Lorne Donaldson on how the ECNL vs. Development Academy turf war has created a 'toxic environment'

Lorne Donaldson is the Executive Director of Coaching of Real Colorado, one of the few clubs that compete in both the girls ECNL and the girls U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Real Colorado's rate of sending players into the U.S. national team program ranks it among the top clubs in the nation. Donaldson also serves as assistant coach to Hue Menzies of the Jamaican women's national team, which will be making its first Women's World Cup appearance this summer.

SOCCER AMERICA: Your club, Real Colorado, is one of a handful that fields teams in both the ECNL, launched in 2009, and the Girls U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which started in 2017 and is now in its second season. How do you manage both?

LORNE DONALDSON: I think we have a good staff and our management is good. We really have no problem. We have the fields to do it. And we have the players because the kids want to play for us because it’s a good environment.

We have a good pool of players, and it’s going to get better if they allow us to stay in both leagues. But who knows what’s going to happen now? I think there are going to be some decisions coming up.

SA: You may not continue fielding teams in both the Girls DA and the ECNL?

LORNE DONALDSON: The ECNL wanted us to get out of [the Development Academy]. There are some clubs already out of the ECNL. They have been kicked out.

The ECNL thinks that at the clubs that play both ECNL and DA, your top players are playing in the DA and the second-string players are playing in the ECNL. They [the ECNL] want all the top players. The ECNL is saying, you can’t do both. You can just do one.

SA: So what do you think will happen next season (2019-20)?

LORNE DONALDSON: I don’t know yet for sure if we’re going to be in both. Three or four days ago, I told them if we come to the ECNL, we want two teams [in each age group]. They have to go and discuss it.

SA: Because if you leave the Girls DA, about half the Real Colorado players who now play in the Girls DA and ECNL will no longer be playing in one of the nation’s elite girls leagues?

LORNE DONALDSON: Yes. If we're only going to play ECNL, we can’t just take one team. It doesn’t make any sense. We would like to see both teams in if we’re going to do it. We have the environment to do it. But that’s a discussion with the ECNL.

SA: And if it comes down to making a choice between the two?

LORNE DONALDSON: Then most likely we would stay in the DA. We will lose our ECNL group.

SA: As it is now, for the last two seasons, how is it decided which Real Colorado girls play in the DA and which play in the ECNL?

LORNE DONALDSON: I’m not going to try to sugarcoat. Most of the better players wanted to play in the DA. But there are some very good players, and a few top players, who decided they wanted to play ECNL because they wanted to also play for their high school.

And there are DA players who still want to play high school. They still talk about it and they want to play.

[Editor’s note: U.S. Soccer does not allow DA players to play high school soccer.]

SA: So an advantage of being a club with both DA and ECNL teams is that players have a choice, and the ones who want to play high school still have access to high-level club competition …

LORNE DONALDSON: Yeah. It’s actually created an environment for us where you can service people better. But again, how long is it going to last?

It’s OK to have two leagues, but you got to try and get them under the same umbrella and moving in the same direction. If you have them under the same umbrella, and the guys are working together, and you cross-play, and you do stuff like that, then the soccer is going to be good again. But right now, it’s a sad state of affairs.

SA: Instead it's been a turf war?

LORNE DONALDSON: I think what has been created with the ECNL and the DA is a toxic environment for these kids. It’s actually no fun right now. The game is no fun.

We haven’t changed anything at our club that we were doing five or six years ago. We’re still doing it the same way, but there seems to be a lot conflict between the leagues. It’s on the top. And they can’t work it out.

It’s created a very poor environment if you look across the spectrum, across the board. A lot of fussing. People are mad at each other.

SA: Some of the top girls clubs in the nation are split between the two leagues, so they don’t play each other anymore …

LORNE DONALDSON: Our top teams used to go play teams like the Slammers, PDA, Michigan Hawks, Stars of Massachusetts and Eclipse [which play in the ECNL]. Those were great games. Those are the games people want to see. When you throw the best games out, it’s no longer any fun. There has to be a way for the top clubs to play each other.

SA: That reminds me of a complaint I heard from a DA coach who told me he can’t play his very strong neighbor club because it’s ECNL, and instead travels hours to play a weaker club. It doesn’t seem too complicated to allow those teams to play each other. Why doesn’t that happen?

LORNE DONALDSON: Ego. And everyone wants to be the top dog. And both groups think their league is better. And they don’t realize that they’re killing the game and driving kids away. There are kids who are turned off from the game because of this stuff. We have to get back to where kids will enjoy the game.

And one league has a lot of restrictions.

SA: The DA?

LORNE DONALDSON: The DA. You’re not supposed to manage the club the way you used manage it even though you’re smarter than the people who are making the rules.

Most of the people making the rules have never run a club in their lives. But they’re making the rules that a lot of times don’t make sense.

SA: Such as?

