U.S. Soccer's Mirelle van Rijbroek on DA vs. ECNL, college soccer, girls YNT scouting, and Dutch success

Mirelle van Rijbroek has been U.S. Soccer's Director of Talent Identification-Girls since November 2017. She arrived from her native Netherlands, where she served as the Manager of Talent Development and Elite Performance for the Dutch federation (KNVB). In 2014, the Netherlands won its first Women’s U-19 European Championship title while Van Rijbroek served as KNVB Youth Technical Director and the team's assistant coach. Seven players from the squad are on the Dutch team at this summer’s Women’s World Cup, including Oranje’s all-time leading scorer Vivianne Miedema. We spoke to Van Rijbroek about her role as head of the U.S. Soccer scouting department for U-14 through U-20 girls and women's national teams, American college soccer, and Development Academy vs. ECNL.

SOCCER AMERICA: I do want to talk to you about your soccer history, but let's first address some key issues in American girls and women's soccer. ... Would you like to respond to Anson Dorrance saying: "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."?

MIRELLE VAN RIJBROEK: This question was in another context. Anson Dorrance said: "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."

But I don’t know where and to whom he is referring to. The male model for player development already exists for a long time, way before there was someone from Holland in a leadership position. The Boys DA already exists for 10 years.

Anson Dorrance has meant a lot for American women’s soccer and I know he is an icon in the USA. I have a lot respect for what he has done for American women’s soccer in the past. He could be seen as one of the pioneers. But I do not always agree with his point of view.

My perspective and filter are elite sports, elite performance. Soccer, also women’s soccer, is a big universal sport. Therefore, the world is our benchmark. If we want to stay relevant as a nation -- win World Cups in the future -- we have to offer our players elite soccer programs and platforms that prepare them for the international level, now and in the future. If you want to compete internationally with your national team you have to know and understand what happens internationally and you have to make sure that the development of your top players and the programs you offer are better than any other nation in the world.

For example, if international players from France or Spain at the U-17, U-19, and U-20 level train and play at the highest senior women’s level with the best and against the best, year-around, every day with the ball, 6-8 times a week, play 40 good and competitive games in a season, etc. Compare this for example with the length of the program our players have at college in the same age.

SA: Do you imagine a future in which the girls' pathway to the full national team doesn't include college soccer?

MIRELLE VAN RIJBROEK: I could imagine everything. What really happens I don’t know. For 98% of the players college is perfect. If your goal is to get a scholarship via soccer. If you like playing but your main goal is getting your degree.

If you have the dream and ambition to become a professional player and want to become a national team player, the college program and the way it is organized now will not be enough anymore. This basically has to do with the development of high-performance programs in some other leading nations. Three and a half months doesn’t help you to develop yourself internationally, if you compare this with other countries like France, Spain, England, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, etc. Girls in those countries from the age of 17 years already play in senior women’s leagues. With a year-around program, high-quality programs. The best with the best.

So, for the top 2% players in the United States I could imagine a hybrid model. A year-around performance program that prepares players for international soccer but also helps you to get a degree. This could be in collaboration with college. Or it could also be a different pathway.

College soccer has been very good for the system for many years. It was good in an era when it was advanced compared to soccer programs in the rest of the world. Other countries didn’t have this sort of program and equal opportunities. This has changed and continues to change. Nowadays, to play and compete on the elite international level the college program is not enough anymore. It’s too short. The competition in three months is too many games in a short period. It impacts the physical health of the player. For the top 2% of the players. college soccer will not be good enough anymore in the future.

SA: Mark Krikorian, coach of the reigning women's Division I champion Florida State, describes the U.S. Soccer Development vs. ECNL issue like this, "What's happened now is you have competing interests. Both of the organizations are pulling in their own direction, and it's separated the talent. There is no top league." Do you agree that the nation’s top girls are split between the two leagues? And if so, is that problematic for the U.S. national team program?

MIRELLE VAN RIJBROEK: The most important thing should be a player-centered approach. The starting point should always be in the best interest of the player. As Mark stated, it would be better for the best talented players not to be separated. It’s more a challenge than a problem for the national team program.

