Anson Dorrance on the Women's World Cup, the USA's strengths and challenges, and the 'civil war' in girls soccer

On the eve of the Women’s World Cup, we check in with Anson Dorrance, who coached the USA to the title of the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. Five U.S. players at this World Cup played for Dorrance at the University of North Carolina, as did one each for England and New Zealand, and Netherlands’ coach Sarina Wiegman. Last season, Dorrance celebrated his 1,000th win with UNC, which he has led to 21 NCAA titles. In addition to his analysis of the USA's strengths and challenges at this World Cup, Dorrance addresses U.S. Soccer's player development approach, American women going pro early, and the DA-ECNL strife.

SOCCER AMERICA: What’s your plan for following the Women’s World Cup?

ANSON DORRANCE: I’m a fan of the game but I’m also a student of the game. If you go to France, you spend all your time traveling and parking and walking, trying to find your seat. I’m going to sit on my couch and watch every single game to see where we are relative to the rest of the world. As a student of the game, that’s what’s best for me.

SA: What will you be focusing on?

ANSON DORRANCE: What I’m afraid of right now, I see a shifting in U.S. Soccer: the male model for player development seeping into the water of the women’s game.

I get it, because basically the women’s game is about 10 years behind the men’s game. But the thing that concerns me is we have a [U.S. Soccer] leadership whose filter is through their own experiences in Holland, and they don’t really understand the American platform.

One thing I’m extraordinarily proud of is that the success of U.S. women’s soccer historically is basically done through a collegiate model. You also have other countries, such as Canada, one of the top five favorites, who basically have their players ultimately developed at least for a stretch in the American college game. The concern I have as we look at the way we’re going to navigate our future is that we’re going to try and use a different model.

SA: Who are your favorites to win the World Cup?

ANSON DORRANCE: The four favorites I think most would agree on, would be the USA, England, Germany and France. The dark horses for me, other than the obvious ones like Canada, Australia and Japan, which certainly on any given day could beat anyone -- I’m also looking at the Netherlands and Spain.

I’m looking at the Netherlands and Spain, because their model is the sort of professional model that I think the U.S. Soccer women’s leadership is pushing us to consider. Our young elite players being encouraged to go pro instead of college.

SA: Something that’s already happening?

ANSON DORRANCE: I’m sensing it. The kids that I’ve already recruited, agents are approaching them to sign pro contracts and I think U.S. Soccer is pushing a lot of these kids to sign pro contracts, as they did with Mal Pugh and Tierna Davidson, because the feeling out there among these people is that the professional environment is the environment that’s going to do the best job for these kids.

Well, I think the jury’s still out on that. I think what’s going to happen with this World Cup is all of us will be watching with a critical eye as to what is the best route.

UNC alum at the 2019 Women's World Cup:
Crystal Dunn, Ashlyn Harris, Tobin Heath, Allie Long, Jessica McDonald (USA), Lucy Bronze (England), Katie Bowen (New Zealand).

SA: But even if the Netherlands and Spain do well, is it even feasible to apply that kind of model to American girls and women’s soccer?

ANSON DORRANCE: The main incentive for a young American girl to go pro would be in service of her country. Because they’re certainly not going to pay her much to go pro, with few exceptions. It’s not like men’s basketball.

Then what is the acceptable churn? If we have, say, 20 kids signing pro contracts early in order to produce four for the U.S. full team, is that an acceptable churn of the 20 kids who aren’t going to college to get an education and develop?

So this is going to be interesting as we navigate this next stage in the evolution of the elite game: What’s the American population willing to sacrifice in order for their kids to sign pro contracts?

In other words, is the maximum salary in the NWSL, the $46,000, is that enough to give up a $50,000, $60,000 per year scholarship at an elite American university? What is the acceptable churn? I have a moral philosophy degree from the University of North Carolina. So, these are interesting issues. What should we try basically to support as acceptable?

SA: So far there have been just been a couple of famous examples of U.S. national team players who went pro instead of going to college: Lindsey Horan and Mallory Pugh.

ANSON DORRANCE: Obviously, there are going to be outliers. I think a Lindsey Horan is a great example of a positive outlier, of someone who could have signed with us [UNC] but jumped and is having a wonderful professional and national team career.

Mal Pugh has made the jump and it looks like she’s going to have a successful professional and national team career.

Tierna Davidson jumped a year early, and I question that because I’m not sure if what she’ll be making in the pro league is going to eclipse the value of finishing at Stanford.

