For further insight into the DA vs. ECNL turf war, we reached out to attorney Steve Gans, who advises and represents pro soccer players, coaches, owners, executives, professional clubs and youth clubs. Gans ran for the U.S. Soccer presidency that Carlos Cordeiro won in 2018, and among the eight candidates had the most extensive background in youth soccer. On the youth side, Gans has served on the board of directors of a Development Academy club, FC Greater Boston Bolts, has coached youth soccer, advised parents throughout the youth soccer cycle from entry point through college recruiting, and has provided counseling for youth clubs and for pro clubs in strategic partnerships with youth clubs. Before and during his campaign, Gans went on a nationwide listening tour including to gather feedback from youth soccer leaders and constituents.
STEVE GANS: I don’t know if it’s the most heated turf war ever, but it is yet another concerning battle which is hurting kids and player development. There are so many turf wars which detract from what is really important, but this one is surely amongst the worst.
SA: Can you provide any insight on what clubs are likely going through having to decide whether to be a DA club or an ECNL club? What impact has that had on clubs? (One of the greatest absurdities thanks to DA-vs-ECNL is that top clubs in the same area don't play each other, while often traveling expensive distances to play teams that aren't as competitive as their neighbor club.)
STEVE GANS: First, it is important to point out a truism in club soccer, and that is that in almost all cases, parents are going to aspire to place their kids with the clubs that are deemed the most successful. Thus, as to the competition between clubs, it is a truism that nearly every club having been offered such will accept the opportunity to play in the top leagues. In that sense, the added travel burden is generally thought of as a necessary condition of being deemed elite.
As to the question about whether to be a DA or ECNL club, on the one hand there is the imprimatur that comes from the designation by the sport’s national governing body that is inherently compelling.
In addition, if you are a full DA club on the boys' side, you would likely accept that offer on the girls' side to stay in the good graces of U.S. Soccer.
On the flip side, existing girls side ECNL clubs that are not DA on the boys’ side might think twice about moving to the girls DA, in order to stay in the good graces of the ECNL. Those concerns aside and all things being equal, if the pushback from players and parents about not being able to play high school soccer hits critical mass, then that would militate toward choosing the ECNL.
SA: I think if U.S. Soccer hadn't been so heavy-handed about banning high school play for DA players, the ECNL would no longer be in contention to compete with the DA as being the nation's top girls' league. Do you agree?
STEVE GANS: I do agree. When the sport’s national governing body designates itself as the top league, every club must sit up and take notice. But as I have said in previous interviews, certain soccer decision-makers on the youth soccer side at U.S. Soccer are somewhat out of touch, and have not properly understood the cultural importance of playing for one’s high school for most American kids.
It’s not that U.S. Soccer is wrong in saying that for those three months playing for school the coaching, training and competition will generally be not to the same standard as the DA. However, the joy that is sucked out of so many young people from not having that experience and being forced into that opportunity cost is inimical to player development and a player’s outlook on and future performance in the sport.
If I may again use my older son Noah as an example: after 6 years in the DA, my wife and I saw that Noah was losing his joy for the sport that had been his passion since he was a toddler. The recruiting coach at the college at which he originally committed greenlighted Noah’s leaving the DA for his senior year to be able to play one season for his school, and the three months he played high school ball -- an admittedly inferior product to the DA from a pure soccer quality perspective -- did not harm Noah’s development as a player, but indeed helped Noah get back his joy for the game.
As to college, Noah was named a New England Freshman of the Year, he will be training part of this summer with a leading European club, and his playing future is extremely bright. As I look back two years following the decision, playing that single season of high school soccer as a senior was instrumental to where he is now as a successful and well-adjusted player.
ECNL leadership has been very clever, and it has espied and exploited mistakes made by certain folks at U.S. Soccer very effectively. In this regard, ECNL leadership has capitalized well on U.S. Soccer’s narrow view of high school soccer, and it has helped it keep the ECNL vibrant and relevant on the girls' side. But for that, I think the DA would likely rule the day.
SA: Some DOC’s and club officials have expressed frustration, saying that the people U.S. Soccer sends out to talk, advise and direct DOC’s and clubs lack insight and understanding about what it’s like to run clubs and leagues. Do you agree?
STEVE GANS: I have heard the same sentiments expressed. The idea that some decision-making from Chicago is made at 30,000 feet and in a manner which is attenuated from the practical reality of what goes on in the trenches of a club would be consistent with my former experience as a Board member and attorney for a DA club.
SA: Do you believe that not playing high school so you can spend more time with your DA club will create a significant improvement in the player development for American girls?
STEVE GANS: I will go back to my earlier answers both here and in an earlier interview. In an empirical sense, DA training is superior to that in high school, and thus, better technical players will be created. But that can’t be achieved in a vacuum, and the opportunity cost resulting from a ban from high school soccer likewise potentially detracts from player development and performance.
This is too hard a sport to play well if you don’t have the requisite joy and passion for the sport. Denying an American kid from ever playing for his/her high school creates an inherent tension, and potential alienation and resentment. If it is an issue on the boys' side, it is even more pronounced on the girls' side, as girls generally mature as to emotional intelligence sooner than boys, and therefore identify and experience the loss more acutely.
