SOCCER AMERICA: Suppose you met someone who’s totally unfamiliar with American youth soccer, how would you explain what the ECNL is?
CHRISTIAN LAVERS: The ECNL is a holistic development and competition platform created to raise standards in youth soccer for players, coaches, referees, and in the experience overall. It is led by club Directors of Coaching who work with youth soccer players every day, from recreational to the very best in the country, who understand what is actually happening on the fields, how decisions impact players and families in real life, and where the important areas for change and improvement in the game are. We believe that clubs are where players are developed, and that the ECNL should support clubs and coaches operating in incredibly diverse environments to make the decisions that are best for their unique players in their unique environment. That means we need to provide opportunity, resources and information to help clubs and coaches learn from their peers and from top leaders with diverse backgrounds and a variety of different perspectives on development, learning and leadership. Player development is an art, not a formula, and that is a foundation of our vision.
SA: How would you explain what the Girls Development Academy is?
CHRISTIAN LAVERS: I would defer to the Federation on defining their program.
SA: If they ask, why does the USA have both, what would you say?
CHRISTIAN LAVERS: The United States is as much a continent as a country, with incredible diversity in how the game is experienced, operated and structured in very different areas culturally, geographically, resource-wise, and more. In that environment, one size does not fit all, and the existence of multiple and different pathways is fundamentally important to insure that players, clubs, and coaches from all backgrounds and all locations, and with very different personal stories, all have opportunities to achieve. There is no way that one monolithic league -- regardless of who it is -- can serve all the players in the country well, and trying to create this type of structure would stifle innovation, growth, and mobility in the game, and would deepen fractures rather than heal them.
SA: The ECNL launched in 2009 and until the Girls DA kicked off in 2017, the ECNL served as the top tier of girls soccer in the USA, playing a similar role for the girls that the Boys DA did on the boys side after it was launched in 2007. You can understand why U.S. Soccer launched a Girls DA instead of continuing to use the ECNL as main feeder for the national teams, right? Because if it did not, U.S. Soccer would have come under heavy criticism for providing a DA setup for boys but not girls. Could you have imagine U.S. Soccer launching the Girls DA in manner that would have led to the ECNL ceding the top level of girls soccer to the DA?
CHRISTIAN LAVERS: I think that is water under the bridge at this point. The Federation can be a very positive influence in the game for many different reasons, but outside of operation of the national teams themselves, its primary focus should be in providing education in all forms (referee, coaching, administrative, etc.) to everyone at every level, in every sanctioning body, every league, and in every state, and in providing additive opportunity and support for exceptional players and coaches.
SA: In October of 2018, U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro announced the creation of a Youth Task Force. One of the areas it was supposed address was the nation's "fragmented and fractured landscape." Have you been contacted by this Task Force? Do you have any idea if the Task Force is doing anything to mediate the acrimony between U.S. Soccer and the ECNL?
CHRISTIAN LAVERS: I am a member of one committee of this Task Force -- the committee on Standards and Certification. That committee has had several teleconference meetings over the past months, and I am hopeful that there will be positive progress that comes out of this these discussions.
SA: Are there any examples of U.S. Soccer holding out an olive branch to the ECNL or the ECNL to U.S. Soccer to work out a way in which the leagues could work together?
CHRISTIAN LAVERS: We have had some informal dialogue on a variety of topics, though no specific action items or plans have come of it -- to this point. That said, I think that most people involved in either the DA or the ECNL are trying to do what they feel is best for improving youth soccer. There are some real philosophical differences between the organizations, but there are also areas where there is alignment in vision to one degree or another.
Going back to the size of the country and the millions of players and coaches participating in the sport, it should be expected that there will be different opinions and perspectives on a variety of development issues in this country. We should recognize this diversity as positive, as a source of innovation and progress, and as an opportunity to test different theories of development, learning, and competitive structure. Our country has a federalist system of government for this exact reason. This diversity shouldn’t mean a fragmented or fractured landscape, it should mean a variety of programming, options, and philosophies with respect for differences between them.
SA: Many agree the biggest problem in U.S. girls soccer right now is that two strong clubs in the same area don't play each other because one is the ECNL and one is in the Girls DA. If U.S. Soccer came to you and suggested that the Girls DA and the ECNL come up with a way to schedule games with each other, would you be interested?
