SOCCER AMERICA: We went shelter-in-place a year ago. A month later, on April 15, U.S. Soccer pulled the plug on the Development Academy. What happened between then and June that convinced you to become the commissioner of the new Girls Academy?
LESLE GALLIMORE: March 2020 was a month none of us will forget for the rest of our lives. The beginning of the pandemic brought a lot of fear and uncertainty. April 15 already has a certain designation in this country because it's Tax Day; April 15, 2020 now lives on in infamy as the day U.S. Soccer dropped the Development Academy. Some will say they saw it coming. From what I am learning, many did not.
Most important among those that did not were academy directors, coaches, and players who had bought into the league and everything it promised, provided, and supported. April 15 was especially brutal for girls; the Girls DA was somewhat still in its infancy.
MLS Next became a fairly quick landing spot for the boys. The turmoil and drama that has been girls youth soccer for a decade or so now, quickly became utter chaos. I had time on my hands as I'd only been retired from Division I college soccer for a few months, so as I was sheltering in place. I watched as the feeding frenzy over players, teams and full clubs began. It was unnerving; it was unbecoming and frankly it was sad to watch.
Girls who enjoyed their club, coaches and teammates were being coerced in the cover of darkness to jump ship through threats of their clubs either folding or not getting into another elite platform. There was a lot of wheeling and dealing going on and at the very center of it were female youth soccer players and their confused and frightened parents who didn't know what to believe. Some clubs that were intact found a place. Some did not.
Among those who did not were a group of extremely headstrong, resilient, and hardworking academy directors who collectively built an elite platform overnight and for all intents and purposes rescued the playing experience for about 7,000 girls, the bulk of whom had been in the Development Academy.
SA: Who was among that group?
LESLE GALLIMORE: The original volunteer board of directors consisted of Wes Schevers (Lonestar), Troy Garner (Tophat), Barry Ritson (LA Surf), Gronthik Chatterjee (Nationals), Bobby Puppione (TSJ-FC Virginia), Nick Burke (NEFC), Amanda Schmutz (Albion Las Vegas), Amy Griffin (OL Reign Academy) and Ashlee Fontes-Comber (youth coach, former NWSL club executive, and business strategist).
This group made building the Girls Academy their new full-time job for no pay. A few months went by as I watched them gain traction. I was approached in mid-June about becoming commissioner of the league, accepted the position in July and began full-time on Aug. 1. I took the position because I too felt passionate that this group of girls deserved to come out of the pandemic with a similar place to play as prior to the pandemic.
I felt compelled to lock elbows with this group to support them making it happen. It is nothing short of miraculous what this group has done, what they've personally sacrificed and what they've provided for these players. The founding board, along with our conference reps, and advisory panel adult leaders are owed a very large debt of gratitude and I owe them my best effort to make sure the Girls Academy is the league the players expect it to be now and in the future.
SA: As a women's college coach, what positive and negative effects on girls youth soccer did you see during the DA vs. ECNL competition for member clubs?
LESLE GALLIMORE: Competition is natural in this country and can be used positively; I believe how you choose to compete is what matters. When I was still coaching in college I felt the standards and level of play in the DA became apparent almost immediately. It was a great environment for coaching and referee growth as well. You frequently heard college coaches remarking at how refreshing the sideline behavior of DA coaches was at events. You also heard a lot of stomachs grumbling because the DA didn't feed college coaches! Ha!
The DA made great strides in three years and it's disappointing that a lot of the standards-based development and momentum was lost. The Girls Academy founders were adamant about keeping many of the features in the DA programming, and only opted to change the rule on high school participation and to loosen the substitution rules slightly.
I think the negative effects still exist in that there can be confusion among parents and players as to how to navigate what is offered by all clubs and leagues.
SA: Are you having to convince clubs to remain in the Girls Academy?
LESLE GALLIMORE: The expectation from the beginning was to focus on our mission, vision, and core values and to build a female-centric elite platform that would serve our clubs and their players in a meaningful way. We have worked to be strategic and intentional with our partnerships. We have worked diligently to expand our league with clubs who are aligned philosophically, and who are committed to technical standards that have player development at the forefront. We have operated admirably during a pandemic. We waited for the holiday season to pass and for the most vulnerable among us to be vaccinated so we waited until February before hosting our first event.
We managed to hold three days of a good event before the storm of a century knocked the power grid out in Texas. Our resiliency is shining through. We’ve just had a very well-received Talent ID event in the Southeast Conference, and we’ll hold one in each of our seven conferences before the year is out. We can’t wait to get to IMG in April and have the majority of our clubs together for the first time.
Our live-streaming and partnership with InStat has been crucial in the recruitment of our players during the most challenging of times. We’ve given grace to clubs struggling the most from COVID and have listened to the membership and the players as to what we can do to make their experience the best possible. It will always be my hope that our actions will be what’s convincing to clubs, players and parents.
Time is what is required for us to do everything we want to do and I’m extremely confident our league will be a great place for players and clubs now and well into the future. After April 15, 2020, I can certainly understand the trepidation among our community: last year was traumatizing, but we’ve come a long way and we’re not stopping. The membership landscape is still fluid; some clubs will leave and would have most likely left last year if they’d been invited [by the ECNL] to at the time.