SA: And then we have Olivia Moultrie turning professional at 13 years old [instead of accepting a UNC scholarship] …

ANSON DORRANCE: Did you read the Sports Illustrated article? ... I really enjoyed it because I thought the reporter [Chris Ballard] did an excellent job. And I really appreciated listening to Abby Wambach and Horan and the other players who were testifying in the story. They were saying, you know what, when I was her age, I didn’t know what was going to happen. And I didn’t know where I was going to go. And I think the case is there are so many other pieces that have be added into your alchemy to have you make it.

I don’t know whether we can definitely say right now that the best route for a young kid, who is obviously sorting out a lot of issues, is to go the pro route early. I think that’s going to be a matter of the family’s taste and directions.

There are so many other pieces a kid needs, other than just an extraordinary training environment and great matches. …

I still think we [the college game] have an extraordinary value. And the way I’m looking at it right now is the American colleges on the women’s side, we’re in the player development business with these kids, and obviously they’re also getting an education. So, again, what is the acceptable churn rate in the United States? We’re a different culture. College is a destination culture not just for the athletes but for everyone. We can all look the difference between the lifetime income of someone with a college degree compared to someone without.

What we’re seeing in the pro leagues – and there are some excellent coaches out there, who are interested in the player development of these kids – but let’s face it, if you’re going to have a successful pro team, it’s going to come down to who you can buy. Not who you develop.

That’s not just the case in the NWSL, that’s the case in the friggin EPL. The teams at the top, those players for Man City didn’t come through the Man City development system and the kids for Liverpool, they didn’t come through the Liverpool development system. Only every now and again do they catch lightning in the bottle.

SA: What makes you optimistic about Coach Jill Ellis' U.S. team at the World Cup?

ANSON DORRANCE: The U.S. frontline is wonderful. Between Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath, you’ve got three absolutely wonderful attacking personalities who are different from each other. To have an extraordinary frontline, they can’t look the same, they can’t penetrate the same, they can’t want the same ball. We've got that.

Not only do I think we have the best starting frontline in the world, I think we have the best reserve frontline in the world. I think we have the prospect of winning games late with critical substitutions up top, certainly late in the tournament as the legs start to get heavy. Or with an injury that could derail a lot of elite teams, it would not derail ours, because of our depth.

SA: Does the dynamic of the frontline affect the rest of the lineup?

ANSON DORRANCE: Obviously Alex wants the ball over the top. She requires service to score goals. This is the issue that Jill has to fight as she decides whether to drop Julie Ertz to the central back role and eliminate Abby Dahlkemper, because of the back four, the player who can best get Alex in is Abby Dahlkemper. So, does she put Ertz in the middle of the defense, which will certainly solidify the defense, or keep Dahlkemper in there, which could be a feeding tube into Alex’s game?

SA: The midfield?

ANSON DORRANCE: I’m a fan of the three trees midfield, Sam Mewis, Lindsay Horan and Allie Long. I think Allie Long has the hardness to play the No. 6, and is good enough in the air, but also technical enough to help that backline play though the lines. Obviously, I think Horan, if she’s healthy, is a critical key for the United States. If Horan is not healthy, it’s going to be a lot harder for us, but if we get her back to full health Horan at her best is extraordinarily complete.

I do like what Jill is doing with Rose Lavelle. I like Lavelle. I’m not sure if Lavelle should be the starter or go with a more veteran crew because Lavelle’s first instinct is not to defend, although obviously in the attack, she’s extraordinary. So maybe have her as an [off-the-bench] weapon like a Mal Pugh or a Christen Press or Jessie McDonald, who’s incredibly athletic. All of a sudden you have an energizer bunny with amazing acceleration knifing through people. Jill might start Lavelle, but she would be another excellent player off the bench.

SA: Any concerns?

ANSON DORRANCE: Obviously, the issue is the defense. Which is why I would love to see her drop Ertz back a line, because Jill’s got enough players in midfield who can go the distance for us, and subs.

Then the question is how much are we going to miss Hope Solo. And that’s not an indictment on Alyssa Naeher. Naeher will certainly be an excellent goalkeeper in this World Cup, but the thing that Hope gave us is that she was the best goalkeeper of all time.

