Anson Dorrance on Girls DA vs. ECNL -- and why the focus should be on the youngest ages

Interview by Mike Woitalla

Anson Dorrance, coach of the USA’s first Women’s World Cup championship team in 1991 and head coach of the University of North Carolina since 1979, has been closely following the major change in the girls youth soccer landscape that’s coming with the introduction of the Girls U.S. Soccer Development Academy.

The Girls Development Academy kicks off its inaugural 2017-18 season in August with 70 clubs. The ECNL, founded in 2009, will return with about 80 clubs.

Since U.S. Soccer announced its Girls DA launch, it has been competing with the ECNL for membership. We asked Dorrance, who has won 21 NCAA Division I titles, for his views on the strife between the two organizations and what he would like to see happen in American youth soccer.

Anson Dorrance

SOCCER AMERICA: Is there a best-case scenario in how this battle between U.S. Soccer and the ECNL might play out?

ANSON DORRANCE: The best-case scenario is to agree that all of us are an important part of player development.

My huge fear is we’re all pointing fingers at each other claiming that different parts of the American player development constituency is falling down on the job. And I don’t like it.

I think we should come together, basically agree on best practices, agree on directions, and recruit each other to be a part of each other’s success.

Because right now, there’s just not a good feeling out there and I don’t like it.

SA: What concerns you about how the plans for the new girls soccer landscape are unfolding?

ANSON DORRANCE: I’m always afraid of an individual or a collection of individuals who really feel like they’ve solved the player development conundrum. I get nervous when all of a sudden we’ve discovered this is a certain way that we have to develop our players.

And I’ve never appreciated people who feel there’s only one way to go in the right direction.

SA: How would rate U.S. Soccer’s work on the girls and women’s side?

ANSON DORRANCE: Obviously, I think U.S. Soccer is in a fantastic leadership position for all of us. And I think in general they make fantastic decisions. They certainly have on the women’s side. What [U.S. Soccer President] Sunil Gulati did in organizing the NWSL is absolutely fantastic. Here’s a league that survived beyond the typical length of a women’s professional soccer league. He figured out a way to develop a business plan but also a way to basically grow the league, and it’s getting better and better. I love where the NWSL is right now and where it’s going.

[Editor’s note: the NWSL, which is run by U.S. Soccer, is entering its fifth season. Its predecessors, WUSA and WPS, lasted only three years each.]

So I think U.S. Soccer is making a lot of good decisions. But I also think we have opportunities to continue to impact the growth of the game in this country and I think for that to happen in a very positive way -- it shouldn’t be legislated. It should be led. And by led, I mean sold. To sell us on best practices on the girls and women’s side, because it’s clear we have a lot of tremendous challenges.

We have an opportunity to unite everyone agree -- and not blow everything up and start over.

SA: Can you imagine a future in which American soccer thrives with both the Girls DA and the ECNL?

ANSON DORRANCE: I do. I think there are all kinds of scenarios that we can design where the two are in sync with each other, working to support each other, working to learn from each other. And I don’t think there’s any question that can be achieved.

Now can they [U.S. Soccer] also achieve it the way they did on the men’s side? Yeah, I think they can come in and be very aggressive and still achieve some good. But I just don’t like that direction.

I think we have so many excellent people working in our game in this country on the boys and the girls side and I don’t want to alienate a soul. I want to embrace everyone for whatever positive quality they care to bring. And figure out a way to blend everyone together in the most positive way.

And if that means we’ve got to make at least an organizational compromise here or there to make sure we have this thing running smoothly and effectively, to have us all on the same side, I think it’s worth visiting.

U.S. Soccer has got some tremendous coaches who I respect immensely on women’s side. And I also have huge respect for people like [ECNL president] Christian Lavers and many others on the ECNL side who have been doing an incredible job across the country.

I mean where did Mallory Pugh come from? She developed in an ECNL club [Real Colorado] that allowed her to play high school soccer and she’s a fantastic example of our ECNL coaches and the American player development environment at its best.

