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?
APRIL HEINRICHS: Absolutely.
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.