So in short, I continue to believe that a full ban -- there should be at least some limited compromise -- on high school risks creating a generation of players with reduced spirit and passion for the game, and thus many players will in fact not reach their full playing potential and will lose enthusiasm for the sport.
SA: Besides the high school ban, another difference between the DA and the ECNL is the DA's more restrictive substitution rule, which has been cited along with the high-school ban by major clubs that decided to play ECNL instead of DA. Do you believe that the differences in the two subbing rules can have a profound impact on player development one way or another?
STEVE GANS: As I said in an earlier interview, I think U.S. Soccer’s insistence on essentially following the FIFA substitution rule is myopic and inimical to expressive player play and development.
So many DA boys from my son’s team would express concerns that they might be subbed out early (with no chance of return) at games when their top choice college coaches were present, and therefore played in a most restricted way to avoid making mistakes.
This is a flat world, and young players no doubt understand the FIFA substitution rule -- they do not need to play under it at too young an age. Again, if the coach wants to send a message to a player to get his/her head in the game from the onset, he/she can do that by pulling the player from the game and not returning him/her to action in that game as a coach’s decision – but it should not be mandated. This is another relevant U.S. Soccer decision-maker mistake on which ECNL leadership has no doubt capitalized to the benefit of the ECNL.
SA: What's the worst-case scenario in how DA vs. ENCL will unfold?
STEVE GANS: As a general matter, the turf and economic battle between the DA and ECNL is a bad thing, as it sows confusion amongst parents and players, leading to burnout and worse. The lack of a clear pathway will no doubt cause casualties amongst innocent players. Some players will not be identified by college and other coaches at the next level, as they will fall through the cracks. As it is, so much of college soccer recruiting is imperfect given that there is necessarily such an emphasis on one-off showcases.
As a non-revenue sport, most college soccer recruiting budgets are limited, and many programs will simply not be able to afford to attend all DA and ECNL showcases. I advise and often speak with many college coaches, and on the boys’ side, many tell me that they don’t attend ECNL showcases at all. While in many cases that may be a question of relative quality as the ECNL continues to get off the ground on the boys’ side, it is also expressed to me as a question of limited recruiting budgets. That economic constraint will surely cause visibility problems for some deserving girls players at some point if this high level battle continues.
SA: The best-case scenario?
STEVE GANS: The best-case scenario is that the two parties achieve rapprochement in the best interests of the game, that a definable and sane player pathway is established, and that this arms race ceases.
SA: If you were U.S. Soccer President, how would you handle the situation right now?
STEVE GANS: The first thing I pledged to do if I had won the election was to form a youth task force aimed at solving the infighting between sanctioning organizations. I hear that the proceedings within the task force that has been formed are not going particularly well. I know that the president’s job necessarily demands a lot of travel, but I would make sure that when I was not traveling I would attend as many of those meetings as I could to be a presence and a force of reason in that room.
Some years ago, a major supermarket chain wanted to build a superstore in my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts, but the vast majority of the citizens were against it because it would have had an extremely negative effect on traffic and on neighborhoods. The City voted the project down, and the chain sued. During the five-year period during which the case made its way up to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the City prevailed at the SJC), the Mayor of Newton put me on a task force (I stood with the City), which consisted of representatives of the City and those of the company. There was great mistrust between the parties, and the meetings were tension-filled. But the Mayor chaired every meeting, and despite the contempt between the parties, everyone held themselves in check and worked towards progress in his presence. It was a lesson in organizational leadership for me, and similarly here, I bet that any bad actors on the current youth task force would be less inclined to act up within a meeting if the president were present.
Another thing I would do is engage outside counsel to research what legally could be done to readjust things and get matters moving in the right direction. Most of the key players on the youth side are non-profit organizations, and surely their main stated corporate purposes are to provide healthy playing opportunities for kids, to foster enjoyment of the sport, and to further positive player development. Non-profit organizations are governed by respective state Attorneys General, and to the extent that a non-profit has strayed from its stated corporate purpose, there are severe possible sanctions. The last thing U.S. Soccer needs right now is another lawsuit to contend with, but as I believe we are at a tipping point with respect to youth soccer, the pursuit of legal means to make things better ought to be a consideration.
SA: Do you think one of the solutions might be to regionalize club soccer more?
STEVE GANS: I think this is a great question, and the short answer is yes. Travel in youth soccer is way out of balance. The original justification of even greater travel demands was that elite clubs should only play against other elite clubs. With respect to the current girls’ side DA-ECNL conflict, top elite teams in the same backyard are prevented from playing each other --- yet another example of the turf war making things worse.
There was a recent Boston Globe story about how Massachusetts used to produce some of the top NHL goal and point scorers, but no more. By way of explanation, former Boston Bruin and current hockey analyst Mike Milbury said, “You know what? Massachusetts (youth) programs have changed so dramatically in the last 30 years. It’s been more, frankly, about making money and making kids hit the road for two hours, play a one-hour game, and then come back two hours, than it is about doing the things they’re supposed to do to get better.”
There is, of course, a direct analogy to youth soccer, only the car ride may be a four-hour drive to and back again for a 90-minute game. Regionalization would allow youth players to spend more of their time devoted to soccer playing rather than traveling.