U.S. Club Soccer's Phil Wright on the big election, empowering clubs, and the quest for A+ players

Since 2003, Phil Wright  has been the Chairman of the Board of Directors of U.S. Club Soccer, which was founded in 2001 and is one of the four youth governing bodies under the U.S. Soccer Federation umbrella, along with U.S. Youth Soccer, AYSO and SAY Soccer.

U.S. Club Soccer’s member leagues include the ECNL, ENPL, NPL, and Premier Leagues. It also runs state cups and the id2 and PDP player identification programs.

Wright, an attorney who recently retired as the the City of West Sacramento's Assistant City Manager of Administrative Services, played college ball at Stanford in the 1970s and coached the women’s teams at Stanford and Santa Clara University in the 1980s.

Wright currently coaches boys U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams at the San Juan Soccer Club, where he previously served as Director of Coaching.

SOCCER AMERICA: Let’s start with soccer politics. We’re in the middle of heated debates about U.S. Soccer Federation leadership ahead of the Feb. 10 USSF presidential election. Has U.S. Club Soccer decided whom it’s going to support in the presidential election?

PHIL WRIGHT: We have not made any decision at this point. That will be the major subject of our board meeting in Philadelphia [in mid-January, during the United Soccer Coaches Convention].

The thing that's made me most proud of our board is we want to hear from everybody, and we want to talk to each other, and we want to be thoughtful about what the right position would be for U.S. Club Soccer.

We have people on our [nine-member] board who want to go in one direction and people who want to go in another direction, but the vast majority said we need to talk to each other in Philadelphia. We need to have meaningful conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of every candidate, and that shows the maturity of our board.

Nuts and bolts: How U.S. Soccer's presidential election will work. By Paul Kennedy

SA: What are you looking for as you decide on whom to vote for?

PHIL WRIGHT: We as an organization are looking for someone who will be a strong enough leader to the staff in Chicago to insist that the staff will actually listen to its members -- particularly their youth community members -- as they consider various actions that affect those members.

There are things that have happened in recent years where it feels like U.S. Soccer is not listening to us. There is a pretty strong sense that when they reach out to the youth membership -- it feels like a token reaching-out after they've already made the decision. That they're not really interested in our opinions.

SA: For example?

PHIL WRIGHT: When they came to us with field sizes, every youth organization said both the size of the 7v7 field and 9v9 field were too small. They changed one but ignored the youth organizations on the other saying, in effect, we'll try it for a couple of years and then reevaluate. And that's ridiculous. If every one of your youth organizations, from USYSA to AYSO to SAY to U.S. Club, says the field size is off, you should stop what you're doing. They should have included us while they were evaluating how to draw up the field sizes.

It felt as if they met with us more to check a box. And we feel the president is someone who must say, "That's not acceptable." Who says, “These are our members, you will listen to them.”

SA: The other big issue in recent years was the change to birth-year age groups …

PHIL WRIGHT: They decided to go to the calendar year, which we fully supported, for the elite level kids.

But splitting up recreational teams that have been together for four or five years -- and they all go to the same school, playing rec soccer 10 games a season -- and somehow they say it's just too complicated to allow the rec leagues to use a different registration.

They just didn't listen well to their members.

I don't think anyone expects the Federation to do everything its members want all the time. They're supposed to hire experts and make decisions, but they need to listen to their memberships.

SA: One would expect that U.S. Club might be dissatisfied with the Federation because its launch the Girls Development Academy creates competition with your member league ECNL for the USA’s elite girls players. When U.S. Soccer launched the Boys DA in 2007, it also interfered with U.S. Club Soccer’s quest to run elite soccer in the USA.

PHIL WRIGHT: The hope when we started U.S. Club Soccer was the federation might at one point look and say, hey these folks at U.S. Club Soccer are really running high-end club soccer better than anybody else. Let's bring them in under the Federation and let them run our elite league.

The vast majority of the clubs that are in the Development Academy system, except for some of the MLS clubs, they were all U.S. Club Soccer clubs playing in our top leagues. And we were very hopeful that they would say, let's let U.S. Club Soccer run that academy program. And we were already planning on having a second division, and third division, and promotion and relegation in our youth academy system.

But they chose not to do that and launched the Academy, and we had to readjust. OK, we'll run what is essentially the league we hope is directly under the Academy system.

SA: Now Girls Development Academy is competing with the ECNL. How do you think that will play out?

