SOCCER AMERICA: Last week, the USA exited the U-17 Women's World Cup at the group stage with losses to Germany (4-0) and North Korea (3-0) after opening with a 3-0 win over Cameroon. What's your view on that disappointing performance?
ANSON DORRANCE: Obviously, all of us sit there with bated breath, knowing that this is the future of our game. But here's the way I've always looked at it:
We've got a massive player pool in this country, and the age group at which we sort of catch up with rest of the world -- and obviously this is self-serving -- is at the collegiate level. We've got this huge distance at the U-17 level, then we start to close in at U-20, then we completely dominate at the full national team level.
So for me, I'm looking at the future and I can see that we're athletic, and in a lot of cases extremely talented, but without a lot of game intelligence. And all this stuff makes great sense to me, because one of the biggest issues I have with the culture of women's soccer in our country, is that our girls just don't watch the game.
It's certainly incredibly disappointing to be eliminated in group play. But if you look at it, with the exception of the finishing, the U.S. was rather dominant in the match against Germany. Wouldn't you agree with that?
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SA: After giving up a fourth-minute goal, the USA did come close to scoring five times before Germany scored the second goal and the USA did out-shoot the Germans, 25-13 ...
ANSON DORRANCE: It's the piece they don't have right now. Is it an important piece? Yes, it's the most important piece. But one of the hardest things to do is train someone to become an elite goalscorer. And what that requires, in my opinion, isn't just time with the ball, it is basically watching and knowing the game. And our girls just don't watch it.
One thing I would add immediately to player development, I would insist that every girl who comes into my culture is a fan of some team of some elite league on the men's side. Maybe we even have a quiz for them, to see if they're watching the game. And if they're aren't watching, we don't bring them back in. So all of a sudden the word gets out -- you've got to watch the game.
Because I promise you, if we start to watch the game, it's going to transform us.
Every time one of my elite players playing in the NWSL asks me, Should I go to Sweden, should I got to England, should I go to France, whatever. I always say, Yes. And it's not so much because I think those leagues are better or the coaching is better, it's because I want my girls to be marinated in the culture of the game.
And when they go over there, they absolutely get marinated. I remember when Crystal Dunn came to me and said, "Anson, I've been approached by Chelsea, should I go?" And I said, Absolutely. Because I know the culture over there and I know when she gets dipped in there she's going to be a lot more sophisticated, and sure enough, the next time I saw her, she was.
We need to be marinated in the game. I think that's the piece that's missing. Because, holy cow did those Germans finish, and boy, did we not.
SA: So besides the ineffective finishing, you thought the U.S. performance was good?
ANSON DORRANCE: I was kind of pleased. I was pleased with our domination against Germany. I was pleased with what we'll always have, which is a wonderfully gifted collection of athletes. Our population will always serve us the athletes. What we have to do is continue to marinate ourselves in watching the men's game at the highest level.
I've been trained in this now because I've got these two wonderful Brits who play for me. Lotte Wubben-Moy, my center back, and Alessia Russo -- who tragically is getting over a broken leg from our last regular-season game -- they have a polish that's unique. It's not like these two kids are complete players. They're not. They're still kids like ours who are missing this piece and that piece. But, boy, do they have a sophistication from being marinated in the game. One played for Arsenal and one played for Chelsea. And these environments that these girls came from make them wonderfully polished.
When you watch those kids play, they've just got an additional understanding of the game that we lack. And it's not like our girls don't have access to this. Sitting in my living room in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I have better access to the EPL than someone living in London.
All we have to do is develop a fandom. My issue with the U-17s is that final piece. But I wasn't disappointed with some of the other stuff they did.
Anson Dorrance celebrated his 1,000th collegiate win this season. (Photo by Jeffrey A. Camarati/courtesy UNC SID)
SA: Because you believe as they mature they'll acquire the missing pieces?
ANSON DORRANCE: We've got a kid from that team coming in and I'm very excited about coaching her. And I know that after being in my competitive caldrons for four years, when she gets spat out from the University of North Carolina, she's going to be an ass-kicker at the highest level. So I'm not the least bit worried about how she's going to do at a professional level.
We all love to see results and there are a lot of little things we can do that will make an enormous difference.
SA: Is the USA getting poor results at a U-17 World Cup -- the USA hasn't reached the knockout stage since the inaugural tournament in 2008 -- something that should set off alarm bells about American player development?
ANSON DORRANCE: Here's what I think is an alarm bell. All of a sudden seeing Spain decide to get into the women's game and then watching the incredible jump in their performance in the last five to six years. That's sort of an alarm bell for us.
That, for me, is a little scary. Because what I love about the Spanish girls is they've got this wonderful arrogance that the Spanish men have. And they're just not afraid of anything that we would ever do. I'm still convinced that our population is going to continue to spit out these wonderful athletes, and I still think the finishing school for the American player is the collegiate game.
SA: So should the youth national team programs be judged mainly on how many of its players advance to the higher level -- not the results?