We’ve added nearly two dozen clubs so far and are continuing to have discussions with others. Making this platform accessible to quality clubs who have never had access has been a goal. I’m looking forward to implementing many new initiatives and policies in the coming year, growing the number of females in leadership positions, increasing the diversity in our leadership, and working to ensure that our soccer environments are physically and emotionally safe for all players.
SA: Do you foresee a U.S. girls soccer landscape in which the ECNL and the Girls Academy co-exist and doesn't look like there's an ongoing arms race?
LESLE GALLIMORE: We strive to be an inclusive league, in what we do and how we do it. All we can control is our own actions and make sure we service our members, offer a competitive environment, and a culture that perpetuates the development of the whole player, coach, and club – through standards and collaboration and that is female-centric. Every player deserves a place to play and clubs need to find the culture, environment, and philosophical outlook in a league that best serves the ever-lasting development of their players, the athlete and the person.
We know it’s important to our players and their families to know there will be national exposure to U.S. youth national team and college scouts, to know exactly what the endeavor and journey calls for in advance and know that games will be at a highly competitive level. I absolutely believe we have to co-exist; clubs and players should have options and these two options are very different.
SA: Are there clubs that will field teams in both the Girls Academy and the ECNL?
LESLE GALLIMORE: In both leagues it is a requirement that your top teams are fielded in your top league. We are in our infancy and rose out of absolute necessity for thousands of players. The GA is currently only focused on one top-tiered all-girls league. We have given flexibility to our clubs to determine what is best suited for their second-tier teams and beyond. Many of our clubs are and will compete in established platforms that suit their needs and provide aspirational opportunities for their players to rise to the top team.
If the last several months have taught me anything it's that the U.S. is not remotely a "one-size fits all" place when it comes to each club doing what’s best for their entire membership. I want to listen and be flexible for now as to what is needed to help retain and develop players within the financial and time constraints there may be for their families. We will strategize and plan our tiering methodically for the future based on these parameters.
SA: What's the Girls Academy relationship with U.S. Youth Soccer?
LESLE GALLIMORE: USYS sanctions the GA and the GA registers players through USYS. We are fortunate to have innovative leaders within USYS who understand what we need to do as a league for the players by greenlighting the GA to operate autonomously as a separate elite independent league within the USYS system. We’ll continue to work together to unify and clarify the pathway for players in the U.S.
SA: What’s the Girls Academy relationship with MLS?
LESLE GALLIMORE: Our strategic partnership with MLS is focused on the technical aspects of the game and finding synergy within areas such as coaching education, standards, talent identification, and competitions.
Both the GA and MLS Next are new leagues; we’ve learned a lot from one another and the exchanges of ideas and strategies to build for the long term have been fruitful. I think there’s an impatience from some to see things move more quickly from both leagues, but I think prudence and decisions that lend towards long-term stability are the intelligent path forward for us both.
SA: A cornerstone of the Girls Academy is to get input from players, for example an Advisory Panel including player representatives from clubs and conferences in the decision-making process. Can you provide examples of how input from players has been affecting Girls Academy policy and its approach?
LESLE GALLIMORE: Advisory Panel meetings happen monthly, at the team, club, and conference level. The conference reps bring to the table what the concerns or proposed initiatives are for their respective conferences. Anything that the seven advisory panel representatives deem necessary to be addressed or presented to the GA board they do. For example, they launched a league-wide food drive at the end of 2021; it was a huge success and players donated thousands of hours to their respective local communities.
Players have presented and addressed scheduling concerns, which the GA board was able to incorporate in blackout dates when scheduling. One conference has worked on initiatives to better work with referees within the league. One conference is focusing this spring on and off the field elements they would like incorporated within national showcase events.
A couple conferences have different competitions and fundraisers they are launching this spring, while working arm and arm with top-level industry executives to learn how to bring certain elements to launch. Players are also finding the Advisory Panel system is extremely effective in obtaining information. I regularly receive communication from players via the Advisory Panel chain of communication. I think it’s outstanding that we have a legitimate way for players, teams, clubs to have their voices heard in a real and practical way that directly effects their experience in the league. I’ve personally counseled players on college recruitment issues and concerns; answered questions as they relate to league competitions and frameworks.
It is unique for these girls to have so many female role models at their disposal to listen and support them in their journey. It’s as valuable for the adults leaders as it is for the players.
SA: What's the next step for Girls Academy leadership?
LESLE GALLIMORE: We’ll have our AGM late spring/early summer and will have our first elected board. The current and past board members have been almost completely operational by necessity. We’ll be evolving toward a more strategic board and building out our full-time staff over the next year. I can’t emphasize enough what this inaugural and founding board has done to put the GA on a positive path for players. It’s truly nothing short of miraculous.
The leadership throughout the GA is what will make the long-term sustainable change in how we view and treat women’s soccer. This includes the players having a safe space to use their voice and learn how to do so effectively. We are striving to paint a broad vision of what the game can be in their lives forever not just in their playing journey.