CHRISTIAN LAVERS: From a starting point, I don’t think clubs should ever be prevented from playing each other, period. Beyond that, I think that clubs and coaches need to be trusted to develop the best competition schedule for their players and teams based on the real constraints, opportunities, and needs that they have in their market and with their specific players.
I don't think anyone knows the "perfect" schedule for developing players, the "perfect" balancing of harder vs. easier games, or the "perfect" answer to a thousand other variables that go into the development process. The player, the team, and the sport itself are all infinitely complex. With that much uncertainty, it is dangerous to think you have the only answer, and in this example, to limit competition accordingly. To the degree that there is concern about too many games, the solution to that issue is more education on stress, load, and recovery (physical and cognitive) -- targeted specifically and in detail to the coaches and then more broadly towards the parents.
To bluntly answer your question, I think games between DA and ECNL clubs would be fantastic.
SA: Have you, or would you consider, bringing a proposal to U.S. Soccer to create inter-league play?
CHRISTIAN LAVERS: We are actually considering a few ideas right now for new competition concepts.
SA: Do you believe the U.S. national team program is properly scouting ECNL players?
CHRISTIAN LAVERS: The majority of coaches and Directors in the ECNL do not think so. In saying that, I think we need to acknowledge that it is incredibly difficult to scout a continent to find the 18 best players in an age group, and the network of scouts isn’t even close to big enough to do that as well as most would like, despite valiant efforts from some of those involved.
I have been very open with the Federation on the fact that there are very strong feelings in the club community -- based on story after story -- about players being selected to various programs and then encouraged to leave their current club in order to continue being selected or to have future opportunity. That creates real problems in getting recommendations from clubs and coaches, and in objective scouting generally. It is not a problem created by every person in the process, but the few who act this way create huge problems for the majority that don't -- and for everyone else, including the players.
In this environment, the use of words without clear meaning or specificity, like “potential,” to explain why one player is selected over another creates even bigger challenges. Then, when the DA is highlighted and touted in every press release with a new roster, the scouting issues become even more divisive and selection even more problematic.
So ultimately, for a lot of reasons I think the ECNL can be scouted much more thoroughly, and so probably can some other platforms. But it is not as simple as pointing a finger at one person -- there are systemic issues that need to be resolved to insure impartiality in scouting and selection. Resolving this would be in the best interest of every player, coach, scout, club, and league in America.
SA: What would you like American girls soccer for the elite players to look like in five years?
CHRISTIAN LAVERS: First, I would like to see the level of play overall continue to rise, but with more sophistication in the decision-making of the players. That means more coaches with deeper understanding of how players learn/forget/and re-learn, of how to create improved transferability between training and competition, and of how complex the game really is -- and specifically player perception in the game. For that to happen, we need an exponential increase in coaching education opportunities, coach educators, education topics, and improved access and efficiency. More educated coaches (myself included) will solve so many other issues in the game.
Second, I would like to see a game that is less divisive, and instead has more coaches and leaders at every level and in every organization more supportive of the other levels and other organizations. Fundamentally, a positive experience at any level of the game or in any organization in the game makes the sport better and stronger, and we all need to be more aware of that fact. More mutual respect, and less certainty in your own perfect knowledge or perfect solution, will make a better environment overall. This doesn't mean that anything or everything goes -- but I think we all can take a step forward in our relationships and communication.
Finally, I would like to see a vibrant marketplace in the game where there are more players, with more opportunities, in more ways.
SA: There are quite a few directors of non-MLS Boys DA clubs who, after the tiering format was implemented for U-18/19, are very upset with how U.S. Soccer is running the Boys DA. Is the Boys ECNL courting their clubs to leave the DA and come over to the ECNL?
CHRISTIAN LAVERS: The Boys ECNL has grown incredibly in its first two years -- there will be 91 member clubs this season. I think that speaks to the excitement for the platform, the opportunity there for the players, teams and clubs, and the positivity of the league’s collaboration with US Club Soccer’s NPLs. As a league, we are always speaking with coaches and directors across the country -- both in our member clubs and outside -- about what they want to see in the future, and where there is opportunity for change and improvement. I think it is pretty obvious that there will continue to be a lot of change not only in the Boys DA, but in the youth landscape overall. The Boys ECNL, like any service organization, looks to provide the opportunities that players and clubs want, and we will continue to grow and expand the platform to provide more value for our members.