I think there are a lot of different things we can do to blend everyone together -- certainly impact and push each to our potential, but the only way that’s going to happen is if we agree to embrace everyone.

SA: One measure of success for youth clubs and leagues is whether they attract college coaches. Now that there will be a Girls DA and the ECNL, where are the college coaches going to scout?

ANSON DORRANCE: They’re going to go wherever they’re embraced and encouraged. And sometimes I fear for some of the people on U.S. Soccer’s side, the collegiate coaches are a pain in their rear ends. And they’re not going to be as embracing and engaging as the ECNL, and that obviously concerns me.

We have a culture where the collegiate education still is something that is a priority for most of the families whose kids play elite soccer, so I think the collegiate thing should be embraced, at least considered within our culture. And I think there’s a way to have the best of both possible worlds.

SA: What would you like to see happen in American youth soccer?

ANSON DORRANCE: If we truly want to change our culture, all this talk about the Development Academy is missing the boat. We have to pour more of our resources into Zone 1 [age 6-11].

If we want to compete with the Japanese or the North Koreans, by the time we get to a U-17 and U-20 level, honestly it’s too late.

We’ve got to focus on honoring the technical coach who transforms the kids with an exciting personality and a thorough understanding of the joy for the game, and technical growth -- and make that person our youth coach hero.

Right now, the biggest prestige for a youth coach is to win a championship at a more advanced level, U-14, U-16, U-18 … So that’s where most of our top coaches are going. And it’s a poor investment of resources.

We have to figure out how to get our top coaches to coach U-12. To focus on what to do at our U-6 level, to make sure that by the time the players get to the U-14 level, they’re the best in the world because of what they’ve done at U-6 and U-12.

Make coaching the youngest players a prestigious position -- the coaches who inspire children to love the ball, to love the game, and to play every single day.

26 comments about "Anson Dorrance on Girls DA vs. ECNL -- and why the focus should be on the youngest ages".
  1. R2 Dad, February 15, 2017 at 8:09 p.m.

    "Make coaching the youngest players a prestigious position". Sounds great on paper, but the US won't know how to do this without charging even more exorbitant fees for U6-U12 for using "named" coaches. How is this done in other countries? Ex-pros, usually 60+, want to give back to the game and fulfill this function, often as volunteers. Until parents demand it, it can't happen in our pay-to-play model. RE: college coaches, they deserve to be bypassed just as it's happening now on the men's side. NCAA dinosaurs that never saw the professional soccer asteroid coming.

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, February 15, 2017 at 10:09 p.m.

    Great article. Personally I think ages 8 to 12 is the key, so I was happy to see Coach Dorrance's comments.

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, February 15, 2017 at 10:10 p.m.

    Sorry, that comment was misplaced.

  4. Fan Enlightened , February 15, 2017 at 9:25 p.m.

    Please read Tom Byers book Soccer Starts at Home. We need to educate parents how to train and encourage their boys and girls to play at home with the ball. I do coach 5 and 6 year olds, and the amount of technical work we focus on and celebrate when we see a kid do a pull back or a "V" is a sight to see. The problem as I see it is most kids outside of a select few, may touch the ball once at practice that week, or a couple of times at home, and frankly this will not cut it for development. I struggle with parents who yell "kick it!" or "get rid of it" or "boot it". Trust me you have heard it, or if you are being honest, you have shouted it. This creates a culture of kids who are afraid to control the ball and you can see it clear as day. I also struggle with league setting up 7v7 with goalies for U6-U7 and the ensuing blob ball that occurs (with multiple parents screaming "kick it").
    One of my sons friend's father thinks he knows soccer but sadly prescribes to this "boot it/get rid of it" mentality, gets upset with his boy struggles on the ball. Meanwhile, the kid can't trap effectively, bobbles dribbles and loses control and sadly dribbles out of bounds all the time...while shouting at him to get rid of it or pass it every time he gains possession, and to hustle to get it back. He also believed my son was "born with talent" which I politely corrected to let him know how often we play at home: he dribbles to the bus stop and plays for 10-15 minutes in the AM, then we play at least an hour at night (if not more) of fun games while I teach him moves and sequential dribbles, with trapping, control and hesitation moves. I also send out to the team what we are working on with ideas for games and moves, and I can tell you 2 other kids practice at home. You can see it in their game and technique. And I whole heartedly agree with Tom that kids will stop playing because they are not very good, not because of burnout (one of the biggest fallacies in youth sports).
    So to Anson's point, we do need to take the youngest ages seriously at the U6-U11. We also need to educate parents and change the culture to encourage more love of the ball. We are falling behind technically as a nation while many Asian countries have embraced Tom's ideas like Japan, China etc. while we keep thinking we can train kids technically at 12-16, and we have sadly missed that boat. We need to encourage 4v4 for these youngest ages, which clubs still struggle to institute. And we need to ban kicking just to kick it. (KINS-Kicking is not soccer).

  5. R2 Dad replied, February 16, 2017 at 12:37 a.m.

    Agree on this parent education idea. U8 parents that have never played usually don't know what they don't know. Would love it if the leagues insisted these new parents hang out with a chill U10 team's parents so they can learn the ropes: the kids don't eat at half-time, the parents sit and cheer and drink coffee, don't abuse the referees or players, no game questions in the car on the ride home--everyone would benefit.

  6. Kent James replied, February 16, 2017 at 1:20 p.m.

    A lot of truth in your comment; the problem is not every U7 team has a coach with your skills. There are two ways to address that problem; one, is to have a common curriculum for coaches to use (and volunteer coaches have to be educated on how to use it, but that is not hard at the young ages because the concepts and skills aren't too tough, as long as you have someone supervising them so they can be educated). The other is to have a technical practice open to kids of all ages once a week where they can learn the kinds of moves you're teaching your team.

  7. frank schoon replied, February 16, 2017 at 1:36 p.m.

    I think this aspect takes time with the parents. But every year more and more parents have played the game themselves...lets face it youth soccer has been around for at least 50years, so ,yes, the same complaints about "booting, and blasting , or bloom the ball was heard much more often 50years ago as compared to today. And you will continue hearing it but it gets less and less. As far as parents acting as idiots has to do with the character and personality of the parent which has nothing to do with soccer, and you will find that in youth soccer in Holland as well. And there will always be parents, like you, in whatever sport, who are really into the game and willing work with their kid. But realize there are many parents who are perhaps not athletic , or not able to teach some of the nice stuff. This is why a coach should be taught the history of the game as far as the players go, for there were many great to talk about and show some of the old games. I do it to show and make the kids excited about the game. Every kid that I have personally trained or coached, know who Di Stefano is and what he did in games, his moves, Garrincha , Pele, Cruyff, Best, Dzajic, Keizer, Puskas, Jimmy Johnstone,Stanley Matthews,etc... Showing them why people love soccer and the BEAUTY of the game which is not taught to kids. MY kids never burned out for I taught them to appreciate the beauty of the game first by letting them watch the greats and the different moves they are known for. I just had a call from one of my former players who is now 50 years old who heard about Piet Keizer having died last week. He still remembers when he was a kid how I talked about him and what he did. Very few heard of Piet Keizer( Cruyff's teacher/teammate) who Cruyff chose as one of the top eleven players of all time. Watch him on Youtube. Likewise a Puskas ,who played for Real Madrid and for the great Hungarian team,
    considered by the Cruyff as having the greatest shooting skills ever and was able to juggle a bar of soap while taking a shower. Kids need to know about the previous stars that they can dream, and imagine about and this is one aspect that is so lacking with the American kids, for they are learning soccer in such sterile manner and the coaches lack the info on the former greats..

  8. Fan Enlightened replied, February 16, 2017 at 2:02 p.m.

    Kent James- agreed and good call on the technical practice. The problem I see is too many people at MLS affiliated academies subscribe to "the game will teach them" ideology. And big clubs don't believe young players can learn complex moves (Age 4-6). I have proof in my players/son that proves otherwise. I am to the point that I believe that a karate style system of having set moves that need to be taught by age group so kids master them is necassary (Pull-backs, changing directions, slides, V's, L's, using both feet, boxing, shielding, sole control, La Cucaracha, Start-Stop-Go, step overs, scissors, and going backwards) should be manadated by the time kids turn 7. As Byers says, wouldn't it be beneficial if kids had the basic techniques down so coaches at 9-12 can not waste time on teaching techniques vs coaching tactical acumen? It can be done, it has to be implemented if we are going to see positive growth in our National Teams. We haven't progressed as a soccer nation in 20 years, and when we point to the rarity of the Pulisics (both parents played/lived in Europe) vs the bobbling ball handlers in our midfields that can't play under pressure (i.e. Bradley) we need to change the system.

  9. Fan Enlightened replied, February 16, 2017 at 2:07 p.m.

    Also Frank- the kicking thing hasn't gone away. Sorry. Too many excited parents scream it every Sat/Sun. It hasn't slowed down, and I would like to see Technical Directors going to games and teaching parents KINS. Needs to be done widespread. Not that the parents know any better.
    As for the history lesson, never a bad thing, just know your audience with young kids. You need to make it fun with pop culture: Star Wars, Avengers etc to make it relatable. And sprinkle in some Messi/Neymar for good measure ;)

  10. frank schoon replied, February 16, 2017 at 2:35 p.m.

    Fan, I didn't say that the kicking or booming hasn't gone away but it gets less and less for more and more parents as time goes on have experienced playing the game of soccer themselves. . But regardless I find that the coach can simply say at a parental meeting what he expects of the parents behavior as far as what is allowed...It is that simple! And if a particular parent(s) don't follow what is to be expected than they will be off the team. No need for TD to come around teach and explain KINS( whatever) what a coach can simply state in a meeting....I'm just tired of all the special courses that has so little or nothing to do with soccer, are continually being added to combat this and that. I can't wait to see the next mandatory course to come up like one parent on each team has to take a 2hr. registered Nursing course....

  11. Quarterback TD, February 16, 2017 at 8:30 a.m.

    People need to see through all the BS nonsense with this. It's all about control..USDA expanded into a lot of clubs recently simply because ECNL expanded into the Mens league.. As far as Women, USDA had no choice to move on ECNL because they risk losing that market share.. competition is good and I am no fan of this bloated US Soccer monolopolistic organization that wants to run soccer from U6 and above under the pretext of winning a Men World Cup.. I know we Americans like to run to organizations with bigger names because it gives them a sense of gratitude and self pride but ECNL has been a diamond for women soccer and have delivered everything and more that it promise it will be ashame when USDA makes it less relevant and we have to put the women in the same category as our constantly losing men..

  12. Chris J replied, February 16, 2017 at 10:48 a.m.

    ECNL announced boys side AFTER the GDA was announced by US Soccer. This is a power play, pure and simple by US Soccer. ECNL has been a great model, so we agree there, and US Soccer wanted that revenue coming to them. The key is where will the college coaches go? The ECNL model is designed to facilitate college coaches – several national events where they can go one place and get looks at several prospects. If the GDA follows the boys, there are very few national events. Colleges won’t spend on travel to see four teams when they can go see 50-60. Also combined age groups for GDA will reduce the visibility for colleges versus more age groups, more players and transparency on development with ECNL. It’s a shame the egos involved on both sides couldn’t have worked out a solution, on that I agree with Mr. Dorrence’s disappointment with the current animosity.

  13. frank schoon replied, February 16, 2017 at 2:42 p.m.

    Quarterback TD, AMEN!!!!!!

  14. william newsom replied, February 16, 2017 at 7:20 p.m.

    I dont know how ECNL has given a "diamond" to anyone, nothing has changed because the clubs that are in it already where doing well with teams (Colorado for instance MP was already killing it BEFORE ECNL.) nothing the ECNL did increased these clubs production. It simply put them in a special category , exclusive club with their own badge.