I’m curious to see if we’re going to miss Hope because she would put us in a position where she could make the incredible save and keep us in a close game or help us win the close game. Naeher is a very good goalkeeper, but will she make the gamewinning save for us and does she intimidate other teams the way Hope did? Will she give our defense the confidence that Hope did?

All of us still think the defense has to prove itself, but I think it can at this World Cup. ... One of the keys for us in the back is Kelley O’Hara, because like Ertz she’s got a hardness that’s going to make it difficult for other teams, so I hope she comes back to full health.

SA: Crystal Dunn is one of your former players on the team …

ANSON DORRANCE: It's not a mystery to anyone that Crystal Dunn's best quality is going forward. She's the sort of kid that against any team, in any moment, she can win a game for us. The thing that’s really great about Dunn is that her best quality is beating people off the dribble. She’s an unstoppable dribbler. Which is why periodically, you see Jill putting Dunn into an attacking midfield position or switching players around to push Dunn further forward.

SA: I can’t let you go without addressing the U.S. Soccer Development Academy vs. ECNL turf war, which has gotten more acrimonious since the last time we spoke.

ANSON DORRANCE: I’m disappointed. The issue that concerns me most -- once we get beyond the politics and the vitriol going back and forth -- is the problem of having two great clubs in the same city, one’s an ECNL team and one’s a DA team, and both teams are jumping on an airplane, flying across the country, to find a match against another ECNL team and another DA team, when what they could do is drive 30 minutes across town and have an excellent match.

I also generally feel the restrictive substitution rules in the DA are a travesty.

If you have a great player, you’re not going to take the great player out of the game. That great player is going to play against a tag team of players who are struggling to contain him or her anyway, now there’s a real challenge. That great player is dealing with a collection of players who are fresher and she'll be navigating a more challenging environment.

And what parent wants to pay for their daughter to fly across the country with the prospect of her not playing a second?

I’d love for them to get together. Agree on sub rules. Agree to play each other.

SA: We’ve talked previously about the prospects of the ECNL and U.S. Soccer either cooperating, or a scenario in which having two leagues with the elite players somehow working out. But now it seems like it’s a winner-take-all battle …

ANSON DORRANCE: The last thing your national leadership should do is create their own civil war.

When U.S. Soccer started the boys DA, you had this collection of wonderful [girls] coaches who got together and they saw the direction we were trying to go in on the boys side with the DA. And what these leaders did, which was very good, they tried to get their youth teams to a higher level, so they organized the ECNL for the girls.

What’s been tragic about this situation, it’s like U.S. Soccer leadership refused to talk to the ECNL, and now it sounds like because they [ECNL] were so upset with the way they were treated, now the ECNL might be reluctant to talk to them.

Getting them at same table on a regular basis would be nothing but positive.

Here’s what all of us understand in our own neighborhoods: Once you start hanging out with people, even though there might be an issue, once you start hanging out with them, talking to them, relating with them, good things invariable will come out of it.

I don’t think what’s happening now benefits anyone. I think the least we should do is meet and agree: you guys are nearby and we’re going to schedule you because you guys got a good team and we got good team, so let’s play. That, at a minimum should happen.

14 comments about "Anson Dorrance on the Women's World Cup, the USA's strengths and challenges, and the 'civil war' in girls soccer".
  1. Ron Frechette, June 7, 2019 at 8:35 a.m.

    Great interview. Love the comments around being #15-#18 members of these teams paying high fees and travel fees to not play in games. Also his comments about the differences in a Pro development model vs that of the collegant model. The problem will be in educating the parents/people who are advising the player to what the risks/rewards are for both tracks. A 20 to 25% success ratio of developing Pro Players from an academy would be over the top great - most are in the 2 to 3% range. So what happens with the 95%+ of the players who don't make to playing as a Pro. Also the pay scale of the women's games have a large impact in the long term life of a player - thinking about $45k vs $60k to $80k for work outside of soccer with a degree. The money differences adds up quickly - but that means people need to have realistic glasses on when they advise a player as to what is the best path for them going forward...

  2. Harry Hutcheson, June 7, 2019 at 9:11 a.m.

    Great article.  Anson is spot on with his observations.  In dealing with DA vs ECNL, the US development of female players was outstanding prior to DA.  Just because things work on the Men’s side, does not mean it will work on the female side.

