Anson Dorrance on soccer politics, marrying the ECNL and DA, and the women's pro game

Anson Dorrance  coached the USA to its first Women's World Cup title in 1991 and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels to 22 national championships. More than 60 of his Tar Heel players have played for the U.S. national team, including six on the USA's 2015 World Cup-winning roster. We checked in with Dorrance in the wake of Carlos Cordeiro being elected U.S. Soccer president.

Anson Dorrance (Photo courtesy UNC SID)

SOCCER AMERICA: What did you think about the U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election?

ANSON DORRANCE: Obviously, there were parts of the campaign that disturbed me. I’m not into negative politics and for me that was a big disappointment. For all of our excitement for building a great future, I can’t stand seeing our icons thrown under the bus.

I think the way a lot of these people treated Sunil Gulati, who’s done a remarkable service to this country in terms of soccer development, and Bruce Arena, who is one of our Mount Rushmore figures, is just unforgivable. Leading up to the election, there was a lot of that sort of thing, and that disappointed me significantly.

But one thing that did excite me was the number of people who were interested in running for president. I think that was very positive. That a whole collection of people stepped forward as potential leaders for this country. I thought that was outstanding.

SA: Any other positives?

ANSON DORRANCE: I love what the Athlete’s Council did. They stood as one voice, which means they have to be basically respected and embraced as a leadership force, and I think their ideas now have to be part of what becomes policy. For them to vote as a bloc, it meant that people with different opinions had to come together and respect each other’s opinions, to comprise.

There was so much fracturing during the campaign, which is a reflection of what’s happening in national politics. And God forbid that we imitate what’s happening in national politics, where a Republican would rather have the country sink than support a Democrat’s policy that is good for the United States. That’s a very negative image of what politics should be.

We’re never always going to agree on everything. When we disagree, let’s not be poisonous in our references. So I really loved the spirit of the Athlete’s Council, showing that we can work together, and I am very encouraged right now and feel good about the future.

SA: One area of strife in youth soccer has been how U.S. Soccer has run the Development Academy. Last year it launched a Girls DA, which now competes with the ECNL ...

ANSON DORRANCE: One of my missions, if Carlos Cordeiro will accept a meeting, is to see if we can marry these two organizations together. I'm convinced we can have everyone at the same table. Have some sort of hybrid that is still making sure their best practices are impactful, while embracing all the different organizations. I'm going to do my best to see if we can make this happen. They should enhance the ECNL --- so we have a larger player population feeding into the national team.

SA: When U.S. Soccer sends out a press release announcing a youth national team roster, it mentions how many of the players play for DA clubs -- for example: "Sixteen of the [22] players come from U.S. Soccer Girls’ Development Academy clubs" -- but doesn't mention what leagues the other players play in ...

ANSON DORRANCE: It's as if they're saying, “We’re the ones developing the players.” No, you’re not developing the players. You’re recruiting the players. Please don’t try and pretend because 70 percent of the players on a youth national team are from the DA, you’re developing them. You and I both know they ripped these kids off from ECNL teams. How do you do that? You do that by showing 70 percent of the kids on a youth national team came from a DA team, "so everybody has to be there."

Photo by Jeffery A. Camarati courtesy of UNC SID

SA: It makes sense that U.S. Soccer runs a DA for girls -- but not that it should be competing with other organizations?

ANSON DORRANCE: There has been an autocratic leadership for player development in the United States and I absolutely hate it. I absolutely don’t get it. The Federation should be leading instead of competing.

We have a lot of great coaches in the country at all levels and everyone has some good ideas somewhere and I think we shouldn't go around ordering people to do this or do that. To some extent, share best practices -- but don’t be so autocratic and so competitive where you're basically trying to bury your opponent.

The evolution of the game is having some maverick down there, trying something different, watching it work, other people steal those ideas, and all of a sudden the game changes.

SA: Because it's obvious that no one has ever come up with a magic formula for player development, it would seem that mandating a curriculum on a whole nation might not be the best approach. Do you agree?

ANSON DORRANCE: When I retired from the national team coaching position, my dream was for U.S. Soccer to give me women’s development. My idea was ...

We have such an enormous population, why not conduct a massive scientific experiment? The country in those days was divided up in four regions. I was going to allow each region to develop their own best practices.

I was going to let four competing groups have their own best practices incubation experiment, all being conducted at the same time, with the national coach observing this and seeing what seems to be working, obviously picking players out of all four different regions, and assembling this juggernaut.

If a country like Iceland can qualify for the men’s World Cup, qualifying out of Europe, with a tiny population in a frozen wasteland, imagine what we can do if we set everyone free to chase their own ideas, and all come together, with smiles on our faces saying, “You know what, I really like what your team is doing in this area. ... What have you guys been doing?" And all of a sudden we’re sharing all this, and it’s not some sort of autocratic "this is what has to happen," because you and I both know that player development is an alchemy, it’s not a science. It's this alchemist who's going to come up with an idea that’s going to shake things up, change things for better.

Yes, there are some things we should share universally, but please don’t be married to absolutely everything that comes from the latest success in Europe.

Photo by Grant Halverson courtesy of UNC SID

SA: What was your reaction to the U.S. women's performance at the Concacaf U-20 Championship? It qualified for the 2018 U-20 Women's World Cup, but lost on PKs in the final to Mexico in after a 1-1 tie?

ANSON DORRANCE: For me, this is a personal indictment, because I’m coaching kids on those rosters, and I think right now Mexico is closing the gap.

I don’t consider penalty kicks the final arbiter, but when you look at the game it’s clear that Mexico is progressing a lot faster in the last 10 years and we have regressed -- and we need to sort out what we can do to get to our potential.

It's not just the results. We all know you can out-shoot a team 40-1 and you can lose on that one shot. But I'm talking about which team dominated, which team went into the other penalty box the most, which team is playing through lines better, which team is developing elite players.

During the United Soccer Coaches Convention, BJ Snow [U.S. U-23 coach and former U-17 coach] and Mark Carr [current U-17 coach] and their staff gave excellent lectures. They talked about what we were doing well and what we weren't doing well.

I was embarrassed at how small of a room they were in and how few people attended. All of us should have been in that room, listening to the suggestions and trying to solve the issues. We need to get better at sharing ideas and information.

SA: One thing that happened at the eve of the election was the folding of the Boston Breakers ahead of the National Women’s Soccer League’s sixth season, and there were some who used that to criticize U.S. Soccer …

ANSON DORRANCE: One of Sunil’s greatest legacy is the NWSL. I’ve always told him how much I appreciate him building a league with a business model that lasted more than three years. Tremendously, to his credit, the NWSL is entering its sixth season.

[Editor’s note: NWSL predecessors WUSA and WPL lasted only three seasons each.]

The Boston failure does not lay at U.S. Soccer’s feet. We have to figure out how to sell our game. Let’s make an effort marketing women’s soccer. Let’s try and solve this conundrum.

Why is there such incredible support in Portland and Seattle, but no one in Boston? How do we share marketing practices and take on the challenge to make professional women’s soccer work? I’m doing it here. We share our UNC mailing lists with the Carolina Courage, aiming to share supporters. So they can follow the pro season from March to September and support the college game from September to December.

Don’t blame our national leadership for every failure.

SA: Like failing to qualify for the 2018 men’s World Cup?

ANSON DORRANCE: Let’s not just blame the highest two or three people in national leadership. We should all take personal responsibility.

I am taking part of that blame. I was part of U.S. Soccer and NSCAA [now United Soccer Coaches] coaching training for years, and maybe some of the stuff I was teaching wasn’t right. We’re all personally responsible and should reevaluate how we are working in our own communities. All of us have to do a better job in our individual roles to take us to our potential. We have to do better.

18 comments about "Anson Dorrance on soccer politics, marrying the ECNL and DA, and the women's pro game".
  1. Bob Ashpole, February 16, 2018 at 2:46 p.m.

    Yet another great interview, Mike. You emphasized the most important take-away:

    "The evolution of the game is having some maverick down there, trying something different, watching it work, other people steal those ideas, and all of a sudden the game changes."

  2. John Polis, February 16, 2018 at 4:22 p.m.

    Good comments by Anson. I had the distinct good fortune of working with Anson in China when his women's team won the first world championship for women. Having traveled the world with various U.S. National Team coaches, I am pleased to say that Anson was one of my favorites to work with. He understood my job and was willing to let it mesh with his own. Always willing to step up and do what we needed to promote the game. 

  3. Ric Fonseca, February 16, 2018 at 4:33 p.m.

    Good piece of reporting. I've one question, though: How was Mr. Dorrance allowed to recruit and coach some players at UNC and then also coach those very members in the WNT?  Did the NCAA then make an exception to the rules?  Now don't get me wrong, y'all, he's done a damned good job, and a big round of applause nd thanks to both him and Mike W. for the article.
    As for the negativity in the recent US Soccer elections, as I've said in previous comments, I feel that it is very important to hear all points of view, positive, negative, indifferent, etc. because after all, it can't all be rosy and devoid of bad tidings. 

  4. R2 Dad, February 16, 2018 at 4:40 p.m.

    Thanks for the interview, Mike. Everyone knows this guy has been involved in the sport for a long time and has interesting things to say about the game in this country.

    My thoughts, FWIW:

    RE election: "people with different opinions had to come together and respect each other’s opinions, to compr(om)ise." Except there was no compromise. The status quo candidate won, reinforcing the existing systems in place.  There was no mandate for change, so expecting change is really just hoping for change.

    RE ECNL & DA:"see if we can marry these two organizations together." The only way this will happen is if the DA absorbs or forces the ECNL to accept a secondary or subservient postiion. US Soccer could force it, but that's not really the Hope & Change everyone was looking for. But US Soccer/MLS did this with USL & NASL, no reason to believe they won't do the same to ECNL.

    RE ECNL vs DA: "You and I both know they ripped these kids off from ECNL teams." 100% agree. Rostering does not equal development, I'm glad to hear this from someone with such high exposure in the sport.

    Lastly, we are so parochial in this country. Bruce Arena may be a "Mt. Rushmore" figure in the US, but he is a mere footnote when compared to the international game. Take the blinders off. We might be living in this country, but we're playing the world's game. The coaching ruler is marked by Cruyff, Bielsa, Ancelloti, Ferguson, Del Bosque, Scolari, Klopp, Guardiola, Simeone. Arena has done nothing at the international level that leads me to believe he is a top coach.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, February 16, 2018 at 6:54 p.m.

    R2 Dad he was talking about the Athlete's Council voting as a block.

  6. Ric Fonseca replied, February 16, 2018 at 10:09 p.m.

    R2D2, I am not inb agreement that Arena is a "Mt. Rushmore."  You hit the nail on the head as to he isn't...

  7. frank schoon replied, February 17, 2018 at 11:04 a.m.

    R2, I totally agree and this is why I don't want an American coaching the USMNT for Bruce Arena, with all due respect, is just a footnote and he is the most experienced of our US coaches...We have to accept the fact that we are currently not capable, and don't have the top level experience and deeper insights and knowledge of the game and therefore we need to bring in higher level more experienced coaches in order to learn and build our knowledge base....

  8. James Madison, February 16, 2018 at 6:39 p.m.

    Good thoughts from Anson.  Good interviewing by Mike.  I was not at the coaches convention (too far away for an amateur), but am astonished that few wanted to listen to the men's youth ntional coaches.

  9. Lonaka K, February 17, 2018 at 5:53 a.m.

    Great interview by Anson.  Unfortunately for US Soccer, their are too many egos and therefore we will never achieve top success.

  10. frank schoon, February 17, 2018 at 11:20 a.m.

    Good interview, but I like to know why the women's game on the level of technical development, has not done anything over the years, which is not surprising for neither has the men's game in the past 50 years. The women's game from a technical point of view is boring and predictable. The only progress in the women's game ,like the man, is mostly horizontal, not vertical, technically speaking. 
    Yes, the women were very successful ,worldwide, in the beginning and that was due to lack of good women competition and the lack of cultural acceptance of women playing soccer, leaving us way ahead of the ball game. But as you see today  the women and like with the mn our competition is getting better but were not improving...

  11. Ric Fonseca replied, February 17, 2018 at 2:50 p.m.

    Frank: I've assumed from your postings that you're very familiar with the US soccer scene on a national level - as I have also.  However, what is happening vis-a-vis the women's game, is that other countries have and are catching up with us, viz Mexico, Japan, etc., their federations are putting in tons of money, and Mexico can thank former Mexican National Team & WC player Leo Cuellar who spent some time in the Los Angeles area, was first hand witness on how the US ladies were doing in player development, and then went back to Mexico to take over the reins of the women's program. And now the Federacion Mexicana de Futbol Femenil as well as a national Women's pro circuit, is going ALL out to develop players, clubs, systems, etc. And, I might add that they're also on the look out for young Mexican girls living and going to school in the US, and then signing them to play for Mexico, and I betcha another quarter that other Central and South American countries are doing the same.  Hmmmmm!  I wonder if B. Rothenberg's highly profitable Sueno circus will eventually and sooner rather than later will also open the doors for women? 
    Lastly, in answer to your initial question above, IMHO, the women's technical development has lain dormant of late, is because of arrogance and lots of hubris principally emanating from the top - now don't get me wrong ladies - having assumed  that since our wonderful WNT was "untouchable" until Japan, Sweden, Germany, Brazil, began to also strut their stuff and to put it bluntly, put us in our place.  But don't fret, improvement is right around the corner and the women's game is NOT "boring and predictable...(sic)!"

  12. frank schoon replied, February 17, 2018 at 3:17 p.m.

    RIC, I was hoping that women's soccer would set an example for playing nice soccer for the men to emulate for I thought the womens game would be more technical and thus relying less upon the physical side of things... In other words I envisage sort of a Latin type of game, Boy, was I wrong. Sissy from Brazil was a breath of fresh air, for she showed that the women's soccer game could be so nice to watch, in terms of skill and creativity.
    I hope Mexico has the right idea of what you're telling me and show the USSF that they are going about it wrong.(I'm glad you're in the know about what is going in soccer development south of the border....for I had no idea....)
    As long as USSF Soccer Coaching School does not begin to incorporate Latino training techniques we'll continue to produce nothing but a bunch contruction workers ( no offense to them) types of players with no creativity but lots of brawn. And yes, there is an arrogance shown by those who run the USSF soccer Coaching academy( remember what they did to Teofilo Cubillas) who glorify the European style of training.
    Right now, I don't see things getting any better with the new leadership, sorry.

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, February 17, 2018 at 5:39 p.m.

    The "She Believes" matches in March will test the technical ability of the US players. 

    Regardless of where the national teams are now, progress is the important thing. I think you are right about the women being well placed to lead the way. The time for change is right as we start to intregrate a new generation of young players in both player pools.

  14. frank schoon replied, February 17, 2018 at 5:43 p.m.

    Bob, that should be interesting coming up in march. I'm going to be very interested in what Mexico is doing with women's soccer as Ric stated

  15. Bob Ashpole replied, February 17, 2018 at 5:46 p.m.

    First touch is the foundation on which team tactics is built. I won't say names, but in both player pools there are people whose first touch fails them repeatedly. We cannot play a more sophisticated style of soccer with players like that on the field. Filling in out of necessity for injured players is something that may be unavoidably, but including players with poor first touch drags down the play of the entire team. In high level competitions, weak players are targeted and exploited. They drag down the whole team. 

  16. frank schoon replied, February 17, 2018 at 7:48 p.m.

    Bob, I can't agree with you more.......when do these games begin in March?

  17. Bob Ashpole replied, February 18, 2018 at 5:28 p.m.

    US WNT plays Germany on March 1st.

  18. Tim Schum, February 18, 2018 at 12:22 p.m.

    Great interview with a person who has been and continues to be perhaps the most innovatiive of our US coaches.

    No matter who is the titular head of US Soccer, it is a historical fact that while FIFA has designated it as the organization to lend leadership (and all that that entails) for the sport in this country, overall US Soccer has never demonstrated that it has had the ability to bring about a consensus on a variety of crucial issues that have impacted the sport.

    And unfortuately as other organizations have emerged and taken on roles that rightly could have have been the purview of US Soccer, the organization finds itself playing "catch up" in terms of identifying ways of influencing the impact of those now-autonomus groups on the game's progress.

    Anson's comment that US Soccer "should be leading, not competing" summarizes the organization's historical approach to any perceived threats to its leadership role, particularly as it pertains to coaching education in this country. It is almost comical to detail how US Soccer has countered any threats to its coaching licensing program by changing requirements, costs, etc.

    Coming forward in the absence of enlightened leadership by the national body, the far-fledged and autonomous state youth organizations owe no alligence to the supposed national governing body. Combined their budgets and breadth of impact, particularly on coaching progress, overwhelms US Soccer's. As they say, "The horse has left the barn."

    As noted by Anson (and others) there is a great wealth of coaching knowledge available in this country. How to constantly evaluate the various approaches to the twin objectives of better coaching and improved player identification and development is a task that thus far defied US Soccer's leadership. Let's hope that that a Dorrance-adovated more open approach to problem-solving can be insituted. 

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