ANSON DORRANCE: I'm one of these guys who feels we've got to measure ourselves on both. We still have to have a balance between results and how many elite players come out of all these different age groups. What we do in our office on a regular basis, we look at what teams are spitting out what number of elite players. There are some bursts in certain age groups and others not so much. But generally, there's a pretty consistent clip of elite players being produced on a regular basis in our player development system, which obviously excites me to no end.
But I think there are more things we can do. And one of the things that scares me a bit is this movement that someone in a national office comes up with an idea that all of us have to implement. And I've never been a fan of having a dictated national policy of everything we have to do. Because I just don't believe in it.
Too often I think we look to the European men's side as our North Star and we try to replicate everything they do, and throw it into the women's game, and I don't believe that's always the best idea.
I think there are a lot of good ideas percolating all over the place.
SA: Any positive developments you see at the girls grassroots level?
ANSON DORRANCE: In fact, I'm starting to see some kids I really like who demonstrate an opportunity: producing elite players as they go through classic American club systems while adding futsal to it.
There's an opportunity for us in the United States, because there are gymnasiums across the country in elementary schools, middle schools and high schools across the country. And we're trying to do this in North Carolina now, if we can get these kids playing futsal on a regular basis, through the winter months, and maybe even on a year-round basis -- I think it will have an impact. Because I'm seeing some very special players emerge right now who are bubbling up from these wonderful environments combining the 11v11 game with futsal.
So I think there are a lot of things we can continue to do that I think can make us special.
Honestly, right now, I'm not worried. Because what I did see enough in that U-17 team was the wonderful athletic platform, which is always going to continue to serve the United States, and I still think there are going to be enough Tobin Heaths in there and Megan Rapinoes who have the technical platform that will separate them.
I'm still optimistic and I'm still very excited.
Now, does this mean that we've solved everything? No, I don't think we have. But I'm not willing push the panic button yet.
SA: The big issue in American girls soccer right now is the turf war between the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, launched in 2017, and the ECNL. When we spoke earlier this year, you advocated for merger of the DA and the ECNL ...
ANSON DORRANCE: At first, I was really really disappointed and I was actually rather angry with our national leadership that we couldn't blend these two organizations together. But now, the more I think about it, maybe what we do is we allow them to compete with each other. Because let's face it, one of the many things that has made this country extraordinary is this sort of capitalistic idea about competition and about the ones who bubble to the top are the ones who compete the best. So maybe having two organizations with somewhat similar but in some respect different philosophies, and we'll get to an idea of best practices.
The only thing I don't want to see happen, which I am seeing happen, is this effort of the DA to become a monopoly for all the best players. I would love all the best players to be scattered around the different ideas of player development.
What I really like is the stock portfolio idea. Whenever I speak to my broker, if I want continue to sustain myself into my dotage, he wants me to have a balanced portfolio, because he can't guarantee that large caps can continue to thrive, so he wants a balance of small caps in there, maybe some bonds, etc. And I like that idea for player development. There are a lot of good ideas in this country from a lot of very good coaches. What we still need is national leadership to sit on top of it, and not try to railroad everyone into the DA, and give the impression that the only way you're going to make these national youth teams and the full team is to wear a DA badge.
We need someone with the leadership capability to say, We're going to evaluate all you guys and see how you're doing, and let's come together and find the best players. We have the capacity to review all these different ideas, see where we are, and accelerate to a level I don't think the rest of the world would ever be able to keep up with.
SA: What do you think of ECNL's accusations that youth national team coaches neglect ECNL players in favor of DA players (which U.S. Soccer denies, stating it scouts all competitions)? Do you believe that a player might be rejected simply because she's not a DA player?
ANSON DORRANCE: No, I think if you're a quality coach whose job is on the line depending on results, and I think most of our youth national team coaches are, I don't think they're going to deliberately not pick an ECNL kid if that kid can help them win. I think all these coaches would pick an important player even if it is an ECNL player.
I don't think that's where the damage is done. I think the damage is done when this DA club emerges in your community and all of a sudden the DA coach is telling all of the ECNL players, that if you don't come with us you're not going to have as good a chance to be picked.
SA: What would you say to parents or players who are deciding between an ECNL club and a DA club, and may be under the impression that only by playing DA ball will they be scouted by U.S. Soccer coaches?
ANSON DORRANCE: I'm asked this question all the time. Anson, What should I do? I've been approached by ECNL club and my local DA club. Who should we go with?
What I say is, Always pick the best coach. If that coach in your community is a DA coach, go with them. If the best coach in your community is an ECNL coach, go with that coach. That coach is going to develop you the fastest.
SA: I see your point that competing organizations could be a positive, but splitting the nation's elite players into different leagues also creates problems. For instance, a DA coach told me his club is near strong ECNL clubs, which his club isn't allowed to play against. Instead, traveling five hours to play a DA game that's not as challenging competition as the neighboring ECNL clubs ...
ANSON DORRANCE: That's inane, to drive all over place to play. You and I both know that spending all this time in a car driving all over isn't developing that player, whether it's for games or to play in a particular academy. The hour it takes to drive to an academy center -- the player is better off spending that hour kicking against the wall. That's a hell of a lot better sitting in the car forever.
I believe in neighborhood clubs and playing the people around you, not traveling all over the place. If a DA has great ECNL teams nearby, yes, play them.