PHIL WRIGHT: I think it's really difficult. I've had a bunch of people ask me, “Should I play ECNL or should I play Academy?” And of course it's hard because ECNL is one of our member leagues and I think they've done a phenomenal job providing really high level competition for girls around the country for a number of years.

I think it's naive to believe there is not going to be some of those kids who are going to want to play in the Academy because they are going to get pressure from the youth national team coaches who would like to see them playing there.

But what I'm most concerned about is that there is a bit of a split for a number of years, with half of the best players playing in ECNL and half playing in the Development Academy.

And it’s going to be hard for everybody -- the college coaches, the national team staff, when the kids are in different leagues and they're trying to compare them to each other.

SA: The Girls DA prevents players from playing high school soccer …

PHIL WRIGHT: I think soccer is more social for girls than the guys and high school is a really big deal for them, so I think the Academy not letting the girls play high school could make it harder for them.

SA: I know there might be cases in which ECNL coaches discourage their players from playing high school, but in places like Northern California, where the high school season is in the winter, it seems like it should be a no problem for players to do both.

PHIL WRIGHT: Right, you’ve got a fall club season, high school, and then spring club season.

I understand the pros and cons of high school soccer. There’s not an easy answer. It’s not one size fits all.

What’s right for some players might not be right for others, but the Federation is a little bit Big Brother. They want to micromanage everybody, have everybody do it the same.

At U.S. Club Soccer, we decided we’re not going to do it that way. From the beginning, we've said we're a national organization but we’re going to listen to our clubs and leagues. What works best for you?

One of the secrets to U.S. Club Soccer’s success is that it's based on clubs. We really want to empower the clubs.

SA: In what sense?

PHIL WRIGHT: We have the very sound belief that clubs are where parents and players are most closely aligned and connected to the soccer world and their kids.

And we let the clubs in their areas help guide how the game should be run in each particular area.

The country is too big, too different to have the same calendar and the same structure to work in all parts of the country. So, we count on our local clubs to work together. To say, for example, in Northern California, this is how the clubs think it should be run best. In Southern California, maybe it’s different. In the Midwest, maybe it's different.

SA: What did you think about the doomsday reaction to the USA not qualifying for the men’s 2018 World Cup?

PHIL WRIGHT: Part of it is that we’re becoming a soccer nation -- not qualifying causing this level of reaction and angst. It's not rational, but it's the way it is in every soccer country, for the most part. But, of course, there’s been progress. ...

Back in 1976, when I was invited to the Timbers' training camp out of college, somebody from a newspaper in Portland asked me when I thought the U.S. would win the World Cup. In 1976, I told him: 2026. He said, "You got to be kidding. There's 70,000 people watching the Cosmos. The Quakes sell out every game. There's all these kids playing."

I said, “It's going to be when my kids' kids are playing.

It takes patience and generations to create a soccer country.

SA: How would you rate the progress?

PHIL WRIGHT: We are absolutely getting close. We are producing thousands and thousands of B+ players now. Way better than when you and I were playing. That's how it's supposed to be. Are we producing A+ players? Not very many. And even A players. Not enough.

So, we still have work to do. But, we've got Christian Pulisic, Jonathan Gonzalez, Tyler Adams. These are all kids who went to Spain when I was part of the delegation of our id2 Program. We have some special kids we're starting to produce.


SA: What’s an example of what could be done better in the USA?

PHIL WRIGHT: One thing every country that has turned their soccer around has done is extensive coaching education, whether it's Iceland, Spain, Belgium, Germany, France. They've put huge numbers of coaches through really good coaching education, so they've got great coaches working with kids with their under-8s, under-10s.

One of my biggest complaints about the Federation is now they're making coaching education harder, more expensive -- so they're doing the exact opposite of what everyone else did.

We've got to completely revamp our coaching education so we've got coaches coaching at every level who are passionate about the game, and know how to coach, and really focus on development over winning. And that's got to become a cultural switch.

And the pros have to give young players more opportunities.

SA: You think MLS teams, although they seem to have ambitious youth programs, aren’t fielding enough young players?

PHIL WRIGHT: You watch a German Bundesliga game and there will be five or six kids, between 18 and 22, on every field. They understand to develop the game you've got to put these kids on the field and give them a chance to play. And we've got kids in this country right now who are 18, 19 and 20, who need to be on the field. Are they going to make mistakes? Yes. But we need to start realizing as a country that they need be given a chance.