Our best players are all over the place. They are frequently taught different soccer languages which often contradict each other. It’s club, high school, college, personal trainers, parents, etc. The rules and standards are different in all of these systems.

You want the best development for the players. You want the best with the best players to be in one environment. This will accelerate their development. It will also increase the level they play and train at. But what I also find really important is the quality of the soccer programs the club offer.

Some clubs have just become good at recruiting the best players but not in developing. I have also seen clubs who have a clear philosophy and methodology and do a very good job in developing young players. The environment we put our players in is so important.

The program and training have to be at a level that will develop those players. Eventually the best players have to be training with and playing against the best players. With high quality coaching.

To remain internationally dominant on the women’s side, U.S. Soccer but also our members must constantly evaluate and improve the youth development system. What are challenges? What needs to be improved? And, of course, if you can do this together and compete against the rest of the world instead of competing against each other.

SA: Wouldn't your job be much easier if ECNL teams could compete against DA teams? Do you see that happening in the future?

MIRELLE VAN RIJBROEK: I don’t know if my job would be much easier. I think it would become more defined.

Of course, it would be much easier for us to be on one level or platform than everywhere. It’s much easier to work with one entity than with multiple. But it’s not the case. The way it is now: We never look at it as a problem. We prefer to look at it as an interesting challenge. In which we want to do our best.

Our starting point, our perspective, our approach is always player-centered. We try to do what is in the best interest of the player. This is the common goal that should unite us all. Monitor and develop players to realize their full potential in soccer (and in life) – winning in the long run.

I don’t know if there is going to be one platform, one league in the future. I think multiple scenarios are possible. But I believe it would be good for the development of players that the potential best players can play and train with and against each other.

So, in that sense I do hope there will be something, some sort of platform/environment where the potential best players can play with and against each other. It would be great if there is going to be a clear, transparent and aligned pathway for talented players who have the goal to become a professional or national team player.

But only one platform -- or competing against each other -- alone is not enough. The most important aspect is the quality of the program and the environment -- high-performance environment. It’s important that clubs, who develop talented players, offer high-quality coaching and high-quality soccer training programs and environments – and with international standards. Programs that have a player-centered approach, develop players and prepare them for the international top level.

SA: I believe if the DA hadn't been so heavy handed about banning high school play, we wouldn't be talking about the ECNL anymore, because that was a major reason cited by clubs staying in the ECNL. Why not just lift that ban -- and leave it up to the clubs and players to decide whether to play high school or not?

MIRELLE VAN RIJBROEK: High School is not really a discussion for us if you understand the concept of talent development from an international perspective. Soccer is a global sport. In order to stay internationally relevant as a nation we have to do a better job than the rest of the world.

With the Development Academy, U.S. Soccer offers an international competitive player development program. Therefore the Development Academy is not a league, it’s a program to develop world-class players. The DA has clear standards that clubs need to fulfill and monitor. This means that clubs who do not meet the criteria might have to leave the program. It’s a year-round program and players who play in the DA commit to this year-round program.

Each club can have their own soccer philosophy but the starting point is: a program where players have an intensive soccer program, four training sessions per week, meaningful games, developing over winning.

SA: Besides the DA's high school ban, the other big issue that has some clubs preferring the ECNL to the DA is the DA's more restrictive substitution rules. Do you believe that the differences in the two subbing rules can really have a profound impact on player development?

MIRELLE VAN RIJBROEK: It’s not about subbing rules. It’s about having a clear philosophy on elite player development and soccer and committing to this. Develop talented players to reach their full potential and prepare them for the international top. This means that there need to be certain quality standards -- quantity and quality of training sessions, quality and qualification of coaches, facilities, content of program, etc. The difference between the DA and the ECNL is the fact that the ECNL is a league and the DA is a program.

What is the best environment to develop the best players? We believe in an environment based on identified standards for player development.

SA: Can you address a complaint I've heard a lot, which is that U.S. Soccer scouts favor players who are on Development Academy clubs. Specifically, ECNL coaches have accused U.S. Soccer of not picking worthy ECNL players simply because they don't play in the DA.