LORNE DONALDSON: The biggest one is the high school [ban]. You tell me why a kid can’t play high school soccer? If they still want to go play high school and be a part of that, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

We have a lot of kids who, when they go play high school, they come back better and more confident because they’ve played against bigger, faster players. They get more playing time.

Leave it up to the clubs to figure it out. Our top-level players, if they don’t choose to play high school, they train with the boys. The environment is already there for the elite players. The top players, going back to Mia Hamm, they could play high school.

[Editor's note: Mallory Pugh played high school soccer while playing club for Real Colorado.]


10 comments about "Lorne Donaldson on how the ECNL vs. Development Academy turf war has created a 'toxic environment'".
  1. Bob Ashpole, April 27, 2019 at 11:49 a.m.

    Great interview. Breath of fresh air on a toxic subject.

  2. Richard Broad, April 27, 2019 at 11:49 a.m.

    This makes a lot of sense. Young people in this country WANT to play for their schools. There is benefit to be derived from competition in both club and school environments, as long as neither is overdone. With cooperation, rather than rivalry, between the two, the atheltes will have the best of the two worlds.

  3. Steven Nichols, April 27, 2019 at 12:20 p.m.

    I've had dozens of both boys & girls play for me, either at the ECNL level or my high school teams, and ALL want to play for their high schools!  They want to play with their friends whom they grew up with in the same neighborhoods.  They want a letter jacket.  They want to be involved in their high schools & enjoy that different competition.  It's the main deciding factor in whether they choose DA or ECNL.  They ones who don't care to play high school choose DA.  They ones whom it's important to play high school, choose ECNL... and our U.S. Club Soccer club (ECNL & NPL) benefits from that.  Let the kids play!!!

  4. Wallace Wade, April 27, 2019 at 12:25 p.m.

    This Federation is highly adept at creating “Toxic Environments”.

  5. Robert Robertson, April 27, 2019 at 3:04 p.m.

    Excellent interview.  However, money is no doubt the root cause.  Not the clubs primarily but the leagues. 

  6. Bill Dooley, April 27, 2019 at 3:04 p.m.

    (1) This is primarily an issue on the girls side.  It should not be an either/or situation.  Where a club has the resources, a "both" option can work.  Coach Donaldson's club demonstrates that

        The US Soccer Developmental Academy for girls (GDA)has one overriding purpose: to identify the 15-20 players (of 5,000+ GDA girls U15-19) with the potential to play for the US Women’s National Team.  It is a year-round program with 4-5 soccer “exposures” (trainings and games) a week.  It prohibits most outside soccer, including high school soccer and play on Olympic Development Program (ODP) teams.

        The Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), operated by US Club Soccde, is more focused on “promoting players, arranging showcase events for college scouts, and the like.”  An ECNL schedule typically has 2-3 training sessions plus a game each week for about 8 months a year.  High school play is allowed, and in many situations coaches find ways to manage the inevitable scheduling conflicts that arise for ECNL players during the high school season.

         There are distinct advantages to the DA and ECNL programs.  Both provide all the exposure to college coaches that a player should need.  Both take videos of every game, and a way to make highlight reels for distribution to schools where athletes would like to play.  


  7. Bill Dooley replied, April 27, 2019 at 3:05 p.m.

    (2) Both also offer more competition for the very top teams than will be found at the local level.  League play in either program, though, will have a mix of teams; a really good team will play as many games against the bottom of the table as the lesser teams play against each other.

         It should be noted that a significant number of the top clubs nationally choose to affiliate with ECNL rather than DA.  Some reasons for that can be found here and here.  Much of this seems to be related to the year-round GDA schedule.  A high school DA player not only gives up HS soccer.  She gives up all other sports, being in band, a school choir or play, DECA, debate club, student government or anything else that takes up significant extra-curricular time.  This forfeits the involvement with peers that attends to these activities and limits much of the high school experience to what happens between 8:20 and 3:30, Monday thru Friday.  More significant is the loss of peer recognition; far more will attend a high school girls’ soccer or basketball game than will attend any club game, even a championship match.     

         While that may be OK for the 100-200 athletes with any reasonable chance of becoming those 15-20, it’s hard to imagine that the disconnect with one’s high school community is, or will be remembered as, something positive.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, April 27, 2019 at 3:30 p.m.

    The problem is the insular nature of the program and USSF as an institution. Their system excludes too many people.

  9. uffe gustafsson, April 27, 2019 at 10:30 p.m.

    Great article and really refreshing to have a coach to tell the truth. He obviously know how things really are working. Hope the higher ups read this.
    turf wars never are a good thing we talking about kids not grown ups.

  10. Nick Valenti, April 29, 2019 at 11:26 a.m.

    High School is a great experience, but in Missouri kids are playing 25 games in 8-10 weeks. (Spring League) The State Associations have to be brought into this coversation too. Lots of people doing it wrong. Don't even get me started on the College programs. One step at a time I guess. 

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