  3. Robert Robertson, June 7, 2019 at 12:51 p.m.

    Enjoyed interview. Anson is an outlier as an extremely competent college coach. Most college coaches are weaker than the top club coaches in my experience. The best soccer was played at U17 not my daughters college team. From other parents reaction this was true for them as well. 
    Getting a college education is invaluable and is the most important activity.  
    As for becoming a pro player - playing in a high level club environment might be better but the chances are.....  
    The USWNT dominates due to a massive talent pool. Other countries are catching up with women integrating themselves into the sport after overcoming all the barriers

  4. Bob Ashpole, June 7, 2019 at 3:17 p.m.

    What concerns me the most is that over the past 30 years player development for the WNT has worked well which is not true for the men's program. So why is USSF pushing the male player development process on the women's side? I suspect that anyone who does, hasn't been involved enough in the women's side to understand the history. 

    "Turning pro" is a joke on the women's side. What matters is getting a contract with USSF.

  5. R2 Dad replied, June 8, 2019 at 1:30 a.m.

    The women’s side has mostly succeeded because the competition has been weak, their development stunted, facilities poor, players culturally blunted. Now, we see France and Spain investing in women’s football and they will soon surpass the USWNT due to our reticence to evolve. AD sits at the top of a system he has dominated and has a vested interest in promoting it. That doesn’t make college the best way forward, only the path of least resistance. Which seems to be the USSF way. 

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, June 8, 2019 at 3:29 a.m.

    R2 Dad, that is a rationale for imposing the men's development approach on the women's side. The hole in the logic is that poor oppositiion on the women's side may explain their success, but it doesn't explain the lack of success on the men's side.

    We have turned out fine players on the women's side. Our problem is in what coaches do with those fine players. I believe the WNT team pool has players well suited to positional play. It is the coaching that needs to evolve. Player development on the women's side is not what is holding us back.

  7. frank schoon replied, June 8, 2019 at 2:18 p.m.

    Bob, THe women's success is due to poor opposition, I agree....Can't wait to play Thailand.......
    And the problem with men is the reverse the opposition is so much better...

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, June 8, 2019 at 10:27 p.m.

    So Frank, does that mean you are in favor of USSF's push to make the women's DA league clubs the exclusive development path for US professional players? This goes to the issue of "why" are the players for the MNT opponents "so much better".

  9. Robert Robertson, June 7, 2019 at 3:54 p.m.

    I forgot the most important difference between college and club is the extremely short and concentrated college season in the fall.  Followed by intense conditioning period and a couple of games in the spring. Followed by nothing organized in the summer.  
    No gradual building of muscle mass   No spread out game schedules, etc. no professional club would ever train its players that way....

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, June 7, 2019 at 4:25 p.m.

    I think you are overlooking what players do independently and the advantages of unorganized play. I don't know if it has changed, but when I was involved in the 80's college teams would play in summer leagues without coaches lead by team captains. Rules at the time prohibited organized training by college staff, but did not prohibit players from playing soccer on their own.  

  11. David Graf, June 7, 2019 at 5:13 p.m.

    Fortunately, in MI our state, the ECNL teams, and DA teams do play each other.  It doesn't count towards anything so it's like a scrimmage, but still good competition with refs and normal format.  The DA sub situation seems to be working out as well since the number of substitutions allowed has increased.  

  12. Michael Slater, June 8, 2019 at 8:44 p.m.

    Anson sounds too pro ECNL and anti USSF to be an objective voice. ECNL came into the market and had the exact same battle with USYS that they're now having with DA. Anson characterizing them as a benevolent entity only looking out for  youth development leaves out the fact that they ruthlessly tried to control access to the top level of girls soccer, and pitted historically great clubs against each other. An argument can be made ecnl  exacerbated pay for play and has represented a backwards step in girls development over the last 10 years. College is clearly the best pathway for 99% of top players, but his claim that colleges develop while pro academies only buy talent seems hypocritical (Ajax?). Anson tries to commit younger and younger top players to UNC in an attempt to do what??? talent. His legacy of competing on grit, fitness and platooning players is likely why he's advocating kids spend more time under collegiate sub rules than FIFA rules. I get he's a legend and won a lot in an era where he had the best talent every year,  but USSF is doing the right thing in trying to evolve the women beyond the AD approach to the game. 

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, June 9, 2019 at 1:44 p.m.

    Everyone knows Ajax's reputation, but Ajax is unique. An outlier or outliers. 

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, June 9, 2019 at 1:46 p.m.

    Another point, Ajax would not be successful at selling players for big bucks if the big clubs didn't buy their players and create a huge demand.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications