toughness with team tactics. Surely you don't advocate that only weak and timid players can play the style of football you want?

  44. Greg Clader, November 6, 2016 at 9:33 p.m.

    Exactly right Sidney!!
    ALMOST without exception club coaches do not have a player development paradigm that includes developing field awareness or soccer IQ in players. US national teams consistently show a lack of combination passing, a lack of using width and depth to open the field, and poor body position when receiving a ball which leads to taking 3-4 touches on the ball when there is only time for 1-2 touches. Possession of the ball is not valued and it is given away time after time as our teams try to advance into the final 3rd at a break-neck pace. That is what lead Pirlo to state that the MLS is "...too much running and not enough play." The Ghana match showed the USSF that they had better make changes to the player development model in order to cope with the direction world soccer is going in! Despite some comments made here, the beautiful game has absolutely changed over the past 15-20 years, and being strong and fit is not nearly enough for our players to compete on the international level.

  45. Bob Ashpole replied, November 7, 2016 at 1:40 a.m.

    In saying that the game has changed recently you appear to be ignoring Brazil 1970, the Dutch teams of the 1970s, and AC Milan of the early 80's. The contrast in the length of runs in cold weather English soccer and hot weather Latin soccer goes back even farther. I said English rather than British because Scotland was long known for a short passing possession style of play. For every Barca you can name, I can point to multiple professional teams that play the style you disparage. There is nothing wrong with playing direct or slow buildup or counterattacking or possession styles. A good team should be able to play multiple styles.

  46. Ty Aydin, November 7, 2016 at 8:43 a.m.

    The US U17 age bracket has not been a complete failure over the years. As Tony DiCicco indicated in a prior Soccer America story, Kazbek Tambi's groups did play an excellent brand of soccer, producing short and long term results. His 2008 team went to the World Cup finals, and lost in overtime to North Korea. And his 2010 team, which was a stronger group, went through the Concacaf qualifications with a 38-0 goal difference, only to be subject to Concacaf's strange one game playoff system, where they lost to Canada on penalties, after a scoreless match. This group did produce some of the better current senior national team players: Crystal Dunn, Morgan Brian, Lindsay Horan, Samantha Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper, Casey Short and Kealia Ohai, among many others that have been in the senior national team pool and currently playing in the NWSL.

  47. Chris Major, November 7, 2016 at 7:12 p.m.

    Perhaps Heinrich is too close to the issue and is incapable of stepping back far enough to assess. ECNL, SA and whatever they wish to call it this week fails to understand the problem. Kids play soccer because it’s fun—period and irrespective of the level in which they play.
    We often stymie creativity in favor of wins/losses and this occurs at the younger ages. We decide on player promotion and relegation absent from any measured performance indicators. We want 13-15 yr olds to actually know what they want to study as well as the college they should attend. We hang college scholarships over players/parents heads forgetting again that these are kids. We have coaches that scream at players (even at young ages) that often making the right decision, just not the right result. Not entirely certain how this promotes creativity and love for the game.

    When was the last time you saw kids in the US playing pickup games at the local parks—pretty much never. This is where kids expresses themselves and discover their soccer personalities. We continue to apply the Football/Basketball model for soccer and it simply doesn’t work. Don’t get me started about the costs—we have driven the sport the direction of tennis and golf—only for the wealthy.

    The women’s game hasn’t fallen off, the rest of the world is catching up. They are catching up because of cultural shifts and attitudes. The US had a head start because of title IX as well as a better cultural model for women—something absent from most Latin, Asian, European and African cultures. But the world is changing and those changes towards improved equality will give them a leg up as they have an older/better soccer culture from a superior men’s game and a sport that in no 1 in those respective countries.

    My two cents and change of course. I’m an older dad still playing men’s league and still loving the game. I’m fortunate to have two daughters that share this love. My being able to watch them play as well as having a Sunday kick around with them is truly a blessing.

  48. Bob Ashpole replied, November 8, 2016 at 5:58 p.m.

    I see the same things you do Chris, but Heinrichs' technical director position is a political one. Politics means compromise. It is also described as the Art of What is Possible. So I concluded that the problem is not her lack of understanding of the problem, but rather reality requiring her to compromise.

  49. Joe Wilson, November 12, 2016 at 3:43 p.m.

    Mallory Pugh's HS coach is also a prominent coach and administrator at her club, and had significant roles in US soccer over a long career. Mallory went out of her way to credit her with some of her development. So April is ill-informed or disingenuous. Pugh would not have joined the National Team any earlier than she did, and no HS injuries impacted her getting in National Team games.

  50. Robert Smith replied, November 19, 2016 at 5:52 p.m.

    Picking one case to illustrate your point is not fair.

  51. Steve Austin, December 16, 2016 at 12:05 a.m.

    whether hs,or one of the alphabet leagues soccer is still partially a social sport for the players. Development has less to do with the coaches than with the players personal commitment to learn, no matter who the coach is. We do not have the soccer culture behind us that other countries do so we need to develop our own style of play. Having had the opportunity to see April at work.....she knows the game, she knows where she wants us to go but it's still up to the local coaches and more importantly to the players to get there. Let's not forget that at the highest level, and that's what really counts, we are the best in the world. Coach your players to play and enjoy the game, the very few that aspire to the next level will let you know who they are and maybe you can help them get there.

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