MIRELLE VAN RIJBROEK: We select the best players and the ones we believe have the most potential. The way we look at players, and monitor and examine their development, is based on the six key qualities.

Our mission and philosophy are our framework. Our mission is: Identify players with the potential to play for youth national teams. Our objectives are: We want to identify top talents nationwide. But we also want members and clubs to set up talent identification in their own community.

We have a player-centered scouting approach. We monitor the development of players over a longer period. This means that we follow a big group of players. We scout games, we scout showcases. Every club and coach has the possibility to recommend talented players. We have a formal platform for this. We also have a proactive way of working. This season we have sent every ECNL, National League and DA club the online recommendation form. Via e-mail on our website talented players can be submitted.

The first step is always that we want a description of the qualities of the player within the moments of the game. We would also like to receive video of games of the player. Based on the information we receive we decide if we are going to watch live games.

Our talent identification managers have contact with different clubs -- from the DA, U.S. Club, U.S. Youth -- and coaches. After every YNT ID Center we do a follow-up to coaches/clubs. It’s a post-communication form in which we inform the coaches on what we have done at the YNT ID Center.

We also try to work together with our members. I have contact with Tricia Taliaferro, who is the head of id2, the identification program of U.S. Club. We receive information on the best players. We do the same with U.S. Youth Soccer, ODP. Both U.S. Club and U.S. Youth have their identification program. It makes perfect sense that they share information on their top talents, at YNT level, with us. We have a shared responsibility. It’s impossible in this country to be everywhere. That’s why we work together.

From id2 we had Tricia and Gerry McKeown in our Talent Scout License courses and from ODP we had Chris Duke.

Furthermore, we share knowledge with clubs and members -- give presentations, etc. -- our mission, philosophy, key qualities, what we are looking for in players, framework on TID, how we monitor and rate players, etc.

SA: What was your initial introduction to soccer as a child? Any glimpses into your early years in soccer you can share that may have contributed to you're ending up having a career in soccer?

MIRELLE VAN RIJBROEK: I was basically brought up at the soccer field. My dad played soccer, so I always went with him. I started playing organized soccer at the age of 9. Girls playing soccer was not really done. The circumstances were very poor when I was young. Most of the time I played with and against much older girls, because mixed soccer was not allowed. Later, this became more common and was allowed in the Netherlands. Luckily things changed, small steps where made.

The lack of a good environment to develop yourself as a player, no perspective, etc., motivated me in my later life. I wanted to help create a better environment for young talented soccer players. My goal was to work for the federation in talent development and elite performance. My purpose or goal was to create better circumstances than I ever had. Give girls a good education in soccer, give them opportunities and perspective.

SA: What was your playing career like?

MIRELLE VAN RIJBROEK: When I was allowed to play organized soccer at age 9, I started in a team with girls as old as 15. A big difference on social-emotional level. I also played [team] handball. Before I played soccer and handball I did judo. I played in youth select teams (from the age of 15 years) in the Netherlands. On the senior level, I played in the highest women’s league, but there was no real professional soccer league for females at that time. In between I also played and studied in Australia.

My time in Australia (1995-1996) basically opened my eyes. For the first time, I didn’t have to pay anything for soccer. I played a few friendlies with the West Australian team against boys U-17 teams. Some players played at the World Cup in 1995 in Sweden. So, for the first time I got in contact with the “World Cup.”

The sports culture in Australia, at that time, was great for me compared to my experiences in the Netherlands. I think if I would have gone to the USA, I would have probably experienced the same feeling. For the first time, I felt what impact sports could make for young girls.

At that time. It was very hard to make a living from sports, soccer. That’s why I have always focused on my studies and my social career. I have studied international business & communication management, strategic human resource management and organizational psychology.

SA: How did you get into coaching?

MIRELLE VAN RIJBROEK: When I got back from Australia and finished my studies, I started to work. I kept playing soccer and I also started to coach U-12 boys. I really liked teaching and coaching. A year later, I started with my UEFA C license. Not many females did their coaching license, so I was the only female on the course. This was also the case later on in my life when I got my UEFA B and UEFA A license.