  15. GA Soccer Forum, February 16, 2017 at 9:01 a.m.

    I think parent education is huge and Tom Byers is adamant about the importance of parents in the developmental growth of children and the great players of today. He emphasizes engaging parents vs casting them a side and not communicating with them.

  16. MA Soccer, February 16, 2017 at 1:39 p.m.

    USSF cannot tackle meaningful issues for some reason. They focus on areas where it publicly looks like they are doing something but in reality will have little to no affect on developing the game or players in the US. The DA expansion for boys and girls will have very little impact. Some valid arguments can be made it will be a negative.

  17. stewart hayes, February 16, 2017 at 2:23 p.m.

    The best coaches at the level of Anson Dorrance should keep doing what they do best, push the game and provide leadership for the rest of us. It is not reasonable that they will be content working with children. What we need at the youth level are people who are great recreational supervisors with knowledge of the game and a love of people. They need knowledge of best practices and small sided games. They don't have to be great tacticians but they should have played and have good knowledge of technique. A license or attractive video training course should be considered by USSF or NSCAA for school teachers and others working with these age groups. Currently all the training is directed toward coaching a team. It does not take a genius to be good at recreation but it does take some training to do what is best for children 6-12. R2, yes the older players wanting to give back can be perfect but there are not enough of them.

  18. Bob Ashpole replied, February 17, 2017 at 6:23 p.m.

    Stewart, where do you get your information? Anson Dorrance is a well-known college coach, not a youth coach. There have been over 20 million players every year in the US for decades now. Specifically what course by USSF or NSCAA do you think is not focused on development of individual players? I don't have a clue as to what you are upset about.

  19. Rick Moss, February 18, 2017 at 12:33 p.m.

    I love Anson and his opinions he has great experience and knowledge we should listen and act on it.

    As for the person who keeps quoting Tom Beyer...? Please remember where Tom got his knowledge from ??? Coerver Coaching ... if any doubt do your research Coerver has built that quality up for years and still does what most people do not ... some coaches are finally catching on.... no offense meant

    Just an Opinion

  20. frank schoon replied, February 18, 2017 at 4:29 p.m.

    I remember in Holland about 1983 when Wiel Coerver showed his training methods years before he became a household word here in late 90's. In his first book he spend about 10 pages lambasting the Dutch National Coaching School(DNCS) for not being able to teach technique or make players better. (that is why we need people like Cubilass who can). He called these coaches at DNCS a bunch of "paper poopers" that are more concerned about licensing and creating exciting coach courses (sounds familiar) and ways to look important as a licensed coach, for obviously the higher the level the more important you are deemed. Frustrated at the coaching school Coerver (he has a Dutch A-license from the DNCS himself) as a result created his own teaching skill methods based on street soccer (somewhat).Street soccer was based on learning through repetition by playing a lot and working on skills in a competitive environment played mostly on concrete , the streets, a facet Coerver didn't emphasize or talked about but at least he had the right ideas and intentions. There are some problems with the Coerver method (which he has admitted to later before he died) which I won't bring up or criticize for there isn't anything better. The Dutch Coaching Academy split with Coerver after he called them useless "paper poopers" and will never be successful in teaching skills to players;and they are good and can about a potted plant for an hour than teach soccer. As a result Coerver became successful world wide with his skill methods. Today, the Dutch Coaching Academy has come over to the US to issue a 'pro-coaching" license. . Soccer in Holland has become a disaster , for they are no longer the soccer power they were,due to the coaches at all levels and are not taught properly in how to coach ,for example, off the ball movements as one area of expertise which we call in Holland "positioning". Obviously at fault here is the quality of the instructors of the Dutch Academy . As Cruyff so aptly puts it ,these instructors never have played at a high level to understand REAL 'positioning". What is so ironic is that the USSF has chosen these instructors to come here and teach our coaches the material for a "pro-license".
    This is like the blind leading the blind.