I understand MLS is professional sport, they need to win, they want to win. We have to figure out a way to get kids on the field.

I was thinking it was going to be the USL, but the USL has gotten so competitive they're bringing in players from all over the world. …

We have to play young players. Look at Seattle. Cristian Roldan [now 22, he has played in 91 MLS games, including two MLS Cups]. He got the opportunity, and that’s why he’s developing. He's playing with great players around him. But not enough young players are given a chance.

SA: What do think of what seems like an extreme amount of acrimony in the American soccer community now?

PHIL WRIGHT: I think part of it is the symptom of the social media and the political environment we're in. We don't want to have complicated conversations, with depth, and with nuance. You're either on this side or that side.

One of our U.S. Club Soccer philosophies is work together Monday through Friday and try and make the game better for your region, and then go out on weekend and try to beat each other -- and then come back on Monday and work together to make the game better.

That's part being of being a soccer person -- to be committed to the whole game.

7 comments about "U.S. Club Soccer's Phil Wright on the big election, empowering clubs, and the quest for A+ players".
  1. R2 Dad, January 8, 2018 at 11:42 a.m.

    "One of my biggest complaints about the Federation is now they're making coaching education harder, more expensive -- so they're doing the exact opposite of what everyone else did." Agreed. But what can be done about it?

  2. frank schoon replied, January 8, 2018 at 5:15 p.m.

    R2, they will sooner or later make a coaching education of a Phd quality. Yeah. like this is really going to help a kid trap a ball better. Oh, the humanity of it all...if only we had these highly educated coaches in the street soccer days, my trapping and dribbling ability and 1v1 would have so much better....

  3. frank schoon replied, January 8, 2018 at 5:21 p.m.

    He also mentions extensive education...well Holland has one of the best and see where it has gotten them in the world of soccer.This is guy who is from the Organizational, Structural side of soccer which we our up into our necks, but has no clue when it comes to the real nuts and bolts of developing soccer players. He sees player developmental improvements only in structural concepts and in organizational frameworks

  4. Kent James replied, January 10, 2018 at 9:05 a.m.

    Frank, while coaching degrees don't guarantee good coaches, it is reasonable to make sure coaches are exposed to the "best practices", and sometimes it takes a good coaching course to give coaches the understanding (and confidence) to do less, but helping them set up the structure that allows kids to develop fully.  As for making it more accessible, that would involve having more coaching clinic more frequently in more locations (and cheaper), which may require some subsidies.  You don't need to have people with coaching "Ph Ds" teaching U8s, but making sure the people who do coach U8s understand the basics of coaching that age group is important.

  5. frank schoon replied, January 10, 2018 at 10:59 a.m.

    Kent, I understand where you are coming from and, yes , if you want to take a coaching course ,go for it. I'm not saying don't take it for it is bad for you...I'm sure you will learn something and benefit from it. My criticism has more to do with the overall concept of getting the license and the weight they place on it to develop a youth player. If anything a coaching license restricts youth development for a coach sees things in terms of the "TEAM" not the "INDIVIDUAL" . In the beginning stages of the youth player up to about 14 the youth should be development via the concept of INDIVIDUALITY.  Team concepts and individual concepts can't function together ONLY in the later stages of development of the youth. This is why I was very fortunate to have learn the game and progressed as a youth player in the "street soccer' era free of limitations. The only limitations I learned was with playing against better players. As Johan Cruyff said: “I trained about 3-4 hours a week at Ajax when I was little. But I played 3-4 hours everyday on the street. So where do you think I learned to play football?” The answer to that question is that it certainly wasn't from licensed coaches in the streets. There is no way a coach can teach what you learn the game playing pick up soccer, for it is the most naturally way of really learning. I totally disagree on how the coaching school academy teaches the prospective license coaches on developing the player. This is why I'm not impressed on what has beendone in the past 50years to the development of our players. Yes, the reffing has improved, like the organizational side, etc but the developmental side is sorely lacking which means we come back full circle to what is taught at the Coaching School

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, January 10, 2018 at 12:54 p.m.

    Frank, you are so right. Too much organization and structure, not enough play.

    Coaching is practical like engineering, not theoretical like science. Knowing theory is nice, but not as important as knowing what works best from practical experience.

  7. frank schoon replied, January 10, 2018 at 1:03 p.m.

    Bob, so true

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