During my UEFA C course, I had an instructor named Johan van Heertum. He was also the head coach for the girls U-14 talent team (part of the Development program called Youth Plan Netherlands). He asked me to become his assistant coach. Kirsten van de Ven, who played for Mark Krikorian at Florida State University was on that team and had a long national team career. She was one of the first Dutch players to play professionally and she is now the head of women’s soccer for the Dutch federation. We have become friends and it’s great to see what see has already achieved.

The Rise of Dutch Women's Soccer

Two years ago, the Netherlands won its first Women's European Championship. And Oranje won its first three games at this summer's World Cup, including a 2-1 win over traditional power Canada. Van Rijbroek says that 22 members the Dutch 2019 Women's World Cup squad played mixed (co-ed) soccer until ages 15 or 16. "By 2000, mixed soccer was possible in all youth age categories. Because of mixed soccer it was possible for girls to play close to home on their own level, talent, age, ambition and motivation. It improved the quality of soccer." Nine players were part of the Dutch National Academy. A top flight women's league, Eredivisie Vrouwen, was launched in 2007. "The Eredivisie Vrouwen helped the youth national team. Unfortunately, the league is not strong enough compared to England, Germany, France and Sweden. For young players it’s a good league to develop." The majority of the current national team players (17) play in leagues in England, France, Spain ... "where they can focus full-time on soccer." In 2008, the KNVB launched a National Academy in Amsterdam (West) and a few years later in Eindhoven (South). Both have residency programs and are a collaboration with the Dutch Olympic Committee. The sites host academies for other sports. About 40 girls, ages 16 to 19 years, attend the two academies. Almost all play on one of the youth national teams. There are also four regional development areas run by full-time Talent Performance Coaches. Players U-10 through U-15 train and play at regional centers in addition to their regular club training and games.

SA: How did you start off at the KNVB?
MIRELLE VAN RIJBROEK: First as a Talent Coach for the U-13 girls and U-14 girls. This was still a per diem job. I had a regular job at the Rabobank. I also kept playing soccer in the highest league -- training three times a week training -- and also trained and coached youth teams (U-12-U-19), mainly boys.

My goal was to work in soccer, so I got all my coaching licenses. Also my studies in psychology helped me a lot. I kept working for the federation as a talent coach for the Youth Plan while keeping my regular job.

In 2007, the KNVB, strongly initiated by Vera Pauw, started a new professional league, the Eredivisie Vrouwen. Six professional men’s soccer clubs were going to start a women’s teams, and Willem II was one of them. I was called by Andries Jonker, the Technical Director (he was assistant of Luis Van Gaal at Barcelona and Bayern Munich). He asked me if I was interested in working for Willem II as a coach and set up the new women’s team. For the first time, I got an opportunity to work almost full-time in soccer. Financially, I had to take a big step back. But I had a dream, a goal. I quit my job at the bank and started to work for Willem II. I did this for two years. I also trained the boys U-17 as an assistant coach.

In that time, I was also asked to do more work for the federation, developing soccer learning material for youth players -- creating videos, booklets, etc. For two years, I worked at Willem II and the KNVB. In 2009, I was asked to work full time for the KNVB. Manager player development -- girls and women’s soccer. In the beginning, this was a very broad job, from grassroots to talent development to elite performance.

I also coached U-15, U-16 and U-19 national teams. But the last few years, my focus got more and more off the field. But I always wanted to keep in touch with the practice, so I traveled with the youth national teams, watched a lot of games in the Eredivisie Vrouwen and of the national academies. I believe that it is important to see and experience if the strategic plans work in real life.

The last seven years at the KNVB, I was the Technical Director for the U-15 through U-19 national teams, the two National Academies and Youth Plan Netherlands -- the Talent Development and Talent ID program. I was also responsible for the technical lead and organization of the UEFA Study Group Programs. This was really great because it gave me the opportunity to see what other federations were doing, but also share knowledge.
It helped me with the international benchmarks. I am very open-minded and always want to learn and share knowledge. I believe you can learn from every nation. The most important thing is the way you translate great things, new insights or knowledge to your own nation and culture. You can never copy something from another nation one-on-one.