  21. Tom Byer replied, February 18, 2017 at 11:40 p.m.

    Yes Rick, I did head up Coerver Japan and Asia for 15yrs so I understand the value. But we never focused on engaging Kids at 1-5yrs old by educating Parents. If we had I never was aware of it. And after establishing the biggest Coerver School business in the world, in Japan, I can unequivocally state that we inherited the best young players. Did we make them better, yes. But only having a child once a week for 60 minutes where half the session is drills and the other half is playing games for about a total of 15 minutes, is not the game changer. We did influence and continue to influence on focusing on the technical development of players. But it wasn't until I we had our own Kids that I realized we were not approaching development correctly. Technical Skills are rarely the result of coaching and more the result of Culture. Hence the reason why the best countries that develop players, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Spain, Italy, Germany, have no Coerver presence because their cultures are conducive to developing very Technical Players. Coerver does a great job of offering best practices and it's still pretty much the best program for Kids and Coaches to follow, especially in the non-Footballing cultures. But a majority of great players credit their Dads for their Technical Success. Just read about the Top players and it's very evident. Pulisic, Dempsey, Messi, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, are just a few.

  22. Bob Ashpole replied, February 19, 2017 at 5:51 p.m.

    Tom, I saw you speak last month on your experiences and was very impressed. I am still thinking about the topic. In my own experience (here in the USA) the 2 best young athletes (girls, ages 6 and 9) were from homes where both mothers and at least one of the fathers were former college athletes. Here in the US, I suspect that we should think of family "culture" rather than a national culture. I suspect that elite athletes in the US generally come from families that value sports and have the knowledge and willingness to promote athletic development. I am skeptical of the value of organized soccer and "training" for U4s and U6s, but am beginning to think that, if the program was aimed at the family unit instead of the child and teaching how to develop age appropriate skills, there might be a significant impact. With older players an objective is to teach players how to practice on their own. At the age when parents are the most important trainers, Why not teach parents how to developmentally "play" with their children? Why not take a train-the-trainer approach with parents of todlers? If I remember correctly from many years ago, the "Y" used to have this type of program for swimming.

  23. frank schoon, February 18, 2017 at 3:44 p.m.

    I remember Anson Dorrance back in late 80's when he and his cohorts ran the coaching school. They denied Nene Cubillas a B-license. The great Cubillas is a guy who played for the Peruvian National Team later for the NASL Fort Lauderdale Strikers and was the THIRD LEADING WORLD CUP GOAL SCORER OF ALL TIME BEHING PELE. He went to the US coaching school for a B-license.(why even bother with his experience) He wanted to help the youth in the US but guess what , this bunch at the US coaching school failed him. Cubillas has more knowledge in his left pinky about the game and has more experience playing than these idiots at the coaching school combined. Realize these idiots at the coaching school have a level of playing experience of having played for 'Joe's Pizza Hut" as compared to Cubillas.There are coaches with a B-license out there that couldn't take on lamppost one on one.
    Cubillas ended up working as sports broadcaster. This is a complete tragedy for how many teams would love to have Cubicles as their coach to teach them. Paul Gardner wrote one of the most funniest ,satirical columns about this tragedy and this stupid license was classic simply hilarious. I wonder if it is want to laugh..go read it....

  24. Kevin Sims, February 19, 2017 at 1:04 a.m.

    Kudos to Anson for his sensible ideas and perhaps his most important message: the value of cooperation & unification

  25. frank schoon replied, February 19, 2017 at 9:05 a.m.

    "The value of cooperation and unification", WOW.
    I've heard before...Anson should go in to politics!

  26. stewart hayes, February 19, 2017 at 9:06 a.m.

    Tom Byer, I was interested in you opinion on the Coerver Method. I incorporated many things from it into my coaching beginning around 2002. If you had limited time what part of the program do you feel was the most beneficial? I found that the 'change of direction' moves and 'shooting/passing feints' provided players the best foundation.

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