8 comments about "U.S. Soccer's Mirelle van Rijbroek on DA vs. ECNL, college soccer, girls YNT scouting, and Dutch success".
  1. R2 Dad, June 23, 2019 at 7:56 a.m.

    Very good read--had wondered what the AD reference to Holland was. Now I can see that Women's college soccer is going to decline unless the NCAA can make changes to account for the year-round nature of player development necessary for our top players. Either the top player pool gets bigger and better by enabling more/better training with matches spread out over a longer season, or the AD model of player development gets bypassed as girls go professional before college. AD can complain all he wants, but the driver is the UEFA professional game and standards as mentioned above. Our top players will get siphoned off to Europe for better wages than WPSL can offer. This will have a knock-on effect with the Nats silo, where players are currently coerced into playing for WPSL if they ever want to get senior caps.

  2. Ben Myers, June 23, 2019 at 10:21 p.m.

    Many of Mirelle van Rijbroek's comments and ideas apply as well to the men.

  3. Richard Crow, June 24, 2019 at 12:30 a.m.

    Sounds like it's Pro/DA or the highway as far as U.S. Soccer is concerned. No talk of compromise collaberation or partnerships. Is it not far-fetched to imagine a very intense fall college season, a focus on fitness, skill acquisition and studies in the winter, followed by a summer program that includes DA or semipro play?
    From JC to Div I, college soccer puts tens of thousands of players on the field. Since college soccer doesn't cost U.S. Soccer a penny, you would think USSF would do everything possible to lift the level of play and foster positive reltionships with college coaches and administrators. If U.S. Soccer made the slightest effort to connect with college soccer and American socciety, I'm sure that Anson Dorrance or any other college coach would be proud to help exceptionally talented young players jumpstart a professional career when they are ready.

  4. frank schoon, June 25, 2019 at 8:15 a.m.

    Typical professor ,classroom type,"My goal was to work in soccer, so I got all my coaching licenses. Also my studies in psychology helped me a lot." That's great these are types that conrol and run soccer. I wonder if she can kick a ball. 
    If I were running a soccer association and I needed someone to spot talent and I don't mean little Messi, or little Cruyffs, which anyone can see,  I would first go to Ajax and look for someone who has actually played at the highest level ,scouts for Ajax, for example, and hire someone like that. I'm not impressed with all your licenses and classroom experiences. Sorry but these are the  types from Holland that come over to improve our soccer ,what a joke!!!

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, June 27, 2019 at 12:46 a.m.

    I am not impressed. She lost my attention with her first answer. 1. No one trains efficiently if they train multiple times a day 365 days a year, every year. 2. She has no concept of how important playing with and against men was to the development of our national team players.

    She is correct that college soccer with its severe limitations on contact time and training is not conducive to the development of professional players. But she is clueless if she thinks college players don't play outside of the college program. One of the problems is that college players loose their eligibility if they were to play for professional clubs during the off season. There is a lot that USSF could be doing to improve development if they had a cooperative approach instead of acting like the typical bureacracy explanding and making exclusive their control of elite soccer.

    USSF is not managing the sport. They are building an empire with high walls around it.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, June 27, 2019 at 1:12 a.m.

    You are wrong saying everyone can spot great talents like Messi and Cruyff. In the US they would have been cut for being too small to play "elite" sports.

  7. frank schoon replied, June 27, 2019 at 9:34 a.m.

    Bob, sorry , you're right about the Messi, Cruyff true

  8. Bob Ashpole, June 27, 2019 at 1:03 a.m.

    Why doesn't USSF follow the German model and set up local supplemental training around the country specifically for college players? Don't have to reinvent the wheel. Just follow what the German FA did. But no. They won't. They prioritize their program for convenience to their own management. Like requiring all coaches to reside in Chicago. Like making the DA the focus of their scouting. College soccer won't produce future national team players because USSF won't scout college players. It is that simple.

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